The Current Crisis in the Middle East and an Audacious Proposal to End It

ALEPPO, SYRIA - APRIL 09: Rebels of the Free Syrian Army prepare to engage government tanks that have advanced into Saraquib city on April 9, 2012 in Syria. Conitnuing violence in northern Syria between government forces and rebels is putting plans for a UN-brokered Syria ceasefire on Tuesday in jeopardy. (Photo by John Cantlie/Getty Images)



Remarks Presented by Valentine Moghadam at the Syria • ISIS • Middle East Violence • and the Next President Forum

Val Moghadam1st February 2016 at Suffolk University Law School

The crisis in the Middle East is not specific to the region but is in fact part of a larger, multi-faceted, hydra-headed global crisis consisting in environmental disasters, gross income inequalities, the persistence of poverty, unemployment, violent extremism, and enduring conflicts and wars. The varied aspects of the contemporary global crisis are related. For example, the recent case of water pollution and poisoning in Detroit is tied to the grotesque nature of income inequality in the United States, and government’s preference for huge military spending over infrastructural upgrading and development.  In the Middle East and North Africa region, the one positive case of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, Tunisia, is experiencing a crisis – including serious protests over high and rising unemployment – that is also linked to global dynamics. I will elaborate on Tunisia’s crisis in a moment. But first I want to say a few words about how our capitalist world-system generates such crises.

If the uneven distribution of surplus extraction, and hence income inequality, is intrinsic to capitalism, it is also a feature of the world capitalist system, where the surplus value from global commodity chains is similarly distributed unequally. The oil industry is a notorious example, in that the proceeds flow from periphery to center in at least three ways: from the Global South to the Global North, from oil enclaves in the Global South to Western corporations, and from the oil enclave of a particular global south country to the political and economic elites of that country. Think of Nigeria and of Saudi Arabia. Saudi oil has served as the personal wealth of the country’s monarchy and its numerous princes, and wealthy Saudis have used that wealth to fund the global spread of Wahhabism through the building of mosques, madrassas, and charities across the world.  Now they are using it to bomb the heck out of the poorest country in the region, Yemen – and in so doing creating yet more space for ISIS to grow.  

But you wouldn’t know this from reading the mainstream American press, with its obsession with Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Russia, and the like. Nor do you hear any criticism of Saudi behavior from US politicians, because as long as Saudi Arabia is buying US weapons and making its oil available to US corporations, there is nothing to complain about. Except for a little problem: extremists who were brought up in Saudi Arabia or bathed in Wahhabism elsewhere have been wreaking havoc across the globe – most recently in San Bernardino, California.  And recently they have turned their attention to Saudi Arabia. In turn, Saudi Arabia executes a large group of Sunni/Wahhabi “terrorists” and throws in a Shia cleric for good measure, or some weird notion of balance. Again, not a peep from the politicians; after all, Saudi Arabia spends about 15% of its GDP on the military, and the U.S. – along with the UK – is eager to remain the major recipient of those petrodollars.  

The US’s craven behavior toward Saudi Arabia is evident in the decision to change the visa waiver program and refuse admission to the US to those who travel to Iran – but not to Saudi Arabia, which produced 15 of the 9/11 terrorists, that murderous couple in San Bernardino, and numerous members, supporters and funders of ISIS. The US has spent millions – billions? – on democracy promotion in Cuba and Iran, but not in Saudi Arabia. 

The violent extremists have been proliferating for at least three decades, and Saudi Arabia is responsible to a great extent, but the United States is the main culprit here. Many commentators and scholars consider the US/UK invasion and occupation of Iraq as the tipping point in the spread of jihadism and the eruption of crisis in the Middle East, but I prefer to extend the analysis back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Jihadism was first supported by the U.S. in Afghanistan, where a tribal-Islamist rebellion fought a modernizing left-wing government, calling their rebellion a jihad. That particular jihad – also funded and supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait – generated Osama bin Laden (later responsible for the 9/11 attacks) and the pathologically violent Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who brutalized Shia Muslims in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion and occupation. Other jihadists – who had been encouraged by the so-called victory in Afghanistan or who were products of Saudi-funded Wahhabi extremists – went on to carry out attacks in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Somalia, Nigeria, France, England, Spain, India, Kenya, Tunisia, and elsewhere.  

In the 1980s, US policy-makers thought they could trust “their” jihadists in the battle against communism, and that the US alliance with Saudi Arabia was strategically smart, but “blowback” occurred with 9/11 and the other assaults in the 1990s and into the new century. Afghanistan today still lacks the literacy levels, modern infrastructure, and the social development of its neighbors. And the Taliban – who were supported by Pakistan – re-emerged in Afghanistan in 2006 and they continue to blow up schools and people there as well as in Pakistan.

