Bracing for the "New" Middle East

February 1, 2012

Dr. Ron Hatchett’s upcoming class, “The Middle East: Land of Turmoil or Land of Promise?“, immerses us in the history and politics of today’s Middle East and provides the context for current events, including “Arab Spring.”  As a former senior civilian official in the Department of Defense and Middle East analyst in the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, Dr. Hatchett has a unique perspective on the Middle East and its continuing effect on America’s interests.
WIH Reporter: What is crucial for us to know about the new Middle East? 

Hatchett: The events transpiring there must be viewed in the context of the culture and history of the peoples of that region, and not by American or European values.  For example, we may see the process underway in Syria as a struggle between lovers of democracy and those trying to preserve authoritarianism, but the Syrian turmoil is heavily influenced by the centuries-old struggle between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. In a broader sense, what we see as a democratic movement sweeping through the region is actually more of a trend to replace secular, western-friendly regimes with more traditional Islamic-based governments.

WIH Reporter: What effect does this have on Israel’s position? 

Hatchett: Israel is following the trends in the region with a sober eye.  They see the rise of more fundamentalist, less western-friendly regimes as a threat to their security. This is why you don’t see Israeli officials or media showering praise on the “Arab spring.” Relations with Egypt will definitely change, despite the public assurances of the Egyptian military government that Egypt will honor its treaty obligations with Israel.  Israeli military commanders openly talk about the need to beef up Israel’s capability to fight a two-front war again. 

WIH Reporter: What effect does this have on the Palestinian position? 

Hatchett: The new regimes coming to power in the Arab world will most likely step up their support for “Palestinian rights.” Even the so-called moderate Islamist government of Turkey (whose ruling Justice and Development Party has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood movement currently dominating the political scene in Egypt) has evoked this trend, threatening to send Turkish warships to escort aid ships to Palestinians in Gaza to prevent Israeli interception. This coincides with more vocal support for the “Palestinian cause” internationally, especially in Europe. The result is that Israel and the United States may become more and more isolated on the issue of Palestine and face not only political pressure, but perhaps military challenges as well in the near future. Palestine is the one issue that is capable of forging cooperation between Shia-dominated Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors.

WIH Reporter: Is there hope for real change?

Hatchett: Despite the trends now underway, there is hope that real change is possible in this critical part of the world. As interaction between the world’s peoples intensifies via globalization, the under-30 generation in the Middle East (which makes up nearly 50% of the population in many countries of the area) may embrace values more compatible with ours. So in the long run – two or three years from now – the type of democratic movement we hope for may begin to sweep the region. But in the near term, the big winners of the change now underway are those promoting a return to “traditionally Islamic values” and advocating less cooperation with the West, especially the United States. 

WIH Reporter: What about the U.S. reaction?

Hatchett: How the U.S. reacts to the trends underway will be a critical factor in the stability of the region. We obviously encourage the spread of democracy and self-determination, even if in the near term this could cause problems for our foreign  policy. But we are making clear that our country too has interests in this region that are vital: the security of Israel and uninterrupted access to the region’s energy supplies. Leaders of both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have made clear that if either of these vital interests is threatened, we will act, including using military force. We can only hope that the leaders of all factions in the Middle East take heed. 

Ron Hatchett’s class takes place on Wednesday afternoons from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m . starting February 1, 2012. For more information on this class, click here.