Constant conflict: The normalization of violence in the Middle East

By BAYLY WINDER | January 31, 2013

Of all the regions of the world, the Middle East has the unfortunate honor of being the most comfortable with violence. Since World War II and the slow and painful withdrawal of European colonialism, the people of the Middle East have experienced violence in seemingly limitless forms.

The Algerian War of Independence from France in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, was marked by the National Liberation Front’s guerrilla warfare and the French Army’s brutal repression. The Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, demonstrated the intensity of sectarian conflict and the impact of intervention by both regional and international players. The negative ramifications of the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq can still be felt to this day. The cliché of terrorism on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict is painfully well-developed. After decades of inconceivable hostility, there are no signs that the most agonizing fight in the neighborhood will come to a close anytime soon. The Arab Spring, which began in December of 2010, has of course resulted in a spike in the regional death toll.

The international media’s treatment of death and destruction in the Middle East today is evidence of just how commonplace it is. While news about the Syrian Civil War is fairly easy to track down, finding out about a suicide attack in southern Yemen or an exchange of fire in Iraq often requires thorough research. The sad truth is that few people are surprised when such incidents occur, and the loss of a typical Arab life rarely qualifies as front page news.

One of the results of such frequent armed conflict is the strength of Middle Eastern militaries. As such, the line between political and military leaders is often obscure. This is the case not only in the many Arab dictatorships, but also in the largely democratic countries such as Turkey and Israel.

As Egypt emerges from a revolution, President Mohammed Morsi is still dealing with a vocal and well-entrenched military institution. It was, after all, the head of the army who recently warned of “state collapse,” not the head of state.

The fixation of Middle Eastern governments on military strength has been extremely costly. In the ranking of countries by military expenditure as a percentage of GDP, the seven top spots are all from the region. The top three — Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — are in the double-digits. By contrast, the American figure is only around 4 percent.

Arms deals, especially in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), are reaching astronomical numbers. In 2010, Saudi Arabia made an unprecedented purchase of $60 billion from the United States. This seems particularly perplexing in the case of the oil-rich GCC members who are firmly under the protection of the Americans.

In October of last year, the Lebanese government responded angrily to the depiction of Beirut in the popular television show Homeland. The scenes, which were actually filmed in Israel, portrayed downtown Beirut as a roaming ground for militias. Regardless of how inaccurate that representation is, it points to a dually tragic reality. In the mainstream American media, the Middle East appears to be a monolithic and chaotic disaster zone. Molotov cocktails, suicide bombers and religious extremism are the norm. While that is a gross generalization and on the whole unfair, those types of violent acts do occur with distressing regularity.

It is unfortunate how bloody American stereotypes about the Middle East are, but little is being done in the region to counteract this characterization. Diplomatic efforts continue to fall short, and both the governments and the people continue to rely on violence to solve disputes. In today’s most graphic example, United Nations Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi issues statement after statement about the horror on the ground while President Bashar al-Assad orders massacre after massacre. One can only hope that when the Arab Spring concludes, a new generation of Middle Easterners will have a chance at lasting peace.

Bayly Winder is a junior Political Science major from Princeton, N.J. He is the Middle East columnist for TheNews-Letter.

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