Emerging from the margins: The Balkans and Middle East


The terms “Balkan” and “Middle East” connote the great unsettled peripheries of the Ottoman Empire. The two regions have many differences, but they share in common a struggle to deal with the coercive utopias of serial — and distinct— “Wests.” Since the Napoleonic era various regal, totalitarian, or democratic configurations have imposed power and teleologies while extracting resources from one area and occupying them both. Peoples in these volatile places have fought over identities (“ethnic”-“civic” divide in southeastern Europe, family/tribal, national—Arab, Persian/Iranian, Kurdish—and religious loyalties in Western Asia and North Africa). Balkan actors argue over the overlapping legacies of wars fought since the 1870s. The ongoing upheaval in the Middle East is at least as much about dismantling the settlement of World War I as it is about the West’s imagined dichotomy between autocracy and democracy.

There is an inverse relationship between the decibel levels in Western rhetoric and the actual existence of Euro-American strategies to deal with either region. Vice-regal insistence on various behaviors or constitutional reform largely reflect the internationals’ frustration with Balkan notables’ ability to manipulate, obfuscate, and avoid the outsiders’ demands.

This is nothing compared to the messy Western stance in the Middle East. Of course, no government or official should be faulted for failing to anticipate that the self-immolation of a despondent individual in Tunisia would lead to the collapse of long-serving dictators and of the comfortable stability enjoyed by Western governments that for decades ignored contradictions between their human rights sermons and realpolitik practices.

There is no excuse, however, for Euro-American performances regarding Egypt. As that crisis built the Europeans regressed to sermon-mongering. Washington vacillated between support for Mubarak (when he appeared strong enough to survive) and expressions of shock that repression was going on reminiscent of Claude Rains’ attitude toward gambling in “Casablanca.” Then, Air Marshall Sarkozy spearheaded a poorly conceived bombing campaign against Libya, a player much less important to the internationals’ interests than Egypt and much less dangerous than Yemen. The US, meanwhile, launched the raid against Bin Laden that reduced the pressure on Washington to construct a strategy to deal with cascading changes elsewhere. At present, there exists no approach in any Western capital aimed at such problems as the well thought-through effort by militants to establish Islamist Emirates on both sides of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. For the first time, al-Qa’ida affiliated killers have a real shot at establishing a strategic capability to stand astride a significant waterway.

Eurasia for more

Comments are closed.