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Why the Middle East still matters

On October 9, Justin Logan, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute wrote an intriguing article in which he outlined several ostensible reasons why the Middle East was not important to US Foreign Policy.

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By Benjamin Kweskin

On October 9, Justin Logan, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute wrote an intriguing article in which he outlined several ostensible reasons why the Middle East was not important to US Foreign Policy, and certainly not crucial enough to funnel so much ‘blood and treasure’ into programs relating to the generally upturned region. Instead, he opines, the US should focus on the waking tigers of Asia.

Less than one month after Logan’s posting, a man took to the University of California-Berkeley, one of the better-known political campus’ in the United States, waving an “ISIS flag” and yelled out Islamic extremist rhetoric without seemingly any response from anyone in the student body. Perhaps his act was not convincing, yet one would rationally assume the camera would film some response. After he put the flag of the so-called Islamic State down, he later brought out an Israeli flag. As he held up this flag, regurgitating statements more/less from an official Israeli narrative, the camera picked up an alarming amount of vitriol and hate filled responses from this same student body. Regardless of people’s views with Israeli domestic and/or foreign policies, this display should spark some eye-raising and lead to further questions pertaining to our society and values, which was the purpose of the video to begin with. To date, over half a million people have seen the video.

As former British Premier Tony Blair expressed in one of his most famous speeches in April 2014 — before the global threat of ISIS “…the Middle East matters. What is presently happening there, still represents the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st century. The region…is in turmoil with no end in sight to the upheaval…” Let us now turn to Logan’s major arguments individually.

At the outset, these arguments are cursory attempts to provide a very broad overview of what he explains are the three (simplified) and and reduced reasons for strong US involvement in the Middle East: oil, Israel, and terrorism. Perhaps within this very arguments lies the very problem: this region is the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of the world’s three monotheistic faiths, composite of nearly 400 million people — Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Amazigh, and numerous other ethnic groups. Such sweeping generalizations cannot simply reduce a tremendous region to three overarching assumptions and Logan is likely aware that many Middle Eastern states have little-no oil or gas reserves to speak of.

Logan claims there is no acute shortage of oil as “supply disruptions have had limited and ephemeral effects on price.” However, according to current estimates, at least 66 percent of OPEC‘s proven oil reserves are in the Middle East. If the US were to suddenly withdraw their energies and lose its focus on the stability of oil, it is unclear how Logan imagines this will foster and generate more stability. Again, Tony Blair in the same speech, “First and most obviously, it is still where a large part of the world’s energy supplies are generated, and whatever the long term implications of the USA energy revolution, the world’s dependence on the Middle East is not going to disappear any time soon.

As for Israel — Logan contends the State of Israel can take care of itself militarily at this point in time since overall it is considerably wealthier than its neighbors. He further argues that US foreign policy in the region has not helped the security of stability of the Jewish state since its establishment in 1948. Even if some are inclined to agree with his premise, he offers no suggestions or policies in US-Israel relations. Tony Blair comes to the ‘defense’ of Israel, since “…its alliance with the USA, its partnership with leading [European] countries…and the fact that it is a Western democracy, mean that its fate is never going to be a matter of indifference…Were the Israelis to be pulled into a regional conflict, there is no realistic way that the world could or would want to shrug it off.” Logan does not provide any policy recommendations here, either.

Lastly, Logan asserts terrorism it is an overstated concern for Americans, despite the fact that American involvement in Afghanistan for example, funding the mujahadin dates back to the Soviet invasion in 1979 and that the US has been a hegemonic power in the Middle East since French and British de-colonialism post-World War II. Logan insists that the Middle East is hopeless therefore the US should pay attention to the growing economic and political prowess of Asia. The ongoing growing pains of the Arab Spring, the intractable and motionless Israeli-Palestinian peace processes along with the simmering “Jerusalem intifada,” the destruction wrought by ISIS — the wealthiest terror organization that has successfully ethnically cleansed Christians, Yezids, and others from their homes in northern Iraq and has been able to break colonial-imposed borders — what no regional army or terror organization (including al-Qa’ida) could accomplish in one hundred years.

As if this was not enough, many Middle Eastern states have an extraordinarily large youth population (15-24) and faced with the fact that tens of millions remain unemployed — prime targets for exploitative extremist organizations. Famously, Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1966 interview to CBS’ Mike Wallace, contended “…the cry of ‘Black Power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Though the article is not comparing the civil rights movement (or the Black Power movement) to what is going on in the so-called Arab street, there are several key similarities and parallels that should be cause for greater interest and analysis.

Despite the fact that ideological and religious extremists in the region prey on unemployed and in many cases uneducated young men, a major factor that has yet to be addressed appropriately is that there are few if any employment opportunities available to these men, and without seeing a future for themselves, they turn inward toward a hyper-aggressive interpretation of their religion that gives them an outlet. During the Civil Rights Movement riots may have been the language of the unheard masses, but in the Middle East riots can focus on the increased cost of wheat, as is the case in the Egyptian “bread riots”— if these economies are so unstable that inflation is constant, and they cannot otherwise provide jobs for their youth it is not altogether unsurprising that some turn to terrorism.

Logan maintains that the threat of terrorism are overblown since it is (for Americans) generally low risk, and that it is very costly to US taxpayers due to increased spending for governmental agencies namely the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He admits terrorism is a threat if you live in certain countries, namely Iraq, Syria, Libya, Israel/Palestine, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Egypt, and  Tunisia, but that policy makers and US foreign policy itself should stop funneling so much money into a region that to him are a “waste of time” from a military point of view, because “the region is an economic dwarf…with a combined GDP (with oil revenue) represents roughly 6 percent of world GDP.” For him it boils down to (the perception) of size and power. “Its population is closer to 5 percent of world population, and its military forces are similarly unimpressive.” There was no military responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, London, Madrid, or in Paris last month.

If the US shifts its attention away from the Middle East toward Asia this will accomplish nothing short of ensuring the region will remain unstable and increasingly unsafe. This includes the glaring economic considerations, both short and long term. Moreover countries like Russia, China, and Iran will immediately fill the vacuum and further institute their own policies and political agendas. It is surprising that some imply the United States, still the most capable country economically, politically, and militarily, cannot simultaneously focus its foreign policy in South and East Asia, Africa, and other continents as well as the Middle East.

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