The Reemergence of Civilizations: as the Defining Factor in the Future of the Middle East
Dr. David Wurmser
(May 15, 2020)
About the speaker
Dr. David Wurmser is a Senior Analyst at the Center for Security Policy. He has over 35 years of experience in foreign policy with the State Department, Department of Defense, the National Security Council and the American Enterprise Institute. He is a well-known expert on Middle East issues, especially the U.S.- Israel relationship.
From December 2018 until September 2019, Wurmser also served as senior advisor to U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton. Recently he was credited for authoring a series of memoranda for the White House to provide the rationale for striking hard at the Iranian regime, including the elimination of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani. Wurmser served as Middle East Adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney from 2003-2007. He also served as a special assistant to Bolton when he was Under Secretary of State for Arms Control in the George W. Bush administration and as a research fellow on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute from 2002-2003.
Immediately following the 9/11 attacks, Wurmser consulted for the Office of the Secretary of Defense on a war‐related classified project on understanding the nature and strategic significance of terrorist group networks and their interactions with states. Wurmser served in the U.S. Navy Reserve as an intelligence officer at the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He was mobilized during the Operational Vigilant Warrior following Iraq’s surge toward Kuwait in 1994 to serve on the Iraq Intelligence Task for the DIA. He was mobilized twice more for the same task force in 1996 and 1998 ‐‐ for which the Department of Defense awarded him the prestigious Defense Meritorious Service Medal.
Dr. Wurmser holds a Ph.D. in U.S. Foreign Policy and Middle East affairs from Johns Hopkins University. He is a prolific writer and has done many TV and radio interviews. He is the author of the 1999 book Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein, which the New Yorker called the intellectual framework for President Bush’s freedom strategy the Middle East.
Dr. David Wurmser:
The great writer, George Elliott once observed in Silas Marner, “The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.”
This is a great caution for those of us who are students of the Middle East. As we start a new decade, despite the upheaval of the Arab Spring, the layout of neighborhood looks eerily similar to the way it has for many of the decades before. Those who forecast the persistence of the reigning paradigm appear vindicated.
- First, the savviness of the rulers of the Arab states, along with the predictability of the traditional opposition (namely the Muslim Brotherhood) survived as the foundation for understanding the region.
- Second, the outlier power, both geographically and religiously, namely Iran, remains the greatest challenge.
- Third, the outlier revolt, namely ISIS or al-Qaida, while disturbingly resilient, failed in Arab land to overthrow the ruling elites. None of the nearly two dozen Arab states – indeed any state which is predominantly Islamic — are currently controlled by an ISIS or al-Qaida government, even Afghanistan. Indeed, neither ISIS nor al-Qaida even mananged to seize the banner of the established opposition of any Arab nation, and thus remains contained.
- Fourth, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict teeters at a sort of continental divide between eruption and resolution.
Both habit and the test of time suggest that we can reasonably and safely retreat into projecting the past into the future to guide our interactions with the region.
And yet, the warning signs are present that very little of what has been will continue to be.
In an article making waves, Jonathan Alterman at the Brzezinski Center, believes his studies reveal a rise of individualism informing the current wave of demonstrations in the fertile crescent capitals.
Were such individualism to emerge, then it would indeed upturn the established order. Indeed, maybe those were right who said the internet and globalism would change the region in a liberal direction.
Such a rise in individualism would be startling. It contradicts the essence of familial, social, political, economic and religious life among Arabs Muslims, the culture of which is an amalgam of tribal and communal structures of safety and protection and a theological sense of being on the historically right side of revelation – itself also an intangible structure of protection. Neither pillar serves as a firm foundation for individualism. In fact, both gravitate against it. So, a rise in individualism would mean a cultural, religious and civilizational revolution. And it would warrant optimism in the liberal West that the Arab world is finally beginning to modernize.
But cultures and civilizations do not easily change. In fact, the historical record shows that their persistence over eras and upheavals is stunning. Indeed, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his book, the Ancien Regime, that even after such a cataclysmic event as the French Revolution, underlying culture survived. Its structures and patterns just assumed new masters derived from the disillusioned back benches of the old elites.
Two thousand miles away, and a century later, the same observation could have been made about the Middle East after the Ottoman collapse. Arab-Ottoman elites, many of whom naturally even spoke Turkish rather than Arabic, who had become increasingly frustrated with the rise of Turkish nationalism rose to take over the residue of the Ottoman imperial administration after the war and became the new elite (in many ways not even new, but now just independent) of the old but now fragmented structures. Students of Russian history would probably make the same observations of the transition from Czar to commissar. Simply put, cultures, absent a millennially traumatic event or population shift, do not change much, and even then, only slightly.
