Unraveling the Middle East mess

Former analyst doesn’t shy from controversial views in talk

By Ryan Quinn Published:

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.

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  • There is a book entitled the Arab Lobby (don't know the author off the top of my head). You might be interested in reading how aggressive that lobby has been in this country since before the creation of Israel and, of course, opposed creation of the State and promoted the attack on Israel from all Arab countries in 1948. The Arab Lobby is as big and as aggressive. They just work more covertly. And they, too, make lawmakers and this President "jump" for their issues.

  • Olsen is right, as current event have shown. Israeli officials have apparently been engaged in an aggressive public relations offensive to broaden support for a military attack on Iran, with particular emphasis on American audiences. Israel’s strategy conference last week in Herzliya, a Tel Aviv suburb, has featured highly publicized speeches by many Israeli officials. ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ The Obama administration has also bolstered the U.S. military presence in the Gulf region as a bulwark against Iran. “With an eye on the threat of a belligerent Iran,” the New York Times reported in October, “the administration is also seeking to expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.” In addition to all of this, the U.S. has been engaged in extensive covert operations against Iran including funding dissident groups that aim to undermine the regime, cyber-terrorism, commercial sabotage, and targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Despite all of this overt and covert aggression, Israelis are not satisfied, continuing to push for war. ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................But Israel is not unanimous on the issue. So Bibi had a temper tantrum. Israel has been the tail that wags the dog for decades but Obama is not going along. About a week ago The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told reporters in London that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would not stop their program and would do more harm than good. This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Bibi would not be getting his red line. Now Bibi demands a meeting with Obama and is told it can’t be scheduled on such short notice. ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................. Over at The American Conservative Scott McConnell thinks Bibi Needs a “Time-Out” Bibi’s having a meltdown, it looks like. First General Martin Dempsey, and then Hillary have told him that the United States will deal with Iran’s nuclear program according to its own timetable, and in accordance with its own national interests. President Obama was apparently put off Bibi’s request for a meeting in September. A scheduling issue, the two won’t be in New York (for the UN General Assembly) at the same time. The White House calmy noted that top administration officials, like Hillary, will be available to meet with Bibi. This is big news in Israel, and for sure was used by Romney: trying to talk Israel out of starting a destructive war, or refusing the demand that America fight its war for it, was portrayed as “throwing Israel under the bus.” Noam Sheizaf of the indispensable Israeli website 972 analyzes the faceoff here. ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ As McConnell points out Israel is used to seeing that when it says jump the U.S. President says how high – the tail wagging the dog. But Obama refuses to jump.

  • to anonymous.....the fact that Olson implies that Israel is forcing the hand of our country ("wagging the tail") is a veiled insult to Israel. You will remember that Israel restrained itself from striking Iraq when George H. Bush attacked Kuwait. This restraint was while scuds were being shot into the Israel civilian population. Olson implies it's no big deal that Iran might bomb Israel. How would the U.S. feel if he spoke such nonsense about us -- with all of the weaponry we possess. I could go on but will practice restraint myself!

  • Religious fundamentalism is the main problem in the Middle East, as all social unrest issues can be tied to it in one way or another. You don't have to be anti-Israel to figure that out...you just have to have a brain. For that matter, religious fundamentalism is the main problem in the US too. ........................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................I have done my homework, so what specifically is Mr. Olson saying that is "misleading" and not a fact? Something? Anything?

  • I took a class under Mr. Olson at U of K. He is anti-Israel and anti-Jewish, and I debated him lots of times about his biased views in teaching about the Middle East. I see that he is, sadly, still up to his old tricks of slanting the truth his way. I would encourage anyone reading this article to do your homework. Don't be misled by this man.