Today we watch events unfold in far off places often in real time. What we lack, however, is context. Most Americans and, I suspect, others in Western nations are frequently at a loss when it comes to knowing anything about the culture and history, past and recent, of nations in the Middle East, Africa, or Asia.
What we do know about the Middle East is that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran along with the rise of al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations, things have not gone well for American and Western interests.
How different everything might have been if U.S. troops had occupied Tehran in 1979 and demanded the return of our diplomats after they had been taken hostage.
After World War One, what was once the Ottoman Empire that ruled the Middle East and areas of the Maghreb in northern Africa, the French and the British got out their maps at the Versailles conference to literally draw new lines on it and create new nations that were, in fact, colonies. They included Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and a strip of territory called the Palestinian mandate. The chief prize at stake was oil.
After World War Two was concluded many of the former British and French colonies, including India, and much of Africa declared their independence. The Saudi Royal family had already thrown in its lot with America. In Egypt, the Suez Canal, opened in 1869, was jointly owned by the British and French. The British called the shots there through its royal family.
The Egyptian defeat in the 1948 war in response to the establishment of Israel stirred discontent among its military leadership. Gamal Abed Al Nasser ultimately emerged as Egypt’s leader after a July 1952 bloodless coup against King Farouk and the royal family. In 1956 Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.
Here’s what it gets very instructive. In 1956 the British and French, with Israeli involvement, sent troops to seize the Suez Canal. That operation was quashed by President Dwight Eisenhower who made it known that the United States would not support it. The era of colonization was over.
What had been occurring, however, was an era of pent-up anger throughout the Middle East focused on the establishment of Israel and resentment of the former colonial powers. The British had earlier installed a royal family in Iraq. A new component was opposition to the dictators like Hussein who emerged to run Iraq. Another example is the fact that first the British and then the Americans had controlled Iran’s oil through its royal family. Other royal families continue to control mideast oil.
Ironically, it took George W. Bush to rid Iraq of three decades of despotic rule by Saddam Hussein. However, this has to be balanced against the fact that the U.S. has also supported the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. It was, however, Egypt, as well as Jordan, who made peace with Israel.
Arab military defeats gave way to support for the so-called Palestinians as pawns in the war against Israel. The main support of the Palestinian “refugees” is the United Nations, sixty-three years after 1948 and subsequent wars to destroy Israel. Iran has funded two Palestinian terrorist organizations, Hezbollah and Hamas.
At the heart of the turmoil in the Middle East is a movement to restore Islam to its former glory when it literally knocked on the doors of Europe. The jihadists such as Osama bin Laden dream of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. As in the early spread of Islam, it would be achieved through war, but the tactic employed would be terrorism and the fact of Islam’s expanding population worldwide.
An irony of the Islamist movement is its opposition to the monarchies ruling Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, all of whom have proven to be good allies to the United States at the same time they have funded the spread of Islam. In Egypt, under Mubarak, the jihadists known as the Muslim Brotherhood were ruthlessly suppressed. The Saudis actually exiled bin Laden.
What the world has witnessed has proven to be very bad news for the West. The 1979 Iranian revolution has given us Mamoud Ahmadinejad and a regime plotting through proxies to control Lebanon via Hezbollah and Gaza via Hamas, while it plots to control Iraq and eyes the Gulf States as well. Its closest ally these days is Syria. It has long sought to become a nuclear power. Its proclaimed goal is to destroy Israel.
Democracy has not turned out to be much help in the Middle East. Rigged elections in Egypt kept Mubarak in power for three decades. Saddam Hussein used terror and the Baath Party to achieve and hold on to power. Elections were rigged in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been mainly ruled by its military.
Lebanon was a democracy and now its prime minister comes from the ranks of Hezbollah. Turkey has had a long run of real democracy, but only because its military ensured that Islamists did not take over.
Americans have a lot at stake and, of growing concern to many, a President, Barack Hussein Obama, whose first television interview was with Al Jazeera, who bowed to the King of Saudi Arabia, and whose first global outing was a tour of the Middle East to demonstrate how friendly he was to their cause.