A New Islamic Politics: Faith and Human Rights in the Middle East
The year 2019 may be remembered as an inflection point for the Middle East, when the seemingly intractable violence and instability that have beset the region finally exhausted the United States’ prodigious confidence in its capacity for problem solving. Fifty years ago, the United States began to fill the void left by the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and, tentatively at first, take on the role of regional peace broker. For all its flaws—and there were many—U.S. leadership during this period generated some historic dividends, including the 1978 Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt, the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, and the preservation of oil exports in times of intense conflict.
Now, however, the presumption of a vital U.S. interest in promoting peace and security in the Middle East is crumbling under the weight of changing energy markets and the human and financial toll of Washington’s seemingly endless wars in the region. “Let someone else fight over this blood-stained sand,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in October 2019, explaining his abrupt decision to remove U.S. troops from northeastern Syria. The president has long decried the $8 trillion he says the United States has spent on wars in the region, and he has passed the responsibility for his much-touted Middle East peace plan to Avi Berkowitz, a 31-year-old law school graduate with no diplomatic experience.
Trump’s readiness to disengage from the Middle East appears to resonate not only with his base but also with a number of the Democratic candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign, who, like him, have advocated troop reductions or even withdrawal from the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq. When Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities in September 2019, Trump’s disinclination to respond with anything other than perfunctory sanctions met with bipartisan assent.
So long as somewhere between 60,000 and 70,000 U.S. troops remain deployed across the wider Middle East, concerns about a supposed American retreat from the region are premature. Still, it is hard to escape the sense of defeatism that now infuses the discourse around the Middle East more than at any time in the past half century—not just in Washington but also in Europe, where the fallout from multiple vicious civil wars has hit home in the form of millions of Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian, and Yemeni refugees. In Iraq, a hubristic U.S. intervention intended to promote democracy failed catastrophically, and with the exception of Tunisia, the mass uprisings that swept the Arab world beginning in late 2010 yielded little lasting progress. Among some disillusioned politicians, one even senses a temptation to take cover in dangerous tropes of ancient hatreds and perpetual conflict in order to allow the West to simply wash its hands of the Middle East.
The presumption of a vital U.S. interest in promoting peace and security in the Middle East is crumbling.
That Zeitgeist of gloomy resignation is precisely why a new volume by Patrick Milton, Michael Axworthy, and Brendan Simms is such a refreshing contribution to the literature on conflict resolution in the Middle East. Milton and Simms are historians of Europe at the University of Cambridge, and Axworthy (who died earlier this year) wrote or edited five books on Iran after a career in the British Foreign Office. Their innovative approach applies the lessons drawn from the Thirty Years’ War, a devastating series of conflicts that ravaged central Europe between 1618 and 1648, and the accord that eventually settled them, the Peace of Westphalia, to the war in Syria and the violence that has afflicted the Middle East since the Arab uprisings of 2010–11. The Thirty Years’ War was, as the book’s promotional material emphasizes, “the original forever war”: what began as a Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Holy Roman Empire over time drew in major powers such as Denmark, France, Spain, and Sweden, resulting in a decades-long conflagration. Released to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the conflict’s outbreak, the volume rectifies common misconceptions about the peace that ended it, especially the notion that Westphalia firmly enshrined the principles of state sovereignty and nonintervention. The treaty’s true innovation—and the reason it offers a blueprint for the Middle East today—was the legal, continent-spanning mechanism for dispute resolution that it put in place. Such a mechanism indeed seems an appealing solution for a region that is today wracked by conflict and upheaval. But the book fails in its attempt to argue that a similar framework could see the light of day in the contemporary Middle East and succeed.