If we can draw a direct line from the US support for the Afghan Mujahidin to 9/11, we can also draw a direct line from the US invasion of Iraq to the violent power of ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh, but this time via Western destabilization of the Libyan and Syrian regimes. Some have argued that ISIS was born in a US prison – al-Baghdadi and several of his partners in crime spent time there. But the broader context is more significant.

When the leaders of the US, France, and UK decided in 2011 that Ghaddafi had to go and that Assad had to go, their decision – quickly endorsed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf sheikhdoms – had the following effects: it encouraged the armed rebellions and jihadists in both countries, overthrew the Libyan state, created chaos and misery for the people of Libya and Syria, generated spillover effects in neighboring countries, produced the refugee crisis that EU countries are now confronted with, and allowed ISIS to blow up the cultural heritage of Syria, put a bomb on a Russian passenger plane, murder innocent Shia Muslims in Beirut, murder just as many ordinary citizens in Paris, and then turn their murderous attention to the people of Turkey.     

After all this, former CIA director James Woolsey had the unmitigated gall last November to blame Edward Snowden for the suffering in Paris, ludicrously claiming that Snowden “had blood on his hands” because his revelations led to restrictions on intelligence gathering. Woolsey was really trying to deflect blame from decades of wrong-headed US and European foreign policies onto poor Snowden. Meanwhile other pundits blame Assad for the rise of ISIS. This is not political or historical analysis, this is sheer propaganda.

Here’s a question for you: Why do regimes that support violent extremists think they are immune from the violence of those extremists? The U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia variously supported the Mujahideen or the Taliban, and the jihadists later turned their assaults on their previous benefactors. The U.S. supported the armed rebels in Libya, and shortly after Ghaddafi’s gruesome killing at the hands of U.S.-supported Islamists, the American ambassador and three other Americans were themselves killed in “liberated” Benghazi. Similarly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia supported Islamists extremists fighting the Assad regime in Syria, and more recently have become victims themselves. Why do these regimes never learn from past mistakes (or shall we call them crimes)?      

Here’s another question: What have the “war on terror” and all the invasions, occupations, drone attacks, the NATO adventure in Libya, attempts to dislodge the Assad regime, and the non-resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict brought about other than civilian deaths, the unraveling of development, and more recruits for violent extremism? How have gigantic military expenditures benefited societal security, sustainability, and well-being, when what is really needed is reallocation of resources toward investments here at home in affordable healthcare and housing, decent jobs with decent wages, quality public schooling, affordable university education, and infrastructural upgrading? Why do the US and UK prioritize military sales to countries like Saudi Arabia rather than development assistance to, and socially responsible investment in, peaceful and democratizing countries like Tunisia?

Tunisia’s Achievements and Travails

Tunisia’s uprising in early January 2011 was generated by years of growing income inequality, the persistence of poverty, rising commodities prices, and high unemployment – all of which were exacerbated by the 2008 global recession. For reasons I have explained elsewhere, Tunisia was the one country with the human and organizational resources – including a large middle class of women, men, and young people with democratic aspirations, a strong and left-leaning trade union, prominent feminist organizations, and a number of historic left-wing political parties – that could bring about a democratic transition.  The majority’s desire for a strong welfare state and expansive social rights found expression in the constitution that was adopted in January 2014, such as the following from Chapter 2 of the Tunisian constitution, in the section titled “Rights and Liberties”:

  • “Contribution to a sound climate and the right to a sound and balanced environment shall be guaranteed. The state shall provide the necessary means to eliminate environmental pollution.” The state is also given custody over ensuring the “conservation and rational use of water” as one of its duties.
  • “Health is a right for every person” and the state shall “guarantee preventative health care and treatment for every citizen and provide the means necessary to ensure the safety and good quality of health services.” The constitution promises “free health care for those without support and those with limited income.”
  • The right to form trade unions is guaranteed along with the right to strike (except for the army and security services). The constitution promises that all citizens, male and female alike, shall “have the right to adequate working conditions and to a fair wage.”

Elsewhere, the Constitution stipulates that:

  • “The State shall commit to protecting women’s achieved rights and seek to support and develop them. … The State shall guarantee equal opportunities between men and women in the bearing of all the various responsibilities in all fields. … The state shall take the necessary measure to eliminate violence against women.”


Tunisia’s constitution received accolades across the world. Sharan Burrow, the general-secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) called it a “historic moment for the country and the region as a whole.”  Acknowledging the pivotal role of the UGTT in averting political crisis in the summer of 2013 and helping the constituent assembly to complete its work, she added: “I would like to congratulate the UGTT for the key role it has played in reaching this crucial milestone on the road to democracy and respect for fundamental rights.”[1] (Recall that the UGTT, along with three other civil society organizations – UTICA, the Human Rights League, and the lawyers’ association – received the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their role in averting the political crisis of summer 2013 and mediating between the government and the secular/left-wing opposition.)

