For an overview of exceptionalism in the Middle East, I turned to David Welch, a career Foreign Service Officer. He served in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and as the U.S. Ambasador to Egypt from 2001 to 2005. He also held the title of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2005 to 2008, leading U.S. efforts to restore relations with Libya after Muammar Qaddafi agreed to disarm and pay damages for past terrorist activities. He is now in private business. We spoke on the phone in August 2011.
I asked Ambassador Welch if he considers the United States to be an exceptional nation. He laughed and replied in the affirmative, pointing out that he didn’t devote three decades of his life for the personal rewards of government service. His father was also in the Foreign Service and as a result he spent a lot of his childhood growing up overseas. He was drawn to the expatriate lifestyle and decided to pursue a similar career. “I was fortunate enough to work on some very exciting issues, difficult problems during difficult times, so it was a good choice, in my view, and I would make it again.”
Some have suggested that cultural failure and the persistence of authoritarian governments can explain the rise of Islamic terrorism, for example. The wars between the Arabs and the Israelis, or between the Iranians and the Iraqis, leave many embittered, and the Middle East also draws in Western powers for various conflicts. What is it about the region that makes it prone to aggressive competition? Why is it a kind of epicenter for exceptionalism?
“It is wrongly assumed that the Arab Middle East in particular was ignorant, backward, and violent”, Welch replied. “Historically, they can hardly be called ignorant. Their societies on the whole are better educated than most middle-income and lower-income societies in the world.” The United Nations produces a series of so-called “Human Development Reports” that have actually been surprisingly critical of Arab societies in terms of scientific research, education, and so forth. These reports are “curiously ten to thirty degrees off-whack, even though they were supposedly authored by Arabs”, Welch said. Intellectual backwardness, for instance, was determined on the basis of how many non-Arabic books have been translated into Arabic. “I would ask you how many foreign books are translated into English so Americans could read them, let alone how many Americans are reading books.”
“Maybe exceptionalisms are not clashing in the region”, Welch suggested. “Maybe what is simply happening here is that this is just one of the fault lines in civilization.” Just as the French and British clashed with the Middle East in the early 20th century, and the Americans and Israelis clashed with the Middle East in the late 20th century, the current flashpoints are just part of a historical trend.
The Arab Idea
Given his long service in the region, I asked if he had any thoughts about pan-Arabism, the notion that there is a unifying force that binds Arabs living in different countries, from Morocco to Iraq, together into a single national idea.
“I think the pan-Arab experiment failed a long time ago”, Welch replied. The Arab Spring has shown how “bankrupt” the pan-Arab dream of political homogeneity had been, as the “vestigial” regimes in Syria, Egypt, and Libya came under pressure and cracked.
“But yes, there is a sense of what it is be Arab.” The first unifying factor is the Arabic language. Despite the many different dialects, “like it or not, Arabs from Morocco all the way through to Persia can understand each other.” The second aspect is regional trade. Welch said some observers inaccurately claim that the Arabs don’t engage in much commercial activity with each other. Expatriate workers can be found all over and the trade in intellectual property is substantial. “At Egyptian weddings you play Lebanese music”, he offered as an example. There is also interchange in the entertainment industries, from television to sports. Finally, history binds them together. “The Islamic conquest after the time of the Prophet”, Welch said, “was one of the great movements in human history.” The caliphate stretched from Spain and Morocco in the West to Persia and India in the East. Islam spread even to Indonesia, which is now the most populous Muslim country. “Every Arab knows why Baghdad was important.“
An Exceptionalist Sampler
There may be a unifying cultural force, but many particular nations have striven at various points to claim some kind of special purpose within the Middle East. Israel, of course, is the Jewish homeland, but Saudi Arabia is the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites. While not Arab, the Iranians enjoy throwing their weight around, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein once styled himself a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar. Egypt has also sought to play a leadership role, first by militating against the state of Israel and then making peace. I asked Ambassador Welch to walk me through a few of these examples based on his experiences.
Egypt has long fancied itself the cultural center of the Arab world, but there is a nuance to this. “In terms of the region, the Egyptians refer to themselves in Arabic as Egypt, not as Arab. They are misreen, not Arab.” One aspect of the society that struck Welch in particular was observing among the people “the decline of the regime setting in, and the sense that the society wasn’t the best at anything.” The juxtaposition of this disheartening feeling against Egyptian exceptionalism left the people “increasingly uncomfortable.” They eventually responded by overthrowing the Mubarak government, but the troubles may be just beginning.
“I don’t know if the difficulties are insurmountable”, Welch responded when I asked about the Arab Spring, “but I certainly believe that we’re in for a prolonged period of difficulty in Egypt.”
I pointed out that most Egyptians are nervous about the future.
“Basically, Egyptians are an optimistic people who have a good sense of humor”, Welch continued, “so it’s unnerving to find them worried.” He mentioned recent polling data suggesting that Egyptians felt their lives were going to improve rapidly in the post-Mubarak era. “Yet most of their grievances are economic in character, so I don’t see how Egypt’s going to be better off a year from now. In fact, I think it’s going to be worse off, so I’m quite worried about that disparity.”
On the other side of the Middle East lies the country of Qatar. Basically a kingdom, the state occupies a small peninsula jutting out from the Saudi Arabian peninsula into the Persian Gulf. The Qatari emir was one of the principal voices calling for the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and even supplied military forces to help accomplish the task.
“They are quite ambitious, but they wouldn’t be the first nation to punch above their weight”, Welch explained. “They have a great sense of what they want to accomplish and are competing in a number of fields to brand their nation and put it on the global map politically, economically, and socially.” The same couldn’t have been said just a few years ago, when some would have described Qatar simply as “a gas-rich country with a TV station and not much else.” That TV station, of course, is the global Arabic and English news source al-Jazeera, which has gained international attention and global audiences for its coverage of the Middle East.
“Qatar has managed to balance a decent relationship with Saudi Arabia with a good relationship with Turkey and not a bad one with Iran”, Welch explained. “That’s not a bad balancing act if you think about it. At the same time, it’s managed to have a very visible foreign policy, which has sometimes caused irritation among some of their friends in the region.” He cited Egypt and Jordan as two examples, in particular. Most Gulf states tend to be “more reticent and shy”, but not the Qataris, who have used their oil riches to make a number of opportune strategic investments. By and large, Qatar’s foreign policy meshes quite well with American national security interests, he argued.
“Diplomacy is not a weak word”, Welch concluded. “Strong countries can sometimes behave with great patience and forbearance, and that’s not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.” American power has “eroded” as a result of not applying a rational approach to weighing interests and options, especially in the Middle East. “If we fix things in the Untied States, we’re going to be a lot stronger abroad.”