Towards a Westphalia for the Middle East emanated from a series of workshops funded by the Körber Foundation, the German foreign ministry, and the University of Cambridge that brought together more than 100 participants from across Europe and the Middle East. That kind of format provides a welcome sounding board for policy prescriptions, but the resulting analysis in this case suffers somewhat from the romanticism that often arises in convenings of scholars and diplomats in various European capitals. Milton, Axworthy, and Simms exult in the bonds of shared custom, religion, and language that “quickly emerge when people from the region come together, especially outside the region” and thus find it confounding that “the divisions in the region have often been so bitter.” Yet given the physical and psychological distance between conference-goers and combatants, it should not be surprising that passions rarely manifest themselves as sharply in European salons as they do on the battlefields of the Middle East.
Still, drawing on historical precedents in the search for answers to contemporary crises has tremendous value. Historians tend to see “presentism as a sin rather than a virtue” (in the words of two of them, Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri), and so they have often refused to insert themselves into policy debates. But at a time when emotion and partisanship have replaced factual evidence, some historians have sought a much wider audience in an effort to refute falsehoods and add nuance to sanitized or oversimplified interpretations of the past.
This sense of professional and moral responsibility seems to have driven the authors of this book and the phalanx of funders and government officials who contributed to the discussions that underpin it. “Memory is essential—it makes us what we are; it is the same with history, collectively,” Axworthy implores in his foreword, adding, “Westphalia has something to tell us.” Reflecting on the agonies of early modern Europe should also refute the notion that the Middle East is a historical outlier and show that endemic violence need not be a permanent condition. It could, in other words, reinject a measure of faith in the possibility of diplomacy in a region that much of the West has written off as mired in “sand and death,” as Trump himself so crudely put it.
The authors’ prescriptions reveal an idealism that at times borders on delusion.
At the heart of the book is a profound sense of urgency about ending the bloodshed in Syria. The Syrian civil war is not the oldest conflict in the region—the war in Afghanistan predates it by nearly a decade—and it is uncharacteristic in that Western powers have managed to keep their interventions in it limited. Still, Milton, Axworthy, and Simms rightly identify the Syrian war as the region’s most grievous conflagration, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians either killed or injured, nearly six million forced to flee the country, and another six million internally displaced. The conflict has also embroiled a cast of regional actors and great powers in ways that will reverberate long after the violence abates.
Syria is also the burial ground for the ambitions of a never-ending series of intermediaries, diplomats, tactical interventions, and would-be peacemakers. But Milton, Axworthy, and Simms are not daunted by this miserable track record. Past diplomacy, they argue, failed because it was construed too narrowly to succeed. The authors are certainly no friends of timid diagnoses or partial solutions; after a brief tour of the horizon, they appraise the “various wars, cold wars and crises” underway in the Middle East—including the Syrian disaster—not “as distinct conflicts” in various countries with individualized geneses but as “a single regional crisis afflicting the Middle East.” Most of the region’s troubles, they contend, derive from a lack of state legitimacy, sectarianism, and the competition for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this, the Middle East recalls the Europe of the Thirty Years’ War: a war-torn region in which localized conflicts quickly spin out of control and draw in regional powers, with horrendous humanitarian consequences.
On the basis of this diagnosis, the authors call for “a wider ‘grand bargain’ that seeks to address all the conflicts that are raging across the Middle East today,” based explicitly on the Peace of Westphalia. They envision a peace congress that engages all the antagonists, is launched even as hostilities still rage, and lasts for as long as necessary, years even. The resulting agreement would account for the security interests of all the leading players, put into place some kind of power-sharing arrangement among confessional groups, and include rights for minorities. A system of collective security would safeguard the settlement.
Granted, the book was written at a less conclusive moment in the Syrian war, when it still appeared possible that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might not prevail. Regardless, the authors’ prescriptions reveal an idealism that at times borders on delusion. The return of Palestinian exiles to Israel is an obvious nonstarter, as is the idea that Russia should act as the region’s security guarantor. The proposition that a Middle East peace conference can and must include parties that consider each other existential enemies, such as Israel and Hezbollah, is another case in point. (The authors hedge slightly on the prospect of inviting the Islamic State, or ISIS, to the table.)