What then are we to make of the rise of the individualism Alterman appears to identify? What Alterman detects may be accurate, but the Russian leadership may be ahead of the U.S. in understanding what it is we are really dealing with. Thinkers and theologians like Alexander Dugin and Tikhon Shevkunov may or may not be close confidents of Vladimir Putin’s – there are conflicting assertions – but they clearly are attuned to Putin’s strategic mindset. Specifically, they view the course of history through the prism of the persistence of ancient culture and civilization in shaping identities and geopolitics, including in the modern era.
Through that prism, Russia envisions itself on the one hand as the true heirs to Byzantium (leaders of the Orthodox church, indeed all Christendom, in all variations), which explains why the greatest historians of the Byzantium were Russian, led by the two greatest of them all, the Russian Alexander Vasiliev and Russian born George Ostrogorsky.
How they view the Byzantine legacy is itself instructive. Some see Russia as the fusion of pre-Christian Mongolian and early (even pre-schismatic) Orthodox-Christian European identity, which its intellectuals call “Eurasianism.” Indeed, while Putin has focused on the post-Christian soul of Europe as evidence of its decline and fall, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin himself at other times defined Russian foreign policy as moored to its being a Eurasian bridge, which is both Mongolian and European. This “Eurasian” outlook divides the world into vertical axes, with Russia being the northern anchor of the axis reaching into the Asian Middle East, while western Europe moors the north of the axis spreading southward into Africa.
As part of this “Eurasianism,” Russia also imagines itself as the savior of a perishing European civilization that has abandoned both its Christian and European civilizational foundations sicne the renaissance for a multicultural, liberal ratatouille with a chaotic and drifting identity. Russia offers itself as the model – pre-Renaissance Christianity and strong (authoritarian) leadership — for Europe’s return to sanity. Indeed, there is even a rebellion within the Russian church to establish a mythically pure version of the Orthodox church – represented by Father Tikhon Shevchuk – against the “corrupted,” Europeanized church clergy influenced by western ideas of liberalism since the Great Schism and Renaissance, an embrace which is seen as responsible for Orthodoxy’s long decline.
If one is predisposed toward viewing true Russian civilization as the re-assertion of culture and civilization of a millennium ago (not just pre-World War I) then one can almost effortlessly slide into identifying trends in the Middle East largely still invisible to Western eyes or distorted by our unflinching confidence in the spread and eventual triumph of universal human freedom. Specifically, we in the West continue to look at the Middle East as a collection of over 20 states, currently under stress, and rend by regional rivalries over ideologies, such as Arab nationalism, Islamism, or Sunni-Shiite tensions, but still operating within the framework of the Sykes-Picot post World War I partition. Moreover, we in the West still view Israel as the odd-man out, Turkey as no longer a wholly Middle East state, but a Europeanizing work in progress. Warts and all, we still view this structure as a workable foundation of a slow march toward modernity and “normal” international politics.
In contrast, Russia sees it as the unraveling of the modern at the hands of the ancient. True, Russia almost certainly continues to view ideological rivalries as relevant, but it also views them being played out through deeper, more primordial structures. Being attuned to the resilience and power of culture and civilization to move history, Russia sees more clearly than we do that the region already is entering the post-Sykes-Picot system. The Middle East state system is in collapse and emerging in its wake are several core civilizational entities around which the region will be defined going forward. The control of, or alliance with, either Russia or the West with those core civilizations will determine the course and fortunes of those ideological rivalries.
So, the trend toward individualism – which is more accurately described as a revolt of individuals against the abusive state – is marked not by traditional rivalries, such as Shiites revolting against Sunni rule or vice versa, but Shiite Lebanese, Iraqis and Iranians revolting against Shiite rulers. And yet, at the moment, we do not see this spreading into Amman, Riyadh, Doha, Manama or Dubai.
This difference is worth contemplating. The explanation may well be that domination in the fertile crescent of Arab identity, which in the end remained ultimately nomadic and thus entirely social, is being rattled by the temptation — which is driven by rejection of the abysmal state of governance across the Muslim world — of nostalgic forms of identity, such as Persian, Pheonician/Crusader, Byzantine. Attended by an untethered sense of social belonging and identity caused by failed governance, the populations of older civilizational remnants appear to be re-asserting their attributes against the Arab, essentially nomadic overlay, which is inherently more familial, tribal or communal.
In contrast, upheaval in societies at the heart of Arab culture to the south of the Arab Crescent (such as in Amman), or among Sunni tribes across the Asia Middle East, appears to seek new structures of patronage to fulfill a distinctly non-individualist identity and reestablish stability and safety. It is a retreat into looking for the framework of the comforting, all-encompassing father-leader-family sort. Hence the attraction of the ISIS/al-Qaida model, as well as some sort of weird love-hate attraction to Israel and the West emerging since they represent “safety.” They are not running away from “tribe,” “father” or “family,” but seeking to replace it with another version.
