Middle East

Is the West Really Guilty of Everything?

IRAQ -- 1990 -- An abandoned Russian-made tank in the desert in front of burning oil wells, images like these became an icon of the first Gulf War in 1990, when the USA stopped short of occupying Iraq, after Saddam Hussein ordered his troops into Kuwait -- Picture by Jonas Jordan [ Rechtehinweis: Keine Verwendung in China, Taiwan, Macao und Hongkong, No usage in China, Taiwan, Macao and Hongkong ]
The West against the rest?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If western countries fail to understand politics in the Middle East, their interventions will only cause more harm.

  • Facts


    • Berlin has agreed on participating in the fight against IS in Syria.
    • Germany will deploy Tornado reconnaissance jets, refueling aircraft and a warship to support French operations against Islamic State.
    • The mission will deploy any combat troops in Syria.
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Is the West responsible for every calamity in the world? In last week’s Die Zeit published right after the IS terror attacks in Paris,  deputy editor in chief Bernd Ulrich made the following argument: The West has engaged in the complex conflicts in the Middle East for decades at the expense of the “Islamic world.”

The time has come, Mr. Ulrich argued, for the West to finally apologize to Muslims for its colonialism, its chaotic grabs for power in the region, and for contributing to a level of cynicism unparalleled in world history. Only then will reasonable foreign policy be possible, he argued.

But in my opinion, it is impossible to negotiate with IS. For the West to assume the blame for the situation is ridiculous and ignores the role Islamic religious wars and regional despots play in the dispute.

Mr. Ulrich argued that western arrogance is an aberration from realpolitik, cold-hearted and rash, and must finally be overcome. He recommended two ways to restore foreign policy. First, the West should neither topple nor stabilize authoritarian states, but refrain from military involvement. Second, Germany should beef up its welcoming culture in the face of terror, showing its compassion to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

I consider my colleague’s premises to be false, his analysis imprecise and his conclusions implausible.

Can the complex conflicts of the region actually be understood as the collision of two world cultures, of the West and the Islamic world? Whoever argues with such grand categories can scarcely do justice to the complex foreign-policy situation of our era.

To give only one obvious example: The First Persian Gulf War, which ended the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq, was fought on the basis of a resolution by the United Nations Security Council.

The resolution was signed in 1990 by such diverse countries as the Soviet Union, the Ivory Coast and Zaire. The armed forces that eventually went to battle were not only the Americans, but also troops from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Poland, Morocco and Bangladesh.

Germany and Japan provided financial assistance. Only a good imagination and an excess of conspiracy theory can assign all of these countries to “the West.”

Moreover, whoever talks about a centuries-old confrontation between West and East ignores the fact that the First Gulf War was the first significant military intervention by the Americans in the Middle East.

The argument in fact unintentionally resembles one of the successful propaganda lies frequently used by Islamists – namely that an evil, Israeli-American-led capitalist alliance is tyrannizing the Islamic world, which has been driven to justifiable resistance.

In strict terms, the West isn’t a homogeneous and autonomous protagonist in the Middle East. Nor has such an entity ever existed in Europe’s past. It is enough to recall the shifting, competition-driven alliances that Austria-Hungary, Russia and Prussia entered into with the Ottoman Empire.

And can one seriously speak – to add a further example – of an attack “by the West” with regard to George W. Bush’s fatal Iraq War, when such central Western protagonists as France and Germany steadfastly refused to join such a coalition?

Nor is there a monolithic “Islamic world” that one can address politically. Or does one actually want to declare Indonesia and Malaysia to be participants in the Middle-Eastern trouble zone?

What’s more, it would be a serious error if religious generalizations were used to issue an apology to the entire Muslim world for suffering that “the West’’ has imposed, as if another crusade had taken place.

The coalitions in which the West participated in recent years – as is the rule in our globalized world – almost always were made up of various religions. Frequently in Middle East conflicts, a big role has been played by internal religious disputes within Islam, which were politically instrumentalized and exacerbated.

For a few years now, this has included the pernicious spread of Saudi Wahhabism, a branch of conservative Islam that has served as the ideological underpinning for the terror of al-Qaeda and IS, among other groups.

Wahhabism has caused many more Muslims to suffer than Americans or Europeans. Even the war in Syria, by the way, remains incomprehensible if it is considered to be exclusively a conflict between the West and a dictator, and if sight is lost of the notorious fact that the Saudis are interested, not only in Assad’s fall, but also in the rise of IS for reasons of regional strategy.

What the Saudis would like most is a Sunni regime in Syria, because that would mean the destruction of the Shiite axis that emanates from Iran, the center of Saudi opposition, along the Shiite-dominated regions of Iraq all the way to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Admittedly, analyses that focus on more than two parties or interest groups and try to untangle the interwoven conflicts of the region have the disadvantage of being complex. But analyses that involve power-driven strategies also seem off the mark because they deal with geopolitical interests and do little to incite ethical outrage.

But they are not obsolete for that reason. On the contrary, they are the indispensable prerequisite for the moral evaluation of a conflict.

Whoever bemoans the state of Islamic-Arab culture must – as painstaking as it is – make the mental effort to sort out the reasons for Western involvement in the region, not all of which are of the West’s own making. These would include conflicts over the true nature of Islam — a game of bloody one-upmanship.

