What Role Should the USA Take in the Middle East Today

Aaron Zappaz

The west has played many different roles in the Middle East from the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the United States has increasingly become part of these activities. Many, but not all, of these roles have been negative, destructive, and even abusive. None of the policies have been products of monolithic governments, but the fact that not all officials and not all citizens are behind any given policy is generally  unclear to those who see only the various action arms of government at work. Furthermore, as a diverse population of individuals and participants in non-governmental organizations, the United States also acts in many ways, good and bad.

Any role that the United States ought to play in the Middle East is, as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, one that avoids acting in ignorance,  because to do so is strongly counterproductive. Precipitous military entry into Iraq and precipitous exit from Iraq, both had very bad outcomes. Once into a multi-factor complex with loose links among actors, the nonlinear nature of interactions forces planners to be constantly fighting against a flood tide of vital changes., and getting out of this complex interplay of forces without doing even greater damage is not easy.

As soon as actions by the West had taken away Saddam’s iron control, open conflict broke out among three main populations that have long struggled against each other. Within those three groups, members of the Shia population had no prior opportunities to develop governance capabilities, and those with leadership potentials have been dealt with severely by Saddam’s police. Members of the Kurdish population have done well to avail themselves of opportunities to develop their leadership potentials (mostly by their getting educated abroad), and among the Shia the found competencies rest mostly with the leadership of the armed forces. Other commentators have already fully described the blunders of early-stage US interventions. Most analyses of the resulting battlefield have stopped at this point, but there are other significant factors that provide a foundation and sources of motivation for the undesiirable phenomena that are not easily observed.

Bronisław Malinowski observed that in tranquil environments not much attention is paid to the supernatural, but in times and places of turmoil, when there are no dependable ways to security, the influence of the supernatural looms large. In the Middle East it appears that religion and religious differences act as major sources  of strife. In addition to war, economic deprivation and the realization of relative poverty in contrast to other groups can potentiate the perceived need for divine intervention to put things to rights.

The cultural features of the several fragile communities in the Middle East are fairly well known on a superficial level, but much needs to be determined by careful research due to the relevance of these motivating factors to the general state of strife that currently prevails. Some cultures program young people for resilience, and other cultures instill hidden pitfalls in their character structures. Under conditions of extreme stresses, the pitfalls are more likely to manifest themselves in non-adaptive behavior. Non-adaptive behavior can have a powerful influence when it is manifested in many people in external ways that affect the community.

When non-adaptive cultural features manifest themselves in a community under stress, the individuals become more easily used by manipulative leaders, another factor favoring turmoil and destruction.

One  of the functions of all religions that have thrived in the Middle East is to control people. Some of the goals of control are explicitly stated in the holy texts of a given religion. During periods of tranquility, clerical abuses of the religion may be limited to things that are terrible on the level of individuals, e.g., sexual abuse of children by priests, but do not directly drag the majority of the community into counterproductive activities. Periods of turmoil and disorder tend to put control more strongly in the hands of religious leaders who counsel punitive acts and campaigns of revenge.

Religious factors can prod individuals under stress into cult-like subservience to manipulative leaders, and manipulative leaders can work on the community to exacerbate stress factors, thus driving more followers into their organizations.

One of the main functions of culture is to get control of one’s own children so that they will not initiate conflicts with other people and so that they will behave nicely within the family. Every family probably does these things somewhat differently, but every culture has group expectations that at least inform people of how others will react to their parenting behavior and to the values they instill into their children. Most if not all cultures also have effective enforcement measures available to them, if only of a punitive sort.

When the parenting methods are very successful, children generally do well and do not experience difficulties in life that were unintentionally created by their parents. When parents impose unreasonable expectations, and when parents use aversive conditioning to force behavioral outcomes on children, the results for their offspring, when they become adults, may include strong dysfunctional components. For instance, both the Jewish culture and the Chinese culture permit children to consume small, age-appropriate, quantities of wine on ceremonial occasions. These cultures have been observed to have a low level of alcoholism. However, cultures such as those of Jews and Christians have (especially in the pre-Freud period) many problems due to their imposing punishments for failing to control excretory functions at a time when their children were neurophysiologically incapable of exerting such control. Traditional Chinese culture, on the other hand, uses gentle guidance and rewards, and in so doing lays up no psychological dysfunctions for these children to contend with as adults.