In these nostalgic forms of opposition, inherently urban populations – such as those in the fertile crescent cities — assume a greater self-motivating, self-guiding, and self-realizing form, namely individualism. As such, what Alterman discerns may not be first sign of the entry into the Islam of what the West would like to see as enlightened modernism, but really the beginning of the nostalgic re-assertion of the urban civilizations of the fertile crescent, with all the chaotic and often individualistic elements of urban culture, against their Islamic overlay with its heavily nomadic overtones of community-based structures of protection. Indeed, these demonstrators in Beirut and Nabatiyah, in Baghdad and Najaf, and in Tehran and Mashhad, are employing the language of asserting rights, not seeking protection. They accuse their rulers of having stolen from them, trampled on them and violated them – namely the language of a sovereign citizen (i.e., member of a city) challenging his government. In contrast, demonstrations among counterparts in other parts of the Middle East appear to focus more on accusing rulers of having failed to provide security for their person, protect their families, deliver them proper welfare, or act with sufficient noblesse and fairness to their communities – all forms of language appropriate for tribal members petitioning a chief.
In essence, we are seeing two sorts of change: The urban fertile crescent is switching civilizational allegiance, but the tribes originating in the Arabian Peninsula are switching tribal patrons.
So what are those cultural-civilizational centers which are emerging and which the Russians appear to have more adeptly identified than we? In the Asian Middle East (east of Suez), there are primarily three urban cultures/civilizations —the Byzantine remnant, the Indo-Persian ancient “Aryan” cultural-civilizational bloc, and the Jews resurrected in Israel — and two additional nomadic-imperial cultures/civilizations – the Ottoman-Mongolian revival carrying the banner of Islam and Sunni Muslim (tribal) Arab culture.
Russia and the Return of Civilizations in the Near East, Part II
So, to recap for a moment, we have considered how Russia is informed by a civilizational concept of foreign policy. It sees itself anchored to both an ancient Byzantine legacy, as well as a Eurasian power – which is an amalgamation of pre-Renaissance European culture with Mongolian culture, according to the works of its leading ideologues and theologians. And in turn, it projects onto the Middle East a strategic concept that there is a vertical geographic axis, within which Russia as a Eurasian power is the northern, and dominating, anchor. Further south, the Middle East is increasingly defined by the resurgence of ancient cultures/civilizations – three urban (Byzantine, Indo-Persian, Jewish) and two originally nomadic (Ottoman and Arab).
If there is a remnant of the great Byzantine civilization beyond Russia itself, it is not in its cradle in Asia Minor, but in Greece and in the periphery of Asia Minor: namely, the Christian communities of the Balkans and Middle East. Russia tends to focus as much on populations as on territory – an expansive evolution of the early concept after the Soviet collapse of the “near abroad.” The more Russia sees itself as the heir of Byzantium, the more it sees itself as the protector of Byzantium’s populations, namely Greek, Balkan and Middle Eastern Christians, which it sees not as tired stragglers clinging to life, but the core civilization of the western Levantine fertile crescent and, more importantly, an extension of itself.
Because Russia seems to have more of a population-oriented rather than territorially-based concept of its Byzantine inheritance, at least thus far, it appears not to view the land of Israel as Byzantine trust territory, and thus has limited territorial design on it. This can change of course.
But that is not to say that Russia is not interested in the Land of Israel’s Christian inhabitants. Indeed, it is, and substantially so. Putin, when he last visited Israel, at first planned on dispensing with the habitual “balancing” visit to the Palestinian Arab PLO government in Ramallah, and instead met with church leaders in Bethlehem. In Israel, he sought discussions with the Jews and displayed support for the Christian community. He reluctantly agreed in the end to go the Muqata for a minimal half-hour visit as an afterthought, the optics of which only emphasized his disinterest. Even just last month, an Israeli girl had been arrested while transiting Moscow. In the prisoner exchange with Moscow that ended this standoff, Moscow insisted on regaining its old Russian rights to a key church in Jeruslaem.
Further east, there is Iran. The West continues to see Iran as a non-Arab Muslim nation. This Muslim component, while undeniably a part of the story, has been vastly inflated by the Iranian regime itself in order to advance its quest to invent and lead a new version of a pan-Islamic (rather than Sunni) Nasserism. While the West has in the recent decades appreciated the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, it does not know what to make of Iran’s ancient history beyond filing it away as a quaint history lesson, or a residue leaving ethnic tensions. It fails to grasp the unifying, civilizational and powerfully nationalist, emotive aspects of it. It views Iranian attitudes toward the West as a natural extension, thus, of the attitudes reigning in the rest of the Middle East.1 And yet, if Russia views itself as the inheritor of Byzantium, Christendom and ancient Hellenica, then the Iranian population increasingly sees itself as the inheritor of the legacy of Cyrus the Great and the Persian empire, more than it now views itself as a regional Islamic leader. In other words, Iranians see themselves as distinct from the Middle East, or perhaps, older and more genuine (pre-Islamic, Indo-European) than what we would understand as the Middle East.
