2015-11-21

Our bitching and moaning: Why the Middle East cannot have peace

In a nutshell: Terrorism and wars in the Middle East are not about Islam vs. the West. Instead, there cannot be peace in the Middle East as long as major world powers – the US and its allies on the one hand, and Russia on the other – have strong and opposite preferences about the price of oil; and of course, as long as the price is controlled by who has more influence over large oil producing countries.

It's easy to see ourselves as enlightened, and to perceive Middle Easterners as these backwards people with fundamentalist beliefs, who can't stop fighting each other and us, regardless of our "noble" attempts to "free" them. We try to "liberate" them from the Taliban, Hussein, and al-Assad – and they attack us!

Except we have never intervened in the Middle East to liberate; or to help build anyone's peaceful country. We only intervene to stir the shit, but secular values require peace to come about. As we stir shit, unrest and extremism prosper. After World War II, the Middle East had perfectly good trends towards democracy and secularism, and might have been peaceful and enlightened today. But then we helped!

We could bring peace to the Middle East if we invested into 30 years of governing and rebuilding each country. But that would be colonialism. So instead we shoot things up and leave. Preferably, from air.

We have our allies in the Middle East, one of which is Saudi Arabia. Just today, The Guardian wrote about how a Saudi court sentenced a poet to death for renouncing Islam. There is no shortage of this: just two months ago, they sentenced a young man to death by crucifixion for protesting the government.

Our allies in our war against terrorism. So much better than terrorists!

The explanation is not as clear-cut, or as favorable to us, as we would like. We are allies with Saudi Arabia because they help prop up the petro dollar; support our military presence in the Middle East; and are willing to sacrifice economically by helping the US and its allies. The price of gas at US pumps wouldn't be under $2 right now if the Saudi weren't pumping oil to sink the price, which costs them both in short-term revenue and long-term reserves. The official reason is to "protect global market share", which makes as little sense as it sounds. The price of oil is inelastic, so the supply only needs to be reduced by 1-3% for a 10% increase in price. But they can't exactly come out and say it's due to US pressure, or that a big reason is to clip the wings of Putin - whose strength is backed by Russian oil and gas exports, and who has been invading countries with whom the West would have wanted to be allies.

Why does the US want to topple al-Assad – a secular, but brutal dictator? To free the people? Or because he's allied with Russia, and provides their only Mediterranean base in the Syrian port of Tartus?

It's a geopolitical game in which you can't always pick all your friends if you're invested in the outcome. Saudi Arabia decapitates protesters, but they want to be our friend? Saudi Arabia is our friend now.

This pragmatism does not extend just to Saudi Arabia. Consider the endemic rape of young boys in Afghanistan, where the US army silently condones allied local men using young boys as sex slaves.

Of course, instead of all this screwing over the Middle East, which does nothing to liberate anyone, or to bring peace to any country, we could also invest in nuclear energy and renewables, to wean our Western economies from oil dependency. But that would require either not so much panic against nuclear power – because terrorism and wars in the Middle East are not better, but most people don't connect the two – or a breakthrough in energy storage, so that renewables could sustain constant power supply.

For example, the Germans will panic against nuclear energy, and force a plan to shut down all their nuclear plants. But they need energy from somewhere, and the Middle East controls the price of this energy. So then the entire Middle East is at war, and Germany has to accept Syrian refugees. And then they moan about the state of the world, and blame Americans, but fail to see that the refugees they're taking in are a not-so-indirect consequence of their opposition to nuclear power.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans will bitch and moan about nuclear plants requiring so much government investment, because Americans are individualist and everything must be privately run. But then they also blame Obama if the price at the gas pump is high. So Obama, like George W. before him, takes the full might of the US military to bear on the Middle East, and fixes global oil prices. And then Americans bitch and moan about the expense of paying for all this military.

We can have peace in the world. But first, we must come to terms with our want to push problems away. The attitudes "not with my tax dollars", and "not in my backyard", may seem to provide short-term relief. But in the long run, they only make big problems bigger. Not least our problem with climate – which has helped create the Syrian crisis.

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