The modern Middle East can be divided into four eras, according to Eugene Rosen, author of "The Arabs."
- Ottoman Empire Era. Arab countries dominated by Turks (1516-1878).
- Colonial Era. British and French dominate -- they carve up countries and create artificial borders (1878-1948).
- Independence movements (1878-1967). "Al-Nahda" renaissance movement in North Africa, Egypt and Syria/Lebanon. With crucial US support, Israel is founded in 1948. Arab countries face ignominous defeats in efforts to drive Zionists into the sea. Attempt to create "Arab Nationalist" movement fails.
- Cold War Era (1948-1990), in which Soviets and Americans compete for regional dominance, quashing independence movements. Egypt invites the Soviets in, then kicks them out in the 1970s, turning towards Americans. US engineers Israeli peace with Egypt and Jordan. Declaring a national security interest in Middle East oil, US installs or supports dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria. US is demonized by Iranians for thwarting democracy and installing brutal Shah for 25 years. Iranians break international law by invading US embassy and holding hostages, seek to export Islamic revolution to the region. In eight-year Iran-Iraq war, US supports Saddam in Iraq against Shiite revolutionaries in Iran. US supports anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan who defeat Russia but eventually merge with Islamic radical groups Al Qaeda and the Taliban, which are virilantly anti-American.
- American dominance, 1991-2011/14. With collapse of Soviet superpower, America, the only superpower, fears Saddam Hussein, when he invades oil-rich Kuwait, will fill power vaccum in Middle East. US launches Gulf War to free Kuwait, sets up brutal Iraqi sanctions to force regime change, installs "infidel" military bases in holy Saudi Arabia, which inflames Al Qaeda. In 2003, US topples Saddam and engages in eight-year war in Iraq. US backs Israel against Palestinians; US backs authoritarian Mubarak in Egypt until his domestic support evaporates. US supports the seemingly successful Kurdish Independence Movement in Iraq. Exhausted from resource drain, America withdraws from Iraq, 2011, and Afghanistan, 2014, and shows reluctance to back rebels in Syrian civil war against dictator Assad.
I would add that we're already seeing a new if possibly short-lived era in the Middle East:
the Arab Spring (2011- ). Region-wide uprisings against dictatorships. Civil conflict and even civil war (lack of consensus) in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia.What's next? I see three roads ahead:
a) Region-wide tribal civil war. Conflict could expand to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon. If we see long-term tribal civil war, and Iranian-sympathizing Shiites gaining a foothold in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran, starting to dominate the region, there will be a lot of second guessing about American actions in the region since 1991. Maybe the US should have left Saddam in power, even let him have Kuwait in 1991. Yes, he was a brutal dictator but until 1991 he was our ally and a counterweight to Iran. When the US removed Saddam, did it ultimately gave Iran freedom to dominate the Middle East?
b) Return to Authoritarian Rule? We are already seeing some nostalgia for Mubarak in Egypt and nostalgia for Saddam in Iraq. Will we see a military junta in Egypt to restore order? Dictatorship in Iraq? Assad survive in Syria or another (hopefully less brutal) authoritarian emerges? Radical Islamists (backed by Iran) seize power in Syria?
c) Best-case scenario: After period of instability, democracy and consensus emerge in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and other points in the region. Assad opposition coalesces into peaceful coalition. The Arabs work out their own problems without the intervention of the US, Europeon powers, or Iran. At this stage, this seems like wishful thinking rather than a plausible outcome. If I had to bet, I would choose b), with hope that over time, the region can make baby-steps, like Turkey has done since the 1980s, toward stability and democracy.
But Turkey has going for it a strong sense of secular nationhood, created by Ataturk. The Arab countries, with the possible exception of Egypt, do not, for the most part, have that strong sense of national identity, nor charismatic unifying "founding fathers." As I wrote previously, they are far more tribal than nationalistic.