Are we out of the cave yet?
Christopher Newton | Tuesday, April 28, 2015
No, we are not there yet, so stop asking.
While it is my last column, I promise to largely adhere to the foreign affairs commentary and not provide you with a diary entry or pretend I have a loyal following (I estimate regular readership at an optimistic four). For those not familiar, we are speaking of Plato’s allegory of the cave, or what you will. It has several names, but boils down to the difficulty of changing a person’s perspective when they have become deeply rooted in one way of seeing the world. Woe to the writer who believes it is a mere matter of eloquence or even evidence. If you are not a fan of Plato, imagine living your entire life within a single dorm party and then having someone attempt to describe darties.
The careful reader may have noticed my title happens to be rather similar to my byline, a reflection of my intentions with these Viewpoint columns. The goal of this apologetically irregular column was always to shed a bit of light on issues of international security and to show in some small way that the world is not the great mess of baffling chaos it often appears to be.
I have attempted to unravel bits and pieces of issues related to Iran, Yemen, Palestine, the Islamic State (IS) and the like, seeking to challenge prevailing opinions of hostility, confusion or sticking-your-head-in-the-sand-because-reading-is-hard regarding the Middle East and Central Asia. Many people look at these regions and see only homogenous masses of angry Muslims, endless violence and a series of complex issues that are not worth the time it would take to understand them. It is an uphill battle and I certainly claim no expertise — I write Viewpoints, not peer-reviewed articles or pieces for “The Economist.”
Allow me, then, to briefly touch on a few of the major issues of my favorite regions of the world before signing off. I came into this university on the heels of the Arab Spring and was granted the opportunity to write about the subsequent winter. Over the past year, the metaphorical snow has begun to accumulate.
The Islamic State has reached its high water mark in terms of territorial aggrandizement. While it may prove to be an adept terrorist organization in the coming years, it is at present showing itself to be a rather poor insurgent group. Absent, massive, nearly unthinkable reforms, it will not hold the territory it has seized. As it is slowly pushed out of Iraq and Syrian Kurdistan, its grand claims to be the new caliphate will become increasingly untenable. While it has begun to branch out into Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Nigeria, these offshoots will be highly unlikely to seize major territory, though they may persist for years nonetheless.
On Yemen, I am not sure whether to begin playing taps for the state or to sound the call to arms to the international community. Saudi airstrikes and general alarmism about the Iranian connection to northern rebels will do little to solve Yemen’s problems, which relate more to water scarcity and economic collapse than major sectarian differences. Yemen has functioned as a gradually unfolding train wreck for years, with the world only now seeing the folly of its turning a collective blind eye. Without massive and concerted efforts to alter the course of Yemen, it may in time become, as Eric Church sings, “too far gone to be shot back.”
Iran is gaining friends and influence in the Arab world far faster than the United States, in part because of its substantial gains in Iraq following the American-led invasion. It is active in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, taking advantage of dysfunction in its near abroad and general economic success and stability at home. Bombing this country will not go well for the United States and Israel, particularly after its acquisition of advanced air defense systems from Russia. Iran’s careful and long-term bid for regional hegemony belies a rationality highly unlikely to lead it to seek nuclear weapons at the risk of becoming an international pariah like North Korea or of being bombed into roughly the Middle Ages like Iraq after the Gulf War. A negotiated deal can work for Iran and certainly does work for the US.
Israel is, by definition, colonizing the West Bank. I tend to disagree with colonization, and would prefer if Israel would stop building illegal settlements like a petulant child with a new Lego set after bed time. The Gaza Strip is running out of water and economic collapse looms over the horizon, typically catastrophes that lead people to violence. It would behoove Israel to not allow 1.8 million Palestinians to reach such dire straits while still governed by Hamas. Things will go decidedly poorly for all involved at such levels of horrific desperation.
Call me a nerd — all my friends do — but the world to me is absolutely fascinating. I have thoroughly enjoyed contemplating just this small part of it within the confines of this publication. I may not have led anyone out of the cave, or even escaped myself, but perhaps I have at least loosened the chains a bit.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.