On Tuesday September 22, Middle East expert Rashid Khalidi, addressed a large crowd at Grand Valley State University as part of its Fall Arts Celebration 2009. His presentation, "The Great Powers and the Middle East: Yesterday and Today," was based on his newest book, Sowing Crisis: American Hegemony and the Cold War in the Middle East (2009).
Khalidi opened with a brief history of the region, noting that its location and seaways have had strategic significance since the times of the Pharaohs. In modern times, the Middle East served as an important arena of confrontation during both World Wars I & II. That significance remained throughout the Cold War years (post WW II through 1990), with the United States and Russia (USSR) staging various proxy wars in the region, sometimes as foes and sometimes as allies. "For all of their severity, the conflicts around the Arab and Israeli wars were self-contained in some measure . . . defined by the Cold War system," Khalidi stated.
According to Khalidi, when the USSR fell apart, the US was left as the sole superpower. This propelled conflicts previously contained within the region into crises with global consequence. Other factors Khalidi cited for this global overspill were: (1) the Iranian revolution; (2) The Afghanistan wars, 1979-1988; (3) Iraq's disastrous invasion of Kuwait; and (4) the failures of Madrid peace talks (between Israel and Palestine).
Because of these factors, lasting and close connections developed between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the rest of the Middle East, whereas previously, the latter two were not even considered a part of the Middle East.
Meanwhile back on the Ranch
After the 9-11 attacks, President Bush decided to launch the "Global War on Terror," a misnomer from the get-go as this "war" was not global—it only targeted countries with Muslim populations. "Not to minimize 9-11, but terrorists don't pose an existential danger to this republic (the US) . . . Terrorists do different things in different places for different reasons. They are not all plotting day and night to blow up Americans," Khalidi said. "But they (the Bush administration) launched us on something that was a real war. So far, we have spent $600 billion, lost 800 soldiers in Afghanistan, 3,000 in Iraq and how many civilians."
This real war has destroyed the Iraqi state, leaving a power vacuum in the region and a surge of sectarian violence. The same is happening in Afghanistan. The US trained and equipped the radical extremists so they could overcome their Russian invaders. These same extremists took brutal control of Afghanistan, giving rise to the Taliban and its harsh rule. Today, the US says we are fighting a "good"' war that will free Afghani women all the while supporting its hand picked Karzai government that recently legalized rape.
"We can't be the world's godfather."
Khalidi said that during the Cold War, the US was, at least, a respected power in the Middle East. However now, its standing is declined as has its influence. "What more can we say? The new regional configuration poses different dangers. There are no clear rules of the game. (During the Cold War) we felt like adults were in charge. Today, we face shadowy, non-state actors in a world without rules."
Khalidi stated that the "framework has been degraded" by the Bush administration and that the current administration is continuing the course. This course promulgates Arab states that are no longer the subjects, but rather the objects, of their own history. The US must figure out that it cannot carry out political change and democratization by force and occupation. "Events do not stand still. Crises will emanate, wars, terrorism. It may take such a crisis to get the US and other powers to act differently . . . Democracy does not grow out of the barrel of a gun."