The recent fall of Fallujah to an al Qaeda-linked group provides an unwelcome reminder of the American resources and lives devoted from 2004 to 2007 to control the city — all that effort expended and nothing to show for it. Similarly, outlays of hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize Afghanistan did not stop its reversion to public stoning as a punishment for adultery.
These two examples point to a larger conclusion: Maladies run so deep in the Middle East (minus remarkable Israel) that outside powers cannot remedy them. Here’s a fast summary:
Water is running out. A dam going up on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia threatens to substantially cut Egypt’s main water supply by devastating amounts for years. Syria and Iraq suffer from water crises because the Euphrates and Tigris rivers are drying up. The narcotic qat plant absorbs so much of Yemen’s limited water supplies that Sana’a may be the first modern capital city to be abandoned because of drought. Crazy wheat-growing schemes in Saudi Arabia depleted aquifers.
On the flip side, the poorly constructed Mosul Dam in Iraq could collapse, drowning half a million immediately and then leave many more stranded without electricity or food. Sewage runs rampant in Gaza. Many countries suffer from electrical blackouts, especially in the oppressive summer heat that routinely reaches 120 degrees.
People are also running out. After experiencing a huge and disruptive youth bulge, the region’s birthrate is collapsing. Iran, for example, has undergone the steepest population decline of any country ever recorded, going from 6.6 births per woman in 1977 to 1.6 births in 2012, thus creating what one analyst calls an “apocalyptic panic,” fueling government aggression.
Vast reserves of oil and gas have distorted nearly every aspect of life. Miniature medieval-style monarchies such as Qatar become surreal world powers playing at war in Libya and Syria, indifferent to the lives they break, as a vast underclass of oppressed foreign workers toils away and a princess deploys the largest budget for art purchases in human history. The privileged can indulge their cruel impulses, protected by connections and money. Sex tourism flourishes in poor countries such as India.
Efforts at democracy and political participation either wither, as in Egypt, or elevate fanatics, who intelligently disguise their purposes, as in Turkey. Efforts to overthrow greedy tyrants lead either to yet-worse ideological tyrants (as in Iran in 1979) or to anarchy (as in Libya and Yemen). One commonly roots for both sides to lose. The rule of law remains a Fata Morgana.
Islamism, currently the most dynamic and threatening political ideology, is summed up by a morbid Hamas declaration to Israelis: “We love death more than you love life.” Polygyny, burqas, genital mutilation and honor killing make Middle Eastern women the world’s most oppressed.
Middle Eastern life suffers from acute biases — often official — based on religion, sect, ethnicity, tribe, skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, citizenship, work and disability. Slavery remains a scourge.
Conspiracy theories, political zealotry, resentment, repression, anarchy and aggression rule the region’s politics. Modern notions of the individual remain weak in societies where primordial bonds of family, tribe and clan remain dominant.
The Middle East uniquely suffers from an urge to snuff out whole countries. Israel is the best-known potential victim, but Kuwait actually disappeared for a half-year, while Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain could be swallowed up at any time.
Middle Eastern states spend outsized amounts of their wealth on intelligence services and their militaries, creating redundant forces to check each other. They venture abroad to buy tank, ship and airplane baubles. They devote inordinate resources to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and the platforms to deliver them. Even terrorist groups such as al Qaeda plot to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Cutting-edge methods of terrorism are developed in the Middle East.
Economic and political failure creates large bodies of refugees. Afghans have made up the world’s largest refugee population since the 1980s, but Syrians now threaten to overtake them, bringing poverty and chaos to their lands of refuge. Desperate souls attempt to leave the region altogether for Western countries, with more than a few dying along the way, and those who make it bring their region’s maladies to such orderly countries as Sweden and Australia.
Nineteenth-century diplomats dubbed the Ottoman Empire “the sick man of Europe.” Now I nominate the whole Middle East as the “sick man of the world.” The region’s hatreds, extremism, violence and despotism will require many decades to remedy.