The Middle East is a complicated mess, Robert Olson explained to Frankfort’s United Nations Association chapter Monday night at Paul Sawyier Public Library. But everyone already knows that – particularly with the recent killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Olson, however, explained how it was complicated and messy in surprising ways, and how he says America has made things worse. And he didn’t shy away from airing politically controversial views about U.S. foreign policy.
In addition to religion, Olson said the unrest in the Middle East centers largely on the classic forces of wealth and power, particularly the region-wide battle between the two largest Muslim sects, Sunni and Shia.
“It’s like the Catholic-Protestant wars, it was basically about money, wasn’t it?” asked Olson, a retired University of Kentucky professor, prolific writer and Middle East analyst based in Lexington.
Sunnis make up the vast majority of Muslims worldwide and in the Middle East. The only large Shia-majority nations are Iraq and Iran, and the West is in bitter dispute with Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Yet the U.S., in one of several foreign policy moves Olson described as unwise, brought Iraq’s Shia majority to power during the war, ending 1,500 years of Sunni rule and giving Iran an ideological ally.
Olson also said due to the Iraq War, the Kurdish people, whom Saddam Hussein infamously gassed as part of a genocidal campaign, were able to establish their own quasi-state in northern Iraq.
But that has bolstered the separatist Kurdish movement in southeastern Turkey, where there is talk of creating an independent Kurdish state by joining with Iraq’s northern Kurds and the Kurds in northern Syria, who are helping fuel the civil war there.
“A lot of Americans don’t realize that the situation in Syria so vitally affects the Kurdish question, which so vitally affects Iraq, which of course affects Turkey very much and also Iran,” Olson said, explaining that the aftermath of the Iraq War in this way threatens the stability of Turkey, a strong U.S. ally often held up as the model of democracy in the Middle East.
Olson said he doesn’t think either the United States or Israel will strike Iran to stop its weapons program. He said he sympathizes with a currently unpopular view: Why not just let Iran build a bomb?
“Who is Iran going to bomb? Israel?” Olson asked. “Israel has 300 nuclear weapons, hydrogen weapons, neutron weapons, missiles that can be launched from submarines all over.”
Regardless, Israel, a nation of 6 million, should not be able to “wag the tail” of the United States, a country of more than 300 million, during a presidential election, he continued. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently pressured President Barack Obama to place more support behind a military strike on Iran.
Olson said it was also unsurprising that Libya did not have enough security to protect the American ambassador, seeing as the military was basically destroyed by the Western-backed overthrow of dictator Muammar el-Gaddafi.
A visual tour
With the aid of a map, Olson took his listeners on a tour of the Middle East, explaining how the popular uprisings collectively known as the Arab Spring have affected each nation involved.
“The revolution has not gone the way that many people in the West thought,” Olson said. “It’s probably closer to what many people in the Middle East, especially, Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, thought.
Formerly American-backed secular strongmen have been replaced by Islamist regimes – meaning political parties infused with religious ideology, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Olson noted said the governments in Yemen and Libya that were overthrown were Marxist. Syria, which is currently fighting an uprising, has a secular government.
“Compare that to all the allies of the United States: All very conservative, zealous, extraordinarily conservative regimes from the point of view of ideology,” Olson said. The religious monarchies of the region – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco – have all stood firm during the Arab Spring and are U.S. allies.
“In Kentucky we really like all these people because they buy a lot of horses,” Olson said. “We support Saudi Arabia even though Saudi Arabia is where all the Islamist movements have started.”
Olson said it is understandable that the current uprisings are infused with religion – part of what he dubbed “Islamo-nationalism” – because the ideologies behind past uprisings, like Marxism and pan-Arabism, have largely been deemed failures. He said it was rare for religion-infused political system to ever become less authoritarian.
He said freer economic policies in countries like Egypt have fed uprisings by promoting wealth inequality, and a seven-year drought in southern Syria has fed the civil war there.
In all, he painted a portrait of a changing Middle East that, for various reasons, is not boding well for the United States. Olson said this was part of the larger context of America’s decline as world power – a trend that, politically, Olson said was almost untouchable, because it cuts at the core beliefs of American exceptionalism and optimism.
But, on the bright side, waning power in the Middle East may not be such a bad thing. Olson noted that some believe the United States will be independent from Middle East oil within eight years.
“It raises the question: If oil has been the most important thing for the last 65 years, and it no longer is that significant in 10 years… then is the United States still going to spend a trillion, one thousand billion, a year on weapons and so forth to control the oil?”
The session was taped by Cable 10 and will be aired at a date to be announced.