Return of the Empire

What a bitter reality that we Arabs may once again serve as convenient rest stops on Western imperial routes to exotic lands in Asia. I thought that moving forward to the past was something that happened only in the movies.

My generation has spent its entire life addressing challenges bequeathed to us by our parents -- building modern Arab countries and grappling with the Arab-Israeli conflict. But now a rough, new phase of history looms, due to three dangers: deadly conflict among Palestinians and Israelis; political tensions, socioeconomic stress, and governance distortions in every Arab country; and the apparent determination of the United States to attack Iraq and redraw the geo-political map of the Middle East.

The specter of American forces attacking Iraq, administering the country in a strange form of self-bestowed mandate and consolidating American military bases throughout the Gulf, takes us back to a similar period around 1920. The British and French did all this and more. Most of the problems of that still haunt us. They include:

  • Western armies that often define our sovereign configurations and political systems

  • Foreign sources of money that sustain our economies

  • Heavy dependence on the West for basic Arab security

  • Lack of domestic consensus on internal governance norms (because the Arab people are not consulted about their preferences)

  • Friction due to disagreement over the appropriate balance between secular and religious ideologies

  • Common tensions between the narrow, localized identities of tribes, regions, religious minorities and ethnic groups, and more expansive national, trans-national and religious identities

  • Strong disagreements on coexistence and cooperation between Arabism and Zionism

If we in the Arab world do not urgently resolve the root causes of our intolerable modern legacy of collective political mediocrity, we will always suffer its consequences -- an indiscriminate maelstrom of large-scale destruction.

Humiliated and frustrated people among us will seek refuge in the escapist furies of nihilism, which they will redefine in violent forms of self-assertive religion, militarism, tribalism and nationalism. They will kill in large numbers, and they will therapeutically market the killing to their dehumanized, desperate soul mates as both legitimate self-defense and righteous vengeance. Multitudes will follow them. We have seen frightening signs of this in the past few years.

These furies of militant Arab nihilism did not appear after someone rubbed a magic lamp. They were born and nurtured -- from the days of our grandparents to the days of our children -- by the cumulative consequences of policy-makers who determined our fate, including Turks, British, French, Arabs, Israelis and Americans. But most recently, they have been mostly our own doing. We've suffered faulty policies primarily because Arab and other decision-makers rarely were held accountable to our wishes.

Is there some way that we might pause this grotesque historical movie in reverse and for a change ask the people of this region what they would like to happen?

I, for one, would like to change the reel. I feel like an idiot playing the role of a rest stop on someone else's imperial route to Kabul. I know 300 million other Arabs feel the same. I understand why imperial transport officers have never sought the opinions of my grandparents or my children, but I do not understand why our own Arab decision-makers also refrain from turning to honest, open consultation at home as the most effective means of quality decision-making.

This is the only effective antidote we have. There is no long-term security to be gained from smallpox vaccinations, anti-missile systems, financial aid or bountiful promises. The only real protection for life comes from delivering human dignity and injecting people with political empowerment and voice. These are the building blocks of sensible decision-making, prosperity, lasting stability and real security -- and a guarantee against having to perform in any more horror shows of modern history.

Khouri ( is a political scientist and columnist for the Jordan Times.

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