Going cold on a hot spot?
There’s no middle ground in the Middle East
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When I hear someone say about Middle East policy, “It’s all about oil,” I want to reply, “Tell that to the Mongols.”
Or the Persians. Or the Arab armies of Muhammad.
All these set their sights on invading and conquering the awkward thumb of land known as the Middle East long before the Anglo-Persian Oil Company struck oil in modern-day Iran in 1908.
But if petroleum isn’t somehow behind every conflict roiling the Middle East, why is the region so important? Why does its strife continually dominate American headlines? Can we ever choose to “pivot” from this place of conflict?
For the purposes of discussion, it’s important to define the area. Some sources cite the region as stretching from the Mediterranean to the borders of China and India, but neither the Central Asian “Stans” nor the Saharan countries of North Africa historically were considered part of the Middle East.
Conflict over such contested ground should surprise us less than when peace breaks out.
The original members of the Arab League—founded by the British as a bulwark against Nazi Germany in 1942—are Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan (then Transjordan), and Yemen. Add to these modern states Israel and the Gulf states (Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE) plus Iran for a comprehensive picture of the Middle East today.
The geography, first and foremost, makes clear the region’s strategic significance: This is the hub of three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It’s the wellspring of civilization, the transect of Silk Road trade routes, the apple in the eye of the world conquerors—from Cyrus and Alexander to Hitler and the henchmen of ISIS.
“Any power that has hoped to extend its domination over continents has learned that domination of the Middle East is an essential step,” wrote Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of Teddy and a career intelligence officer in the Middle East after World War II. “And any power trying to resist continental expansion by another has learned in turn that the Middle East must be protected at all cost.”
One of the great misnomers, concocted largely by British colonialists, is to call this region “the Arab world.” Before the Arab armies moved out from Mecca in the seventh century to conquer much of the region, this was a non-Arab world for millennia, dominated by Persians, Kurds, Turks, Jews, Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Druze, Greeks, and Maronites. Large populations of each remain, and ignoring them has brought great cost to their people and to the rest of us.
The region is the birthplace of the world’s three largest and most influential religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—whose reach spans the globe. From what launched in Bethlehem we have today 2.2 billion Christians; from Mecca, 1.6 billion Muslims; and from Ur in Iraq, 14 million Jews. Oil at below $50 a barrel, with shrinking American dependence on Saudi oil, hasn’t dimmed the land’s significance.
“Jerusalem is the center of the nations,” noted the prophet Ezekiel, and to this day the three religions each lay claim to the city. Conflict over such contested ground should surprise us less than when peace breaks out. On his deathbed, after all, Muhammad ordered that “all the infidels be driven from the Arabian Peninsula.”
Muhammad can have it, we may say in exasperation, weary of the cost of recent Middle East conflicts, no matter their cause. But one cannot open her Bible without seeing how attentive God is to place—and how often the places are in the Middle East. Jacob left Beersheba; King David reigned seven years in Hebron; Philip was from Bethsaida; the apostles returned to Jerusalem.
The Apostle Peter tells us we are “sojourners and exiles,” suggesting we perhaps ought to be indifferent to any particular place. But from the prophet Jeremiah we find we are to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” That’s the example we see set by the disciples of Jesus, whether they became shipwrecked in some forsaken place or stayed to preach in settled churches for decades. Their model makes it difficult to see how we can turn from the intractable places of the world, or dismiss them with “It’s all about oil.”
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