Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

The Middle East: Un-ask Your Question

As the Gaza war seethes through its fourth month policymakers and think-tankers in the West form a chorus demanding what shall we do about the Middle East?

The best short answer may be "mu" Japanese word that means "unask your question".

The word is used when the question is defective and whatever answer that is given could plunge the whole discussion into a deeper misunderstanding.

The question is defective for several reasons.

First it reduces a broader geopolitical, economic, cultural and human reality to an ill-defined geographic term, the Middle which has several other variants: the Near East, Levant, the Greater Middle East Area, the Crescent of Crisis etc.

Next, it turns the estimated 600 million people who live in more than 20 countries into mere objects in their own story; it is up to outsiders to decide what to do about them.

Worse still the assumption is that all the nations encompassed by the term live in the same historic sociopolitical timeframe. The one-size fits all approach sees no difference between Yemen, for example at one end of the spectrum, and Morocco at the other.

The "what-shall-we-do about them?" approach is a relic of the colonial era when the European empires could regard subject nations as mere pawns in a global game of chess. The approach continued to be in vogue in the early phases of postcolonial development right into the Cold War. It continued to appear useful because most of the nations concerned were governed by fairly narrow elites that owed a good part of their legitimacy and power to patronage by former colonial masters or newcomers

to the global power game such as the United States and the USSR.

The massive changes that the region has experienced in the past few decades have radically altered the situation in all nations concerned. Some have surged forward at a speed that even the most seasoned observers never imagined. Others have been forced into zigzags leading into decline and desolation.

In almost all countries of the region a new actor has entered the scene: the people power which, setbacks notwithstanding, manifested its potential, both constructive and destructive during the sudden storm dubbed as The Arab Spring. The genie may have been pushed back into the bottle, in some cases for good reasons, but thanks to the global information, revolution retains the potential to splash back into center stage.

In some nations a new and younger generation of governing elites has taken over with an ambitious reform program that could lead to transformations that, while welcome, could leave the bulk of the populations behind in terms of both hopes for and fear of change.

The Middle East today represents a far more complex reality and could no longer be reduced to oil, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Shiite-Sunni rivalry, terrorism and the clash of half-baked nationalisms.

More importantly, perhaps, we must realize that a region that created the first empires as the best model for organizing human societies has at long last adopted the Westphalian model of nation-states as the best means of redefining itself.

Thus those who say "what should we do about the Middle East" should realize that they are not dealing with a monolith but a geopolitical and cultural entity that consists of more than 20 nation-states with different, at times contradictory ambitions and interests.

In other words, what may work in Oman won't necessarily work in Algeria and how do deal with Iran can't be the same as dealing with Islamic Republics in Pakistan or Mauritania.

Dealing with the Middle East today isn't as easy as it was even a decade ago let alone a century ago when sending a gunboat and greasing a few moustaches could do the trick. Today, soft power is more effective than hard power especially when those who have it in bucketfuls lack the courage to use more than a teaspoonful of it at any given time, while those who have a little of it are suicidal enough to use all of it.

To "deal" with the Middle East one needs to unlearn the old lessons, talk less and listen more, steer clear of fiats, make concessions and seek compromises first with more than 20 nations and finally in overarching multilateral accords.

No, it isn't as easy as it was in the good old days.