The NIC of time


The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has just published its fifth long-term prognostication, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. This is an officially sponsored guessing game, but much of what government does has long lead times, so long-term projections need to be made by somebody.

By their nature, these hedged predictions say as much about present politics as future probabilities. One prediction (p. 71) is particularly striking, touching as it does on the drivers of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world:

Although al-Qa’ida and others have focused on the United States [as] a clear enemy, the appeal of the United States as the “great enemy” is declining. The impending withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and decreases in US forces in Afghanistan help to reduce the extent to which terrorists can draw on the United States as a lightning rod for anger. Soon, US support for Israel could be the last remaining major focus of Muslim anger.

It’s a peculiar assessment. After all, when al-Qa’ida attacked the United States on 9/11, there were no US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks undoubtedly did resonate in the Muslim world, and that couldn’t have been the result of an American boots-on-the-ground presence in the region. So what drove anti-Americanism back then? Is there a suggestion here that US support for Israel was already the “major focus”? What about American support for authoritarian regimes? We are told again and again how deeply Muslims have resented such support, and they could resent it even more in 2030, should the oil-saturated monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf last that long.

And what happened to the assessments in past reports, which cited “globalization” as the source of Muslim anger against the West in general, and the United States in particular? The report issued in 2000, anticipating 2015, offered this: “Popular resentment of globalization as a Western intrusion will be widespread. Political Islam in various forms will be an attractive alternative for millions of Muslims throughout the region, and some radical variants will continue to be divisive social and political forces.” Right on the mark, as evidenced by events unfolding before our eyes. Why isn’t such “intrusion” likely to continue to inflame the Muslim world?

Such resentment has a long history, and so does its neglect by Western analysts. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his 1922 book The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilisations, offered a striking allegory to illustrate the West’s effect upon the East:

Savages are distressed at the waning of the moon and attempt to counteract it by magical remedies. They do not realise that the shadow which creeps forward till it blots out all but a fragment of the shining disc, is cast by their world. In much the same way we civilised people of the West glance with pity or contempt at our non-Western contemporaries lying under the shadow of some stronger power, which seems to paralyse their energies by depriving them of light. Generally we are too deeply engrossed in our own business to look closer, and we pass by on the other side—conjecturing (if our curiosity is sufficiently aroused to demand an explanation) that the shadow which oppresses these sickly forms is the ghost of their own past. Yet if we paused to examine that dim gigantic overshadowing figure standing, apparently unconscious, with its back to its victims, we should be startled to find that its features are ours…

It is difficult for us to realise the profound influence on the East which we actually, though unconsciously, exercise… and the relationship described in my allegory cannot permanently continue. Either the overshadowing figure must turn its head, perceive the harm that unintentionally it has been doing, and move out of the light; or its victims, after vain attempts to arouse its attention and request it to change its posture, must stagger to their feet and stab it in the back.

The attacks of 9/11 were just such a stab in the back, and the confusion that ensued over Muslim enthusiasm for them arose precisely from America’s failure to grasp how thoroughly its revolutionary example undermines traditional orders everywhere. Where Toynbee erred, of course, was in his assumption that the West could simply “move out of the light,” thus liberating those in its shadow. No doubt there are still those who believe that if only we were to stand aside or step back, our profile would diminish, and with it the resentment against us. It was the historian and political thinker Elie Kedourie—a relentless critic of Toynbee as historian and seer—who added the necessary refinement.

In his view, the damaging effect of the West upon the East had nothing to do with what the West did. It was an inevitable effect of what the West was, and no amount of sidestepping or backtracking could mitigate the consequences. The West, Kedourie asserted, “cannot help being what it is. By the very fact of its existence, it was a destabilizing force for the Middle East.” And he employed a different allegory: “Someone who has influenza is not really responsible for the fact that someone else catches his disease.” The West could not be blamed for being what it is: the carrier of an aggressive virus that ravages all traditions.

So the suggestion in the NIC report, that Muslim anger against the United States might soon be reduced to a kernel of resentment over US support for Israel, is a species of wishful thinking. The United States will continue to infect the Muslim world, even if its willingness or ability to project hard power declines. The so-called “Arab Spring,” which is so often hailed as the product of indigenous processes, is in fact an inflammation produced by the most contagious of all viruses: the idea of freedom, now linked inseparably to American-style democracy. As long as Muslim societies remain internally divided over freedom and democracy, there will be governments and factions that will stoke hatred of America. In some places, American flags will be waved, but in others American embassies will be burned. In either case, the United States will be regarded, favorably or unfavorably, as the grinding wheel of change in the world.

There is another odd assertion in the report (p. 75):

Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have dramatic consequences for the region over the next two decades. For Israel, a permanent resolution to the conflict could open the door to regional relationships unthinkable today. The end of Palestinian conflict would provide a strategic setback to Iran and its resistance camp and over time undermine public support for militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas.

This is the myth of linkage, and it echoes almost precisely a claim made by President Obama when he was still a candidate in 2008. “All these issues are connected,” Obama said.

If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region.

This thesis (the theatrical NIC version reads like “New Middle East” circa 1995) seems less persuasive with each passing month, as many other “dramatic consequences” unfold, eclipsing or competing with the long-running Israel-Palestine show. The reassertion of linkage here is thoroughly political. It is not a measured assessment, but it is the sort of statement that stands a chance of being echoed by a high administration official, if not by the President himself. And it draws rebuttals from people like me—which helps to keep the NIC, a poor cousin to the agencies that deal in hard intelligence, in the limelight and on a budget line. After all, this was an agency that the Obama administration first thought to entrust to the ministrations of Chas Freeman (click here in case you’ve forgotten). That wasn’t exactly a token of high regard for the institution.

But if one really does believe in linkage, and in the “dramatic consequences” that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would have for the region, why not reverse it? If such an agreement promises to be so transformative, shouldn’t its pursuit justify delivering hammer blows to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, to keep them from obstructing it? The linkage thesis has dual uses—and abuses—which make it the favorite concept behind all sorts of reductionist approaches to the Middle East. It’s a pity to see it surface in a report that pretends to nuance and sophistication.

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