Can the Arab East overcome the mess in which it finds itself?


Washington watch

As someone who polls Arab public opinion, I have long been a fan of the 1919 King-Crane Commission created by President Woodrow Wilson to assess how the peoples of the Arab East wanted to be governed after World War I. world. The British and French had their sights set on the Arab East, but Wilson, although arch-segregationist at home, declared that the newly liberated Arabs had to shape their own destiny and that any post-war agreement regarding “territory [or] sovereignty [should be determined on] the basis of the free acceptance of this regulation by the persons immediately concerned”.

Wilson therefore sent a team led by two prominent Americans to conduct the first-ever survey of Arab public opinion. They traveled throughout the Arab East, receiving petitions from thousands of organizations and meeting with hundreds of political, religious, cultural and social groups. The results were clear: over 80% wanted the entire region to receive independence as a unified state and over 85% rejected the British/Zionist proposal to separate Palestine from ‘Greater Syria’.

King-Crane concluded that imposing a colony that would violate the will of the people would generate massive resistance. Not only was it the first Arab opinion poll, but like many polls that were to follow, its findings on Arab opinion were ignored, with disastrous consequences.

The British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, famously replied to King-Crane: “We do not even propose to consult the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…” the colonial game – were not discouraged. Instead of independence, the Arab East was dismembered, carved into separate “states” under British and French control. Regimes and systems of governance were imposed, resistance was violently crushed and a century of instability followed. Instead of understanding their paternity, the West blamed their victims, saying violence and instability were endemic to the Arab world.

I have been on vacation for two weeks. Unlike previous years, this time I cut myself off from work. Over the past few days, I’ve caught up with two weeks of news about depressing and familiar developments unfolding (or not) in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine/Israel, and Iraq.

While the West bears the responsibility for dismembering and distorting the political development of the Arab East, the Arabs cannot continue to blame its failures on the machinations of others. It is time for Arabs to take their destiny into their own hands and develop a vision that unites and inspires citizens to free themselves from the chains of bigotry, corruption, extremism and defeatism. Otherwise, after next year’s holidays and those after, I will read the same articles on the same problems.

Lebanon, still on the brink of collapse, cannot form a fully functioning government because sectarian elites seem determined to suck the last bit of marrow from the country’s dying bones. The sectarian standoff, imposed by Hezbollah threats, impedes accountability for past crimes and has led to shortages of basic services, fuel, food and cash. Even if the Lebanese succeed in taking control of the gas fields in the Mediterranean, they have legitimate fears of a power grab by sectarian elites who will divert the profits to serve their own interests and not those of the country.

Syria is still at war with itself, with Russian, Iranian, Turkish and American interests colliding and sometimes colluding in different combinations over the future of the tragic mess they (and the brutal Assad regime ) all helped create. As this game of nations continues to play out, millions of Syrians remain destitute, either internally displaced or as refugees fearful of returning to their homes.

Iraq is crippled, due to the “genius” of the Americans whose “gift” to the Iraqi people was to emulate the sectarian system of governance created by France and which proved so disastrous for Lebanon. Although polls in Iraq (as in Lebanon) clearly indicate that most want a unified country that is non-sectarian and independent of any foreign power, the elites (backed by their militias – many of whom are supported by Iran) do not want to give in Control. Paralysis and the threat of another civil war may be killing Iraq, but Iran and its underlings do not want to move towards non-sectarian governance.

Speaking of ‘freebies’, the one that continues to trouble the region is Lord Balfour’s arrogant decision to plant the Zionist movement in Palestine to serve British interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. This act and seven decades of massive US political protection and military and economic assistance have brought the region to where it is today: an Israeli state that operates with impunity, flouting international law and violating the rights of Palestinians.

Now in the midst of their fifth election in four years, Israel’s politics, following the US darlings, have shifted so far to the right that there is a unique form of stalemate in the country. The question is not peace with the Palestinians, but whether the next right-wing government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The dysfunctions that afflict the Palestinians result from decades of cruel occupation during which Israel has used overwhelming force to crush their resistance, de-develop their economy and sabotage their political and social foundations. The Palestinians also suffer from a lack of leadership capable of developing a strategic vision and the tactics to achieve that vision. What the Palestinians are left with are repressive patronage systems in Gaza and the West Bank that have been reduced to repressive dependencies – dependent on Israel and international donors for support.

On reflection, threads connect all these dysfunctions. One is the evil of sectarian and ethnic divisions, encouraged and exploited by outside powers. It is tempting to wonder how different the region would be today if the British and French had submitted to the will of the peoples of the Arab East and if the Americans had not played this same imperial game, updating it to serve their interests?

This doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Several years ago, I met a leader of the Syrian resistance. As he left my office, he turned to the door and asked a poignant question: Where will the region be in the next 10, 20 or 50 years? I urged him to come back, and we talked for another hour about the region’s need for visionary thinking that would ask precisely that question.

While the West bears the responsibility for dismembering and distorting the political development of the Arab East, the Arabs cannot continue to blame its failures on the machinations of others. It is time for Arabs to take their destiny into their own hands and develop a vision that unites and inspires citizens to free themselves from the chains of bigotry, corruption, extremism and defeatism. Otherwise, after next year’s holidays and those after, I will read the same articles on the same problems.

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