With the Trump administration now engaged in peace talks with the Taliban, such quibbles may look like a failure of imagination. One can look back on the experience of the past decade and conclude with some certainty that withdrawal or disengagement will deliver no better outcomes. So it makes sense to draw on a more distant past to chart a path out of the current predicament, even if that path is mildly utopian.
The problem, however, is not that the book’s historical analogy is overly ambitious or inapplicable; it is that the authors focus too much on European history and too little on Middle Eastern history. The book is at its best when it chronicles the interconnected conflicts that over time became conflated into the Thirty Years’ War and analyzes what enabled the arrangements of Westphalia to endure. But although it points out the parallels between premodern Europe and the contemporary Middle East almost to a fault, the book devotes only cursory attention to the conflicts that have roiled the Middle East in the modern era: the decades of strife between Arabs and Israelis, the ruinous war between Iran and Iraq, the insurgencies that over time have morphed into transnational terrorist movements. For a study that venerates history, the analysis is oddly ahistorical.
What the Middle East needs is not a Peace of Westphalia but its own Helsinki Accords.
The desultory attention to regional conditions compromises the book’s conclusions and recommendations. Historical precedents can illuminate, but prescriptions that do not take into account local experiences are unlikely to bear fruit. The suggestion that sectarian violence can be corralled through some kind of power-sharing arrangement fails to tackle the dysfunction and frictions that have been generated by these very kinds of confessional pacts in both Iraq and Lebanon. And although the Thirty Years’ War resembled the multifarious conflicts in the Middle East today in important ways, it emerged on a continent whose political customs were clearly different. The Holy Roman Empire depended on “a high degree of cooperation, consensus and the willingness to compromise on the part of its constituent political parts,” and even before the carnage of the war, early modern Europe had developed a “peace-oriented culture” in which “the most important actors viewed peace as the chief norm regulating inter-state relations.” It strains credulity to suggest that anything of the sort has yet emerged in the contemporary Middle East; rather, leaders in every major state in the region have demonstrated an existential reliance on the use of force.
Another, more serious drawback is the preoccupation with interstate remediation and the near-total disregard for the internal factors that contribute to instability in the region. The conflicts of the Middle East did not spring fully formed from confessional disputes or rivalries among regional powers; each theater has its own domestic drivers of instability, which are usually the result of governance failures. Addressing these factors by strengthening accountability and legitimacy within states rather than between them would help inoculate them against the instability that cultivates proxies and attracts regional predation in the first place. Otherwise, it is absurd to contemplate a “holistic new regional order of peaceful legality,” as Milton, Axworthy, and Simms propose, among states whose leaders have shown nothing but contempt for the rule of law.
The same slogan that unleashed the civil war in Syria—“The people want the downfall of the regime”—is now echoing in Algiers, Baghdad, Beirut, and beyond. This latest wave of dissent is undermining leaders’ authority and raising the specter of yet more instability. The ultimate resolution to the violence that afflicts the Middle East and ripples far beyond will require at least as much attention to the internal sources of conflict and the internal exercise of power as to the regional. Although the authors embrace a nuanced interpretation of Westphalia, their reverence for the mechanisms that helped achieve the peace in central Europe and institutionalize a stable interstate order predisposes them to favor grand-scale diplomatic ventures, which are inherently more difficult to sustain. An end to the “forever wars” in the Middle East will be delivered neither by the stroke of a pen on a pact among warring leaders nor through the United States’ military might. It will come rather through the power of engaged citizens demanding reform, buttressed by diplomatic engagement, technical assistance, and economic investment aimed at building coherent, responsive, and accountable governments in the region. What the Middle East needs today is not a Peace of Westphalia but its own version of the Helsinki Accords—a process that marries domestic political, social, and economic reforms with a regional security dialogue. Without such an effort and without the political will for peace among any of the major players, the long wars of the Middle East are likely to continue.