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Doug Saunders

The Middle East is trapped in ‘black boxes’ Add to ...

What happened Wednesday in Tripoli was almost unprecedented in the modern history of the Middle East. In a modest ceremony, the revolutionary council representing the rebel forces that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi willingly handed power over to a democratically elected, broadly liberal, non-Islamist government.

It was unprecedented in another way: This transition to democracy came about simply because the people of Libya chose it and fought for it. It was not part of any larger strategic or political scheme carried out by the United States, Europe, Israel or Russia.

That, more than anything else, is what has so badly damaged the living standards and political conditions of the hundreds of millions of people who live in the lands between Tripoli and Tehran: Their countries have been viewed by the wider world as black boxes.

A black box is a device that has inputs and outputs – no one cares what’s in between. You feed something into a black box – money, arms, military attacks – and you get something out. No thought is given to what actually occurs inside the box. As long as you get what you want, or prevent what you don’t want, you don’t concern yourself with the millions of human lives affected.

That, throughout the postwar period, has been the way the world has regarded the Arab and Persian countries of the Middle East, and it is the predominant reason why dictatorship, terrorism, theocracy and religious extremism have become potent forces there while fading away everywhere else in the world. The normal path of economic development and political modernization has been held back by the black-boxing of these countries and their autocratic regimes.

This pattern becomes startlingly clear in David Crist’s dense and important new book, The Twilight War. While ostensibly a U.S. government historian’s inside account of relations with Iran in the three decades since the Islamic revolution, the result spans the entire Middle East and the motives behind virtually all the Western policy decisions – most of them disastrous – that have shaped the region.

The black boxes were created in the late years of the Cold War, when the Carter and Reagan administrations used the Middle East and its oil as the ultimate showdown with the Soviets. Westerners were guided by the thinking Mr. Crist attributes to a senior U.S. leader who “cared little about the regional conflicts or their long-term consequences, except in terms of how they affected the balance of power in the East-West rivalry.”

Black-box thinking led Egypt’s dictators to become the largest recipients of U.S. aid (and sometimes of Soviet aid) and the Saudi autocrats to become among the closest U.S. allies – which both allowed them to maintain power and to ignore the material and political needs of their people.

And black-box thinking turned Lebanon’s civil war into a conflagration that virtually created the current Islamic politics of the region. It would not have gone that way, Mr. Crist convincingly shows, if the U.S. and Israel had not turned Beirut into a black box. If they hadn’t, “I don’t know whether something called Hezbollah would have been born,” the terrorist movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is quoted as saying. “I doubt it.”

The decision to arm Saddam Hussein to the hilt was pure black-box logic: The Cold War and the containment of Iran were the only motives. So were the two efforts, the second one disastrous, to dismantle him.

Then, in 2003, George W. Bush was offered an important opening to Iran, as a “road map” approved by reformist president Mohammad Khatami and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei requested an end to sanctions and a rapprochement with the West, and in exchange offered to abandon nuclear plans, recognize Israel and stop supporting Hezbollah. The proposal was genuine, but Mr. Bush, viewing Iran entirely as a black box in his counterterrorism schematic, dismissed it. This led to the demise of Iran’s reformist leaders and the rise of the far more bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Despite the new, citizen-led logic of the Middle East, we haven’t rid ourselves of black-box thinking yet. The current horror in Syria bears witness to this: President Bashar al-Assad has been supported at various points by Russia, Iran, the United States and various European countries. In some ways it’s still continuing, as Russian warships and CIA minders flood into Damascus this week. But most capitals are at a loss to respond in any decisive way, because the old logic has partly collapsed: In these new conflicts, the black boxes have become transparent. We can see their contents, and they bleed. It’s time to tear up the wiring diagram.

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