As a result, increasingly in Iran, the language of opposition – which has proven explosively dangerous for the regime — is assuming the menacing mantle (for the regime) of a nostalgic return to its Persian roots. The works of Ferdowsi were written well over 1000 years ago. Now, they are growing in importance as seditious texts. Pilgrimage to the tomb of Cyrus has become an act of subversion, so the regime tries to bar visits. The seeds of this revival were sown before the rise of the Islamic revolution in Iran precisely because the royal Iranian government attempted to restore ancient Persian history and encourage its domination within Iranian identity to dilute the influence of Islam and power of its clergy. That effort failed largely last century, but the popular rejection born of the four decades of horrors, corruption and failure of the Iranian revolutinary regime, however, has led the opposition to embrace the language of hope and aspiration through an ancient Persian form.
Moreover, Iran belongs also to an ancient Indo-Persian civilizational grouping. An urban culture for millennia, it still has deep culture and population ties to India and many populations in between. Nor are Indians neutral on Iran. Many Indians view Iran as cousins, as a relative in the ancient Indus-basin civilization. Moreover, India is home to a robust Persian exile community still practicing Zoroastrianism, and many of these Persians now form India’s business elite.
Simply stated, Iran is in the process of returning to its Indo-Persian foundations – perhaps re-inventing it in somewhat forced fashion through the obscuring mist of nostalgia.
Most important, though, is to note that Persian civilization is entirely urban in its character, while Islam is at its heart a reflection of the nomadic peninsular Arabs.
Israel, the Jewish nation
Further south is Israel. In Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Huntington goes to great lengths to try to prove that Jewish people are not a distinct civilization – ultimately arguing that the miniscule size of the community cannot muster civilizational critical mass. And yet, his efforts betray his own suspicions, as Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much.” Israel is in fact re-emerging as one of the few, core civilizations with its own ethnicity, religion, language group (the only remaining north-Semitic tongue) and culture in the Middle East. Moreover, it is again assuming its highly influential and strategic role in helping shape the region – ironically, without intending to or being consciously aware of it.
Israel is often called the “start-up nation” – a term popularized by the book of the same name by Senor and Singer which fails to credit the enduring influence of ancient civilization and limits Israeli innovation to being nothing more embedded than a fairly recent result of the unique circumstances and tribulations of the Jewish people’s struggle in world War II and Israel’s creation and demands of survival.
While certainly also an attribute of several other civilizations, innovation has marked Jewish civilization from inception with the moment the quest to struggle with understanding unknown abstraction guided Abraham’s behavior. The intangibility of monotheism – the concept of the abstract deity the presence of which one can intellectually accept, but which can neither be seen or touched – was reinforced by a prohibition on its representation through icons and statues. Judaism, and the nation that emerged from it, was organized around this purely abstract concept. This cultural proclivity to abstraction was inherently accompanied by a restlessness, a struggle and conflictual relation with the abstract power guiding the unknown. This restlessness at times seeks to understand and harness the abstract, and at times rebels against its vast incomprehensibility, namely no assumption is accepted as “just so”. The very name of the Jewish people – Israel – embodies this restlessness. It translates into “wrestler with God” (Isra-El), the allegory of which was Jacob’s actually wrestling with the divine, and the change of his name, and that of his descendants, to “Isra-El.” So unique was this proclivity to struggle with the abstract that the Greeks took intense interest in the name, and chose to use it to refer to the people and land of Israel – the Greek word, Palaistis, from which the name Palestine was coined by Greeks to refer to Jews by their own self-appellation already in 400 BC. Incidentally, the common wisdom that it came from the Romans’ renaming of Israel with the name of its ancient nemesis, the Philistines, is actually erroneous since the name Palaistis – παλαιστής — already appeared in Greek texts, such as Herodotus, four to five centuries earlier to refer to Jews and their land, using the exact translation of the word Isra-El. Such naming was consistent with Greek practice, since they generally used Greek translations, not transliterations, of the name people gave themselves. Phoenix (purple) is a translation of the word, Canaan (purple snail dye), and thus today we have Phoenicia.