However, putting the constitution into practice through policies and laws that provide citizens with social rights has been difficult to achieve because of fiscal constraints. The financial support pledged by G8 countries at the May 2011 donor conference in Deauville, France, never appeared.[2] In addition, the economic consequences of terrorist attacks, notably the 2015 assaults on foreign tourists, along with the collapse of neighboring Libya, have undermined the country’s normally lucrative tourism industry.  Foreign investment remains unlikely in an untoward security situation. Is it any wonder, then, that Tunisians have been protesting the lack of jobs?  

Our world?system is broken, the core countries are in disarray, and the hegemon can no longer lead, much less inspire. We need another world, one where conflicts, wars, and hyper-masculine rivalries can no longer be generated by arrogant powers; a new globalization, people-oriented rather than profit-oriented; a world where citizens can live in peace, dignity, and prosperity in their own countries rather than be forced to flee whether as refugees from conflict or as economic migrants from unemployment or poverty, begging rich countries to let them in.  

But here is another question to ponder. The U.S. is responsible for so much of the crisis in the Middle East, because its Afghan policy in the 1980s and early 1990s helped spawn radical jihadism and because its actions in the new century destroyed once-stable countries: Iraq, Libya, and Syria, while its crony ally, Saudi Arabia, has all but destroyed Yemen. The U.S.’s uncritical support for Israel has resulted in more Israeli settlements on the West Bank and more misery for the Palestinian people. Is the solution, then, to demand that the U.S. simply “come back home”, as it were, and leave the Middle East to its own devices? Should we not, instead, demand that the U.S. clean up its mess? How it does so, of course, is the devil in the details. To me, it would entail the following.

Some Audacious Proposals

First, the U.S. would beef up its diplomatic efforts to help bring about peace talks to end the turmoil in Syria; if this means compelling its allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, to end support for the rebels in Syria by withholding the sale of arms, it would be a small price to pay to help stop the spread of violence and terrorism. Rather than bombing presumed ISIS locations in Syria, the U.S. would immediately end all support for the armed rebels (including the so-called moderates) and ensure that its regional cronies did the same, in order that the Syrian government can itself deal with ISIS and other jihadists. (Let’s hope that the International Syria Support Group – which includes the Arab League, the EU, US, Russia, China, and Iran – will carry out its work successfully, and that Saudi Arabia and its jihadist beneficiaries do not sabotage the Geneva peace talks.)   

Second, the U.S. would send John Kerry to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to end the hostility between the two countries and to point out that the common enemy, ISIS, requires cooperation and not competition among countries in the region. (Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote words to that effect in a recent op-ed.) Saudi Arabia also should receive a very strong warning against any attempt to build up a nuclear sector.

Third, the Obama administration would support the mediation of Oman and work with Russia, China, and other Security Council members to pass a resolution calling for a halt to all armed interventions and hostilities in the Middle East region (including Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen).  This is especially important so that any new hawkish American government could not undo the peace or resume the arming of rebels. At the same time, American citizen groups would pressure the government to prevent any sale of arms to states or non-state actors bent on fomenting chaos in the region.

Fourth, the US and EU would create a “democratic growth and development” fund for Tunisia, exceeding the amount promised in Deauville, and with no conditions attached for how the government would use the fund.

In all cases, citizen groups would pressure the US government to do the right thing for once and pursue strategies for peace and development rather than endless capital accumulation, profit-making, and arms production and sales.

Let me end with my “variation on a theme” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, famous I Have a Dream speech: All countries would reduce their military spending to under 2% of GDP while increasing their budgets for healthcare, public education, and social provisioning. Diplomacy, dialogue, and cooperation would replace rivalry and aggression. International development assistance would increase to 1% of GDP, and the “Tobin Tax” on financial speculation would finally be implemented, contributing toward a Global Peace and Development Fund. Working mothers would be entitled to paid maternity leave of one year, followed by affordable and quality childcare and pre-school. Religious studies would be taught at high school and a second language taught from primary school onward so that youth would acquire cross?cultural competence earlier in their lives. And all countries would meet the Sustainable Development Goals, whether through their own budget allocations or through the Global Peace and Development Fund.  

Imagining another world is not an exercise in futility – it is a necessity, given the various crises our world has been facing. We need to imagine a world in which peace and cooperation, human security, human development, and human rights are paramount.

[1] Tunisia: ITUC welcomes new constitution, a “crucial milestone” on the road to democracy 01/29/2014

[2] Interviews in Tunis, March 2015. For information on the donor pledge, see