What's Wrong With the Middle East? And Other Questions Aaron David Miller Can't Answer


Last week, Foreign Policy writer Aaron David Miller penned a widely read piece, which bears the audacious title “What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East?” Miller, who played the role of a Middle East analyst in the State Department during the '80s and served as an Oslo peace process diplomat during part of the '90s, ponders the question, “Why, when much of the world seems to be moving forward, is the Middle East being left behind?”

To answer, Miller suggests, taking a page from Bernard Lewis, that the Middle East is a cohesive bloc that is both especially dysfunctional, and primarily the victim of its own dysfunction. Miller is careful to ignore the obvious effects of international involvement (notably Western and U.S. involvement) in the Middle East from his analysis, presenting readers with an argument that is as trite as it is misleading.

He points to crises plaguing the revolution-and-war-struck region, including “violence in Iraq, civil war in Syria and violent spillover into Lebanon, growing popular despair in Egypt, repression in Bahrain, lack of central authority in Libya, and an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

Miller argues that region-wide misogyny, a failure to separate church from state, a penchant for conspiracy theorizing, endemic narcissism, and incompetent, self-serving leadership in the region essentially caused the crises listed above.

To rebut arguments that not all of the individual emergencies unevenly sweeping across a vast geographical space are primarily domestic in origin, he writes, “At some point, as every person knows, there's an expiration date for blaming your parents for the way you turned out.” In other words, he implies that to suggest that foreign interventions in the Middle East have played and continue to play a significant role in shaping the region is to be a typical Middle Eastern conspiracy theorist.

Why Miller is Wrong

To be sure, mistreatment of women, religious intolerance, and poor leadership continue to profoundly damage countries across the Middle East (and many countries outside of the Middle East). But the region does not exist in a vacuum.

Consider the especially dramatic and illustrative example of the mistreatment of women in Iraq, a country we invaded and occupied under the inept and self-serving leadership of George W. Bush not too long ago.

Writing 10 years after the U.S. invasion, Yifat Susskind, executive director of women’s rights organization MADRE, and Yanar Mohammed, director of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, claim that the Iraqi women they encounter in shelters "don’t mourn the fall of Saddam, but women here have suffered 10 years of spiraling abuse, including a spike in ‘honor killings,’ forced veiling, and a growing tolerance for beating women into subordination.”

How do the two women’s rights activists explain the systematic rise in the mistreatment of women over the past 10 years? In part, war itself and the resulting turmoil is to blame, and in part,

One can take their evaluation a step further and note that Islamism and sectarianism appear to be coupled in Iraq, and that some of our occupation-related policies intensified sectarian divisions in the country.

Sticking to the Iraq example, the WHO reports that though maternal mortality in the country did decrease between 1990 and 2010, “The effects of war, internal conflict, and sanctions have contributed to the slow pace of decline in maternal mortality, placing Iraq in the group of 68 countries that account for 97% of all maternal and child deaths.”

The reference to the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, strongly supported by the U.S. and ruinously capitalized on by Saddam Hussein’s regime, illustrates that mistreatment of women in Iraq is not a problem that's just the fault of domestic actors. In the same vein, a documented mass flight of physicians from the country in the years following 2003’s war of choice also likely contributed to the failure to meet maternal-mortality targets.

Of course, this all is just the tip of a very big iceberg. Our massive intervention in Iraq produced a litany of effects that the region (and arguably the world) are still reeling from and likely will continue to reel from for some time.

Not all interventions in the Middle East are as radical, but it’s almost impossible to argue that the effects of even more recent actions such as NATO’s backing of the Libyan uprising, U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, and Russia’s steadfast, active support for the most brutal autocrat in the Middle East have negligible effects, for better or worse, on how the region is turning out.

Contrary to what Miller suggests, analysts should continue to acknowledge the fact of past and present foreign intervention in the region — not to deny the residents of the Middle East agency, but to paint a clearer picture of the influences that constrain, animate, and shape the region..

It’s apparent that the article in question, ironically featured in a column titled “Reality Check,” lacks the historical depth required of good analysis, even by the lowered standards of a weekly column. More troubling, reading Miller’s piece one gets a sense of his apparent disdain for the region and its residents.

For instance, under his article’s “Narcissism” heading he just seems to suggest (with nothing more than vague, anecdotal substantiation) that Middle Easterners think they deserve to be at the center of international attention, and consequently tend to leave regional emergencies unresolved.

He writes, “Here's a news flash: The cavalry isn't coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will do more for themselves. But I doubt it.”

Tell that to an Egyptian street fighting for basic democratic rights, a Bahraini doctor mired in legal woes after plucking birdshot from the wounds of peaceful protestors, or a destitute Syrian in a squalid refugee camp.

Admittedly a low-hanging piece of fruit ripe for criticism, Miller’s piece merits this response given his decades-long relationship to power.

In light of Miller’s disappointing commentary, one can’t help but wonder whether the administrations that appointed the unperceptive analyst to assist in managing the peace process in the early '90s wasted an opportunity.