This restlessness — this constant state of struggle with the abstract, which is inherently both entices one to seek comprehension, definition and evidence of it, while at the same time defies full discovery, limits and access – grounds the tendency to never settle into accepting what is as “just so.” No assumption can survie that proclivity unscathed, let alone untouched. Innovation is the upside of this otherwise non-palliative, culturally-rooted restlessness, since it leads to a civilizational proclivity to fiddling with things and ideas. In a culture defined around the abstract, plunging into the unknown is the natural state; it is “home.”
These foundations which drive toward innovation also enabled the Jewish people to preemptively politically and theologically adjust to survive, as they do other cultures which are grounded on similar foundations. Consistently, whether it was Abraham, Simon the Just’s transformation of Judaism’s leadership not only to Pairs (Zugot) but also to lay the onus of knowledge at every Jews’ feet rather than priestly elite (implying also universal literacy), to the rise of the Mishnaic and Rabbinic Judaism, the removal of Rban Gamliel to Yavne on the eve of destruction, or to the Geonic tradition in Babylonia (6th Century onward) during exile of writing the first Talmud, the pre-existing proclivity to innovation enabled the Jewish people to preemptively adjust politically and theologically to survive. This ingrained cultural proclivity to innovate helps explain the unlikely survival, as the British historian Paul Johnson termed it, of the Jewish people against the current and expectations of history.
Understanding from where Israel’s penchant for innovation comes suggests that Israel’s innovation will not only persist, but thrive, in an age of reduced threat. Indeed, the historical record suggests the Jewish people have played an innovative role within the economies of the nations in which they lived in the diaspora but reach their greatest heights in periods of greatest freedom and a reduced sense of communal threat.
Innovation may have been ingrained in Israeli culture since the beginning of the state, but the type of innovation has changed in the last decades. The stress, privation and danger of constant threat either in the diaspora and in Israel’s first decades more likely retarded, or at least distorted, than nurtured the full potential of the Jewish people toward innovation. It forced its innovative nature to largely limit itself to leveraging existing or known technologies and applying them in novel ways. At first, Israeli innovation tended to be adaptive, not pioneering. It provided tactical solutions within paradigms to problems, rather than challenging the paradigms. This engendered several episodes of respected and exported Israeli know-how, especially in the defense industries, but the volume of pioneering versus adaptive innovation were fewer and rarer and failed to sufficiently amount to a reputation of Israel’s “punching above its weight.” Moreover, since a large percentage of innovation was adaptive, the global application of Israeli innovativeness was limited to global needs which coincided with Israeli needs. As horrific an event as it might have been, Israel’s disappearance in its first half century would have hardly registered an impact on the global economy, and thus its economy never registered as a vital Western interest.
What marks Israeli innovation in the current era and going forward – and explains the rise of Israel as an economy that punches above its weight — is that it has now transcended both adaptive creativity and limited local applicability. Israel has emerged at the forefront of pioneering innovation, and in an inversion of its past circumstance, it is geared toward answering global innovative demand even if it is not applicable to the Israeli market. Israel is now a research innovator and incubator on an international level servicing major global industries rather than just its own economy. More and more sectors, not only high tech, but also traditional large-capital industry such as the automotive sector, view Israel as a critical incubator for the global economy. As such, Israel’s economy has now emerged as a significant Western strategic interest in its own right. As such, millennia-old Jewish civilizational attributes and the state of Israel are finally aligned. China and Russia see this as culturally rooted, not circumstantial as most in the West do, and thus they appreciate it more as a resilient and permanent strategic condition than many in the West cannot fathom.
The Jews, even in ancient times, tended to be introverted and sucked into great power conflicts rather than volunteer to engage in them. While the Davidic empire (House of David) had its moments, neither have the Jewish people displayed any imperial ambition nor has Judaism sought universality. Still, although generally clueless about its impact, Israel is unwittingly emerging as competition for Russia’s vision. Israel is neither solely European nor Asian nor African. Culturally, Israel is also a Eurasian amalgam with a long history of interactions with both Europe and Persia. But its pedigree is Semitic, with strong Persian and Hellenistic and later, renaissance European influences rather than Russia’s pre-renaissance European-Mongolian origin. So, not only does Israel pose a challenge to Russia as an important model for the West, but it also occupies the same space, but with radically different foundations, in Russia’s grand Eurasian concept. At the same time, Israel is emerging as the eastern Mediterranean power able to challenge neo-Ottoman designs on Greece and Cyprus, and may play a role in assisting regional minorities, such as Christians and Kurds. In this, it is aligned with Russian interests. This positions Israel in a better light for Moscow.
As such, Russia views the rise of Jewish civilization in Israel ultimately with anxiety and ambiguity. Israel is certainly part of the occident, like Russia, but it also is part of the orient, like Russia. As such, while nowhere near as powerful as Russia, it occupies the same space as Russia — but unlike Russia, all the underlying indices of cultural health suggest Russia is old and tired, and Israel – despite its ancient pedigree – is young and vibrant. For Russia, which seeks to be the premier Eurasian power in its “vertical geographic axis,” this must be disconcerting.
