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Column: Meddling in the Mideast Leads to Ethnic Strife

On the heels of al-Qaida’s 9-11 attacks on the U.S., neoconservatives in the George W. Bush administration believed that the establishment and spread of liberal democracy in the Middle East would counterbalance the alarming anti-American hostility of jihadists’ radical Islam. Not only would America become safe once again, they thought, but Israel’s security would be measurably strengthened.

When we invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq, it was clearly with the intention of creating democracies in those states, with the expectation that democracy would flourish and spread throughout the Islamic Middle East. Unfortunately, the neoconservatives implemented this policy without having the foggiest notion of whether or not it would work.

It didn’t. And to be completely honest, there were no real reasons to think that it would or should have worked. No, the neocons simply had it all wrong. Given a real choice, the people in the Islamic world will always choose the Koran, and that is no model for liberal democracy.

The Middle East is and always has been one vast array of uneasy, hostile, competing groups. In the past, that hostility has been kept pretty well under control by a long succession of powerful and repressive regimes that simply told the hostile parties that violence wouldn’t be tolerated. Thus the inherent tension and probability for violence among competing ethnic and sectarian groups was successfully suppressed for centuries by both native and occupying governments.

In addition, foreign conquerors, particularly Western colonialists, remade much of the region in their own image, creating new “nations” wherever they went. Unfortunately, they did so with absolutely no consideration of the existing ethnic and sectarian realities.

So, we ended up with “countries” such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Sudan, where the ethnic and sectarian rivalries and hostilities acquired permanence by their groupings within the boundaries of the new “states.”

While the divisions exist to some extent everywhere in the Middle East, Iraq is a glorious example of the ineptitude of the Westerners who created it in 1920. It contains Arabs hostile to Kurds and Sunnis hostile to Shiites. All of the groups have external supporters: The Sunnis have Saudi Arabia, the Shia have Iran, the Kurds have their brethren in Turkey, Syria and Iran, and the Iraqi Arabs have the Arab world.

In terms of its own stability, Iraq did perfectly well as long as it was governed by an authoritarian government. The inherent ethnic and sectarian hostilities that have existed for centuries, if not millennia, were kept in check by the armed power of a succession of central governments.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq for all the questionable reasons cited above. The net effect of that invasion was that the U.S. military replaced Saddam Hussein and his Baath government as the coercive force that kept internal hostilities under control. Except, of course, for the fact that we did not really understand the nuances of those relationships and didn’t do very well at that new job. When we announced our intention to withdraw from Iraq and then ceased hostilities there in 2011, Iraq was left for the first time in a long time with no referee. And sectarian violence has steadily increased since.

The same is true in much of the Middle East. The absence of those old undemocratic, repressive referees tamping down ages-old hostilities has led inexorably to increased ethnic and sectarian hostility. Across the Arab world from Mauritania to Oman, populations are challenging their existing repressive leadership, except that the goal of those people is not the establishment of democracy. It is self-determination, and in Islam that ranges from relatively benign Islamic governance to radical fundamentalism. Who knows, for example, what will happen in Syria, where what originally appeared to be a civil war against the Assad regime is looking more and more like a Shia-Sunni regional conflict with the involvement of Iran, Lebanon and Hezbollah.

In our naive belief that we could bring democracy to the Middle East, we set in motion a process that has no clear outcome — save for the eventuality of Islamic governance. Only time will tell whether that governance will be benign or repressive. Until then, we will most certainly see rising ethnic and sectarian conflict across the region, simply because the referees who once maintained a relative stability are now gone. Will the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the Shia rulers of Iraq be able to avoid the oncoming hostilities? For that matter, will there be stability anywhere in the region or are we heading for broader regional conflict?

We certainly have let Pandora out of her box!

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.