- - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

On Dec. 9, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on how to defeat ISIS. Most arguments were centered on military solutions. But ISIS is an internal response to purely homegrown problems. An American military incursion may destroy ISIS militarily. However, the forces that led to its birth will remain unchanged, and other ISIS-like organizations will crop up with the same anger and brutality. What is missing is an active American political and diplomatic approach to the problem.

Public discontent in the Arab world is the precursor of major social and political upheavals. The process will be violent, destructive and long-lasting, and the carnage will also engulf the oil-rich Arab nations. That is what happens after long periods of oppression.

The Arab countries’ continually rising fanaticism is the consequence of decades-long political, social and economic stagnation. This growing extremism is an upshot of a region-wide struggle for popular participation in those countries’ political, social and economic benefits, the fruits of which presently belong exclusively to small elites.

The forces underlying today’s situation were set in motion by the end of the colonial era after World War II, when the the departing colonialists helped to power local leaders who had served them. With the colonial security apparatus gone, local leaders had to construct their own power structure. They decided to modernize their governing systems — but only as management tools to strengthen their grip on power and help them permanently keep their peoples under control. Human rights, pluralistic institutions, freedom of expression and an independent judiciary were abhorrent to them. They discovered that a truncated modern system — divorced from the socio-political and legal elements of Western-style democracies — was ideal for their purpose. This mutilated structure helped centralize decision-making in the hands of the governing elites and tightened their bureaucratic grip over the population.

To reinforce their hold on power, Arab leaders introduced central economic planning in their countries. Besides preventing private enterprise from spreading among larger sections of the population, economic centralization concentrated economic activity in the hands of small elites, making the ruling classes enormously rich. But their fabulous fortunes did not benefit national economies. Lacking confidence in their own future, they deposited their wealth abroad.

For decades, small elites controlled the political and economic life of their nations. This unquestioned authority exercised by a few brought about pervasive corruption and nepotism. In time, this led to political, social and economic stagnation, dividing rulers and the ruled into two hostile camps.

As troubling as the religious aspect of this deadly fight is, religion is neither its main cause nor its ultimate object. And the sectarian divide is a side effect of the rebellion for political and economic access. Searching for the right philosophical model, Arab oppositions, angered by Western democracies siding with their elites, turned to communism for guidance. When the Soviet Union disintegrated and lost its ability to offer political and material support, the partnership ceased.

Having abandoned the secular world for acceptance and assistance, Arab oppositions turned to religion for justification of their actions. The longer their struggle lasted, the more extreme their religious orientation and sectarian hostilities grew. ISIS is the latest and most fanatical manifestation of this process.

The Arab Spring has shown that the internal political situation in the Arab world is locked in a sequence of violence and counter-violence. The rulers unleash their uniformed forces upon their own people to hold on to power. The opposition pushes for change regardless of cost and means. In this process, the opposition has increasingly retreated to radical positions. The brutality ISIS displays is the most savage form of this deadly and destructive progression.

Before sending combat troops to that region, American policymakers should think in historic terms and try to find the root causes of what transpires in the Arab world. Otherwise, the dilemma will endlessly repeat itself in one form or another, in one country or the other.

America has always preferred the preservation of the status quo in those countries. This policy was justified during the Cold War, when the free world faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union and the two superpowers vied for support among the rest of the world. But after communism collapsed and the Soviet Union disintegrated, America’s near-universal support for third world dictatorships became unnecessary and — as the situation in the Arab world demonstrates — counterproductive.

As a global power, America has no choice but to engage with the Arab world. However, a better approach would be to combine military plans with a proactive political and diplomatic strategy opening channels of communication with the oppositions in those countries, steering them toward democratization and conduct more in line with ethical norms of the 21st Century.

In the absence of such a policy, the U.S. will find itself fighting a host of ISIS-like phenomena for years to come, thereby also making itself a target for terrorist attacks.

Nasir Shansab is a businessman, author and expert on Afghanistan/U.S. relations. A leading industrialist in Afghanistan before fleeing political persecution in 1975, he received asylum in 1980 from the U.S., where he now resides.


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