Not only does Israel compete with Eurasian Russia by straddling both European and Asian culture, it also could preempt Russia’s ability regionally to secure compliant allies in the long run, such as Iran. Obscured by the intense recent hostility of the Islamic Republic against Israel, it is to be noted that in contrast throughout history, Jews have traditionally had substantial interactions with the Persian empire, with several episodes rising to the level of immense strategic importance to both. It is not to be ruled out that another such moment is approaching.
Israel by the very act of being, let alone being who it is, is damned to a complicated relationship, half unwitting ally and half unintended foe, with Russia. And unlike the West, Russia understands far better the strategic importance of the nation.
So, we have covered what three of the urban civilizations east of Suez are – Byzantine, Persian and Jewish – and their essence and orientations, we can now examine the two originally nomadic cultures and civilizations – the Ottoman and the Arab.
In the western corner of the Near East, Ottoman civilization occupies the Byzantine heartland. It is ultimately derived from the rise of Turkic nomads, and thus as it re-asserts its origins, it inherently reasserts the values of its Mongolian civilization welded onto the inherited urban civilization of Asia Minor, making it an urban-nomadic blend. That said, Arab and Ottoman Sunni cultures share some critically similar attributes having emerged from nomadic origins – especially the quest to seek safety, protection and fairness through a ruler and government defined around family, community and sect – rather than attributes of the individual derived from ancient Rome, Greece and Persia, who were defined around urban civilization and politics, namely civita and polis, from which the words “citizen” and “politics” are derived.
If indeed the main architecture of the region reverts to older urban, cultural, civilizational centers as the currently dominant force of the region, the Arab Sunnis appear to be slowly reverting to their 2000-year-old pattern of subjecting themselves to the dominance of great powers. What is fascinating is that the Arab world is more willingly plunging into this role than being forced into it. The hopeful age of Arab nationalism is dead, its dream palace in ruins, and Salafi attempts at resurrecting the original Khaliphate – the only genuinely still active attempt to resurrect Arab culture as a civilizational center of power – have stalled. The Arab world cannot hold its own nor is there an Arab power strong and vibrant enough to become the strong horse. Saudi Arabia tried to play that role, but it is increasingly clear it cannot persevere in this. In recent months, the trend is discernable: Saudi Arabia’s key allies, such as the UAE, are admitting Saudi Arabia is not up to the task. And Riyadh itself is seeking a protective umbrella.
As it has since the rise of the Nabateans, with the brief exception of the first decades of Islam, the Arab world as a whole is still anchored to the quest for divining the strong horse with which to align in order to secure protection. It is thus dividing into camps as dependent allies of the great regional civilizational centers of power, seeking the protection of either the neo-Ottoman empire, Russia, Persia or even Israel. It is as if the long period of Ghassanid and Lakhmid (which lately is called the Nasrid or the al-Manadhirah realm) Arab politics two millennia ago, where the great divide between Rome, Byzantium, Abyssinia and Persia pulled apart nomadic Arabs into being proxies and pawns for their great power competitions – the Ghassanids toward Byzantium, and the Lakhmids/Nasrids toward Persia.
The power against which many of the Arab nations seek protection is increasingly the neo-Ottoman empire in addition to Iran, as a recent map in Saudi Arabia’s al-Watan paper showed (which portrayed both Turkey and Iran as Octipodes with tentacles equally threatening Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia). Ironically, the remnant Arab nationalist elite, whose ancestral families attained elevated status from their roles as local Arab, Turkish-vassals a century ago, are now aligning with Persian Gulf royal families in descending into an increasingly bitter struggle against the neo-Ottoman empire under Erdogan. Unable to turn to Persia for help, they turn to whom they must: Israel. Israel thus seems to be enjoying a bit of an attenuated honeymoon at the moment with some of its Arab neighbors. In this context, Israel remains largely introverted but is accidentally stumbling into the role of protector without even realizing it. Israel, however, remains entirely oblivious to this vast regional re-arrangement.