Counterproductive ways of child rearing leave land mines of anger and even rage that, paradoxically, will be directed against the child himself or herself, and not at the toxic conditioning processes used by the parents. Given time to fester, these feelings may become directed outward at people who seem to exemplify the damaged person’s own negative but hidden characteristics, but frequently not at their abusive parents. These children grow up to hate themselves and/or other people who dare openly to be and openly to dare to do what the damaged individuals must hide. The ones whom they learn to hate can do nothing to improve relationships because the ones who persecute them really are redirecting their self hatred outwards, and their self hatred is extremely difficult to cure. There is no way to stop the attacks of that figure in the mirror except by ceasing one’s own aggressions.

In extreme cases, hatred instilled for what one inescapably is as a human primate can lead to self-destructive impulses and behavior, and can even lead to suicide. If the individual can succeed in directing these forces outward, he or she becomes a powerful force in the world, but often innocent people or groups get attacked and injured or even killed as a result.

A child who has been stigmatized as being “a nasty, greedy brat,” will be unable to eliminate the natural desire for sugar, fat, and other satisfying foods. However, given that his or her family situation is as it is, he or she will of necessity hide these desires from others, and even attempt to deny their presence in himself or herself. Children can, in these kinds of situations, grow up with many kinds of suppressed “evil” impulses.

In order to deny the presence of these “evil” impulses in themselves, people may not only suppress awareness of their activity within themselves, but also project these impulses and “bad intentions” onto other people. To be more convincing in their denial of their possession of these impulses, they may attack others whom they perceive as exhibiting them.

Obviously, if everybody feels hunger or other deprivations, and if everybody is forced by circumstances of their childrearing to deny their presence in themselves, then the almost certain result will be that they all will tend to project and/or perceive the forbidden impulses in others and attack them as “deviants” or as “sinners.”

When everybody attributes ill intent, bad motivations, etc., to others, then the tendency will be to form cliques, each of which may suppress recognition of forbidden desires in group members and attack them in all out-groups, and it is likely that one subset of the general population will be at the bottom of the pecking order that emerges.

When the George W. Bush administration attempted to interfere in Iraq in a helpful way, they demonstrated competency in direct military actions. However, they could not even handle basic infrastructure issues such as the electric power grids for cities and surrounding regions. It is seeking for oneself a resounding defeat to expect a political regime dedicated to survival in an episodic life struggle battle conducted in four year spans to be able to understand and provide for the psychological and sociological “infrastructure” requirements of the people of a severely dysfunctional region, problems that may take generations to solve.

In the United States there are regions and families whose feuds and vendettas have become legendary. No government could simply tell them to reconstitute their own character structures from the ground up. Any such governmental action would provoke ever-stiffening resistance. I think the motivation for change must come from within. I see evidence of such initiatives being made, but also note how often violence is directed toward those who are in search of better ways. It seems clear to me that any people, at any level of organization, might be able to make positive contributions to the revitalization of these foundational institutions and practices, providing that any help be given in appropriate ways.

Specifically, I see a great need to foster the development of skillful patriotic leaders who can win the allegiance of people across all existing sectarian and party lines. I also see a great need for the support of individuals whose goal in life is to ameliorate the cultural factors that do harm to infants, children, and even adults (factors that often get carried over into religions and attributed to God no matter how toxic they may be). Good leadership depends on being responsive to the real needs of the community.

Any individual who becomes a member of a community, or at least an accepted guest who desires the well-being of that community, must deal with the real causes of problems in order to effect improvements in the life of that community.

My untrammeled hunger puts your orchard and your apples in danger of predations. My untrammeled sexuality puts your family and your daughters in danger of creating a fatherless child for your family to nurture. My untrammeled fear puts your family and your possessions in danger of my frantic and heedless actions to try to secure my own continued existence and prosperity. My untrammeled anger will lead to all kinds of bad results.

All individuals have both the potential to be good for others and to be bad for others. All societies have to deal with this situation. They develop cultures and religions that function to ameliorate the potentials for conflict. Needing to organize people for other kinds of cooperative enterprises, they generally will also have governmental measures for dealing with conflicts, for punishing people who will not respond to the gentler methodologies used by culture and religion.

People of good will, regardless of nationality or other distinguishing characteristics, can make good progress only if the fundamental springs of violent action are adequately attenuated and eusocial motivations are provided with proper channels for expression and development.

Ashoka first became known as a very competent military leader and a conqueror, but subsequently he became renown for teaching his conquered nation the best practices for peace, harmony, good social cohesion across all differences present across India, etc. The Middle East needs people today who can take up these tasks, provide equality under the law to all people, and minimize the countervailing forces of savage cultural tailings, group selfishness, ignorance, and fear.

Number of guests: