The Arab world is a pluralistic region that lacks pluralism – the ability to manage and embrace differences peacefully.
As such, the Middle East’s pluralistic character – Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, Alawites, Jews, Copts, Yazidis, Turkmen and an array of tribes – has long been managed by iron fists from above. But after we removed the fists in Iraq and Libya, without putting a new bottom-up order in place, and the people themselves tried to remove the fists in Syria and Yemen, without putting a new live-and-let-live order in place, a horrifying war of all against all has exploded.
The fighting has laid bare just how much the past 60 years of predatory leadership in that region failed at human development and citizenship building. The whole Arab world package, with its artificially straight-line borders, was held together by oil and brute force. In the wreckage, people are falling back on the only identities they think might keep them safe: tribe and sect.
Otto Scharmer, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works with communities trapped in perpetual conflicts, defines the main features of the fundamentalist mindset by its opposites: What is the opposite of an open mind? he asks. “You are stuck in one truth.” What is the opposite of an open heart? “You are stuck in one collective skin; everything is us versus them and, therefore, empathy for the other is impossible.” And what is the opposite of an open will? “You are enslaved to old intentions that originate in the past and not from the present, and so you cannot open up to any emerging new opportunities.”
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If that zero-sum mindset continues to prevail, you can only weep for the future of this region when there is much less oil, many more kids and much less water. It will be a freak show.
We cannot effectively intervene in a region where so few share our goals. For instance, in Iraq and Syria, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have acted as “arsonists” and “firefighters.”
First, Iran pushed the Iraqi Shiite government to crush the Sunnis. When that produced the Islamic State, they sent pro-Iranian militias to put out the fire. Thanks a lot.
And Saudi Arabia’s long promotion of the puritanical, anti-pluralistic, anti-women, Wahhabi brand of Islam helped to shape the thinking of ISIS and the Sunni fundamentalists who joined them. The Saudis, too, are arsonists and firefighters. Indeed, ISIS is like a missile that got its guidance system from Saudi Arabia and its fuel from Iran.
U.S. policy now should be “containment, plus amplification.” Let’s help those who manifest the will to contain ISIS, like Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and the Kurds in Iraq, and amplify any constructive things leaders in Yemen, Iraq, Libya or Syria are ready to do with their power, but we must not substitute our power for theirs.
This has to be their fight for their future. If the fight against ISIS is not worth it to them, it surely can’t be for us.
We’ve spent more than a decade of lives and treasure trying to “fight terrorism” to fix a part of the world that can’t be fixed from the outside. It has been a waste. I wish it had worked. The world would be better for it. But it didn’t. And the beginning of wisdom is admitting that and stopping throwing good money after bad.
Thomas L. Friedman writes for the New York Times.