However, a sizeable dose of caution is warranted into loading too much hope onto Israeli-Arab relations. Although Israel reemerges as one of the regional civilizations from which Arabs and others (notably other regional minorities, such as Christians, Druze, Yazidis, Bahai, Kurds, etc.) seek protection, Israel follows form and remains largely introverted in its aims. Indeed, becoming a regional superpower burdened with the responsibility of protection or regional policeman appears to be a role entirely beyond Israelis either to effectively imagine or even moreso within which to willingly entangle itself (much like their close American ally). Moreover, while still buried in the overgrown underbrush of history, the history of Jewish-Arab relations in terms of ancient civilizations is not too hopeful a precedent if each reverts to form and origin. The great myth of Arab tolerance of Jews, while certainly at times slightly better than Christendom’s treatment of Jews, is just that: a myth, even during the ostensible golden age of Spain, let alone later, as so much recent scholarship shows. Jews during the Ghassanid period two millennia ago played the role of the ally, buffer and even agent of Persia against the Ghassanid tribes, although the bulk of Jewish population was under Roman control. Indeed, the Jewish community of the Hejaz anchored to towns of Khaybar and Medina faced hostility from pro-Roman Ghassanid tribes under the descendants of the Nabatean King Arethas (which metamorphosized into the al-Harith clan of early Islamic fame), who saw the Jews as Persian agents – a perception which may have been harbored by Muhammad’s family itself (since it was linked to the al-Harith clan) – and may even have played a role in Muhammad’s massacre of those communities. And in the Middle East, time is collapsed and can run even concurrently. Affairs of 1400 years ago are often seen as current. Counterfactual history exercises of historical crossroads are neither interesting intellectual scholarly parlor games or wistful contemplation of roads not taken. They remain active options, as if we still stand at the same crossroads. Time is not sequential, nor is the past decisively in the past, as we understand it.
While the West persists in viewing the past, present and future course of the region almost exclusively through the prism of Sunni Muslim Arab culture as driving the region, strategically, Russia is bypassing or writing off the Sunni-Arab world and its natural ally, neo-Ottoman Turkey, and seeks to bring other main civilizational centers under its sway, most likely to eventually encircle the neo-Ottoman empire which Erdogan seeks to erect.
Russia may be onto something. With its concept of the Eurasian “vertical axis,” Moscow certainly appreciates the Sunni Arab world as critically important, being the southern anchor to that axis. However, it also seems to appreciate that the Arab world has ceased largely to be an independent center of power and has largely again become the subject rather than the object of history. Consequently, Moscow appears to envision the Sunni Arab world’s management indirectly through alignment with the other regional civilizational centers of power rather than directly becoming its protector (or imperial overlord). Ultimately, though, Russia is locked inevitably in a conflictual relationship with both the neo-Ottoman empire under Erdogan or some Sunni Arab Khaliphate-entity under Salafi rule (ISIS, for example), so in the end, the battle over the Sunni Arab world is one Russia cannot afford to lose. Thus, Russia will ally with any force that prevents the Sunni world’s domination by either a neo-Ottoman or a Salafi Khalif.
Where does leave the United States?
While we do not think in such cultural, civilizational terms, the West itself is sorting these very issues out internally as we teeter between a traditional definition of the West on the one hand anchored to our foundations as an alloy of Rome and Jerusalem, carried through our political origins in the renaissance and early enlightenment and carried through as an extension of British institutions, and on the other a more revolutionary definition emerging from the late enlightenment and the French revolution and carried through into modern post-Judeo-Christian continental European politics.
Immersed in such an evaluation of our civilizational foundations, we naturally retreat into a more introverted focus. Those advocating a more traditional foundation of American political culture look to insulate America from the increasingly intrusive behavior of the European elites, and the international institutions they leverage, to reshape the United States into a more favorable essence for themselves. In reaction, many Americans are more determined to sever ties to European elites and the global institutions precisely because they are seen (or sensed, if not fully understood) as agents of political ideas anathema to traditional American thought. Indeed, while the prescription offered by Russia is radically different, and very dangerous to traditional American thought, the current crop of Russian thinkers and American conservatives do share a deep suspicion of European elites and their increasingly imperial, although failing, brand of post-religious, state-moored self righteousness. Moreover, the hopeful assumption of the universality of the classic renaissance-based liberal ideas has been sorely tried in decades of interventions in the Middle East, almost all of which ended unhappily.
The upshot is that those American thinkers who are most equipped to understand the need for preservation and reinvigoration of the foundations of traditional American thought are also those who most seek to inoculate America through isolation and most allergic to sacrificing on a global scale to make the world safe for European elites who simultaneously seek to undo American conservative thought while relying on American power because they are unwilling and thus ultimately unable to defend their own interests. It was only a matter of time before more conservative American thinkers rebelled and pushed to abdicate the unenvious role of being the protector of Europe’s hostile continental elites.
At times, that rebellion has led some conservatives into an overly benign view of Russia’s critique (and among a select few, even of the Middle East’s) of those same European elites. At the same time the more continental European-oriented left sees Russia’s critique of their ideas for what they are: a mortal threat. As such, the increasingly polarized nature of American politics is forcing an increasingly polarized view of Russia, and is driving some into taking more rigid lines for or against Russia than would have otherwise been warranted given the vast chasm between the aims of American conservatives and Russian thinkers.