There is also the legacy of the region’s colonial past and ill-considered, headlong attempts to modernize Middle East society, in which not only the West was involved. The experiments with an “Arab socialism,” inspired among others by the Soviet Union, were sweeping and devastating in Egypt, where kleptocracy, an authoritarian regime and industrialization entered into a baleful alliance.

The modernization efforts ordered from above created a secular elite in the cities of Arab countries but had little impact in a countryside teeming with children and still shaped by tribal borders and religious loyalties – a state of affairs that caused the Arab Spring to be quickly suffocated in most countries.

Lastly, the success of the West in the global economy is certainly a major factor in the crisis — it has imposed on the Middle East an economic dependency that is frequently although simplistically seen as a continuation of colonial oppression. But this view assumes that the countries of the region had no responsibility themselves for engaging in reform and making themselves more competitive.

To be sure, this is not to claim that the West has done everything right in the Middle East. On the contrary, there can only be agreement that it has failed dramatically. No one can deny that the West has behaved chauvinistically in the past. In recent years, it has been partly responsible for the descent of Libya and Syria into horrific civil war and the development of the revolution in Egypt into a renewed, even more brutal military dictatorship.

It shares guilt for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

But how exactly did the West fail in past years? Mr. Ulrich claims that realpolitik mutated into an ideology that never questioned its own assumptions and justified itself by “increasingly imposing interventions.” That is – to say the least – extremely counter-intuitive.

The failure of the West started with the Iraq War of George W. Bush, not in a Western realpolitik gone berserk, but in a realpolitik driven by moralistic fervor.  Americans marched into Iraq because, in response to Islamist terror, they wanted to plant freedom and democracy in an important country in the Arab world and attempted to implement their foolhardy scheme with arrogant lies.

Mr. Bush’s political world view that advocated regime change underestimated the internal tensions in a country that was split along religious lines and whose rural reaches were backward. It erroneously supposed a secular orientation of the Iraqi people, who were likewise mistakenly deemed to be capable of democracy and progressive in terms of civil society.

Things were no different with Barack Obama’s foreign policy during the Arab Spring. As much appeal as the urban youths of these countries have for the Facebook generation, they unfortunately do not constitute a relevant presence in the overall religiously oriented, in no way secular, population.

The public in the West and in Germany – so much self-criticism must be allowed, especially at Die Zeit – succumbed to a romanticizing of a revolution that wanted to have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with a form of realpolitik that argues that sometimes and for a limited period, the end justifies disreputable means.

In this euphoric mood of fiery Rousseauism and breathtaking naivete, entire countries were allowed to fall apart and sink into bloody civil wars. Iraq and Syria were allowed to become as good as Christian-free. A refugee crisis was allowed to arise. Secularly oriented dictators were allowed to be deposed or massacred without being replaced by a new, reasonable sovereign on whom a future of those countries could have been based.

Not every rebellion is a civic revolution. Not every assembly of indignant individuals is an expression of the public will. If realpolitik had been operating, it might have been possible to win over the threatened, nervous and Western-dependent despots to a long-term and laborious process of democratization, without a bloodbath and radical Islamization of the region. The destruction of Syria has had far-reaching consequences. The last secularly oriented country in the region was sacrificed because of an immature notion of democracy that stylizes any and all opposition into a force for revolutionary change. The result is now is that none other than Vladimir Putin is shaping how order will be reestablished there. It should have been known from European history that only a decidedly secular state offers the prerequisites for growing a true western-style democracy.

There is reason to doubt that terror is the result of the supposedly perpetual humbling of the Islamic-Arab world by the West. But regardless of this, is Germany’s welcoming culture the most effective weapon against terror? Of course there is nothing to criticize in Germany’s decision to welcome Syrian refugees.

It is right to expect cosmopolitan and empathetic treatment of immigrants. And particularly in view of the current acts of terror, it is imperative to appeal to the moral instincts in the population. But when such demands are examined in the light of day, it becomes clear that what in civil society is only a matter of course is being stylized into a national exaltation.

Moral and humanitarian involvement alone cannot replace expert action in foreign policy.

Is a renunciation of intervention against IS desirable? Is it even moral, because otherwise Muslims throughout the world would be insulted? If that were the case, than it would be a betrayal above all of those Muslims who are threatened day after day by IS, who are brutally executed, killed by suicide bombers, driven out of their villages and cities. It would also be a grievous betrayal of the European victims of the terror militia. IS lays claim to world domination; it declares total enmity not only, but also toward the West.

The fact that Germany is welcoming refugees in a friendly manner will scarcely impress IS. Regardless of how we relate in moral terms to the Islamic world as a whole, in the eyes of IS, we remain infidels. The challenge to a fight remains: The infidels have no other choice than to conquer IS militarily, and not just through a sense of moral superiority. History unfortunately teaches us that there are political protagonists with whom it is impossible to negotiate.

By furnishing diverse oppositional forces with arms, the West got Syria tangled up in a complicated civil war. Islamist forces are benefiting from this. To fight them more intensely and decisively than before, such as seems to be finally happening, corresponds not only to alert and adroit realpolitik, but also to our moral responsibility. These are not separate principles: One could even argue that only someone who acts in accordance with realpolitik can fulfill his or her true moral responsibility.


To contact the author: adam.soboczynski@zeit.de

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