Modern history


For most of the twentieth century, two ideas, both of European origin, dominated political debate and propaganda in the Middle East—nationalism and socialism. Sometimes the one, sometimes the other, sometimes the two in the devastating combination of national socialism, exercised enormous attraction. Both from time to time enjoyed the active support of European powers. Both were adapted in various ways and with varying success to Middle Eastern conditions and needs. They gained at times passionate support and helped, at least in part, to accomplish major changes.

Today, as the twenty-first century advances, both have lost most of their appeal. Of the two, socialism is the more seriously discredited—on the one hand by the collapse of its superpower patron, the Soviet Union; on the other—perhaps more cogently—by the failure of Middle Eastern and North African regimes professing one or other kind of socialism to lead their people into the promised land. Instead of freedom and prosperity they delivered tyranny and poverty, in increasingly obvious contrast with both the democratic and the traditional worlds.

Nationalism was not discredited but rather superseded by the attainment of its main purpose and the consequences that followed that attainment. With the advent of full national independence, it became increasingly clear that freedom and independence were different things. In some applications of independence, they even appeared to be incompatible.

Nationalist aims have been achieved; socialist hopes have been abandoned. But the two basic problems which they were designed to remedy—deprivation and subjugation—remain and are, if anything, becoming worse. The population explosion has made the poor poorer and more numerous; the communications revolution, with all the opportunities for propaganda that it offers, has made them far more aware of their poverty. The departure of imperial garrisons and proconsuls has removed the excuse for the lack of development, as contrasted not only with the advanced countries of the West but also with other, rapidly advancing non-Western societies. The problems remain and are becoming more serious and more visible. The search for solutions is still in progress; so too is the torrent of accusations and recriminations that obscure and obstruct that search.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the Middle East went through a major transformation, the significance of which has not always been fully appreciated. The first major change was the breakup of the great European empires that had divided and dominated the Middle East and much of the rest of the Islamic world. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British and French empires were dissolved, and their former territories became independent states. Finally, the last of the great European empires, that acquired by the Russian czars and inherited by the Soviet Union, suffered the same fate. The countries in Transcaucasia and Central Asia that were historically, culturally and religiously part of the Middle East recovered their lost freedom and resumed their independent existence. As in the former British and French possessions, the exercise of their newfound independence has confronted them with a number of problems, both internal and external, in their relations with their neighbors, with each other and with their former imperial masters. There is now a world of independent states speaking closely related Turkic languages and in many ways resembling the Arab world that emerged earlier in this century from the breakup first of the Ottoman, then of the French and British empires. The resulting dilemmas greatly affect the content and form of perceptions, of discussions and therefore of propaganda.

For a while, the end of empire was disguised by the reality of the Cold War, in which, although the non-Soviet regions of the Middle East were independent, their lives and policies were nevertheless profoundly affected by the rivalry of the two superpowers for whom the Middle East was an arena of conflict. This too affected and indeed dominated the whole political discourse of the region, including the content and direction of propaganda.

During the Cold War, the overriding American interest in the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, was to prevent Soviet penetration and domination. This aim was successfully accomplished, and there can be little doubt that without American involvement, the Middle East would have fallen under Soviet domination and shared the fate, at best, of Poland and Romania but more probably of Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.

But that is over and finished, and there is no present threat from outside the region. There is of course no guarantee that this will remain so. At some future time the Middle East may again be threatened by a new domination from outside; perhaps by a resurgent Russia, perhaps by a superpower China. Indeed, if the governments and peoples of the Middle East continue in their present inability to solve the problems of the region among themselves, sooner or later neighboring powers may be drawn, even without deliberate purpose, into the politics of the region.

But for the moment this is unlikely. Russia lacks the power, the United States lacks the desire and the European Union lacks both the power and the desire, to perform an imperial role in the Middle East. For the time being, the peoples of the region or, more precisely, the governments that rule them, are free to determine their own fates. For this, they must of course confront their own realities. One can only hope that in making the crucial choices before them they will not be led astray by false propaganda.

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