As the fertile crescent slowly reorganizes around the much older but more genuine foundations of ancient culture, it appears to be entering the long road to modernity and solid political units, although that will take many decades to sort out. In contrast, the heart of the Arab world appears to be descending into increased fractionalization and vassal-like “help me,” “save me” and “secure for me justice” type politics of the half-millennium before the rise of Islam.
The strategic implications of this are immense, but where does this leave the United States, especially given its recent proclivity toward introversion? Clearly, Russia is more adept than we are in discerning and exploiting this, resulting in a substantial challenge to the West. Currently, Russia is immersed in thoughts of great historical and civilizational movements, it is better equipped than the West at this stage to read the currents and navigate them advantageously.
As such, the challenge Russia poses to the crisis of the western “liberal” state is aimed ultimately as much toward both the continental post-French revolutionary foundations of the new left and the more traditional, Renaissance foundations of conservatism. And Russia’s emerging imagery of the Middle East (the vertical axis in which Russia operates) as an extension of the Eurasianist ideology, adds a dimension that truly threatens the West since it can hand Russia a tremendous strategic advantage in the long run when it returns to a policy of directly confronting the West weakened by the erosion of traditional Renaissance and early enlightenment thinking at the hands of a communitarian intellectual tradition that abandons the twin pillars of the Plato-to-NATO continuum and Judeo-Christian reflections on the nature and role of man.
While our increasing introversion is advisable or not, it is real and thus must be factored into shaping our strategic response. Gone are the heady days of where inter-War British foreign office and post-War US foreign service ambassadors or intelligence officers who could credibly aspire to be quasi-imperial governors bringing liberal thought to prostrate lands. The heavy-handed, controlling nature of our foreign policy elite toward genuine allies has to yield to a more equal, mutual defense arrangement where each ally carries their own weight in their areas of power, but is also freed from the shackles of a judgmental US foreign policy elite. In other words, we should be seeking structures of alliances where the civilizational values are genuinely shared, the willingness to carry one’s own weight is matched, and with greater autonomy to each ally to serve as point in its respective area.
This of course means that the United States must be far more discerning, sober – and yes, even informed by a better understanding of these grand historical movements and civilizational attributes – about which of these re-emerging civilizations in the Middle East are our genuine allies, which are non-allied fellow travelers, which are operating at cross purposes, which populations could be “turned” given their civilizational foundations, and which are fence-sitters.
In this, political correctness dominating the left will be our demise, as would be a facile belief among some on the right that the bubble of our isolation is our bio-spheric fortress of safety. Moreover, the current black-white view of Russia would best be yielded to a more nuanced appreciation of when Russia is operating as the enemy, when it operates as the enemy of our enemy (such as with Erdogan’s Turkey), when it outright threatens our allies (Israel), and when it is competing with us to turn the same populations into an ally (such as Iranians and Middle Eastern Christians).
Finally, we and our allies clearly no longer think in these historical and civilizational terms. And yet, we must be aware that others do. In the Cold War, we became accustomed to envisioning ourselves as the leader of the free world, but for the current Russian and Middle Eastern elites, we are also the modern manifestation of the civilization of the Enlightenment and the Renaissance – and its resultant focus on the inalienable rights of man — which some Russian elites view as having caused Christendom’s corruption. And for some Middle Eastern regimes, especially those along the fertile crescent who are hostile but also think in historical and civilizational terms, they see us as a Christian nation and the idea of free will and sovereignty of man as heretical. Unable to see the depth of our civilization, they see signs of our enlightenment, measured secularism and free debate as a sign of the erosion of our Christian soul, and thus as an outwardly impressive, but inwardly rotten and hollow tree. And still, the constant reminder of our success and power unrivaled in history inevitably is the ultimate threat to their ideologies. We are their enemy by no choice of our own. Of course, those civilizations who seek to defend themselves against those regimes, and those populations who seek to free themselves from those ideologies, also see this. We are their inspiration through no choice of our own.
But being forced into such an inescapable role, we must avoid the illusions of utopian, politically correct ideas and the momentary comfort of retreating into fortress America.
The West, at any rate, mistakes these attitudes, believing the predominant “rage” is driven by a deep sense of grievance and post-colonial anguish born of Western arrogance and oppression dating back as far back as the Crusades. There is far more evidence that the theologians and ideologues driving the rage, in fact, act far more as a result of deeply-held contempt for Western civilization mixed with the rage born of witnessing the injustice of a supposedly superior civilization’s (their brand of Islam) being dominated by the eclipsing power, influence and confidence of the supposedly inferior Western civilization.