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The bonfire of the Middle East

Jeremy Bowen’s personal history shows how hopes of peace failed and the region entered a new era of instability.

By Emma Sky

On 16 January 1991, in an address to the American people on the eve of the First Gulf War, President George HW Bush announced:

“We have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a new world order – a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations. When we are successful – and we will be – we have a real chance at this new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfil the promise and vision of the UN’s founders.”

President Bush succeeded in gaining a UN Security Council mandate to lead a 35-nation coalition, including a number of Arab nations, to rout Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was a climactic ending to the Cold War, and the start of what Bush saw as a “new era – freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony.”

[See also: The “Five Eyes” spies who fought the West’s secret wars – by Jeremy Bowen]

In The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History, the veteran BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen bears witness to how lofty dreams of the post-Cold War period crashed and burned in the region.

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Days after the end of the First Gulf War, Bush declared that the new world order would start with peace in the Middle East: “The time has come to put an end to Arab-Israeli conflict.” Confident of its new calling in the world, the US co-sponsored, with the Soviet Union, a conference between Israeli and Arab delegates in Madrid, launching in October 1991 a Middle East peace process that would stagger on to the new millennium. The Soviet Union only made it to Christmas.

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With deep empathy and understanding of the roots of the conflict, Bowen describes this search for peace. A secret back-channel in Oslo led to mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, commitment to “land for peace”, based on the 1967 borders with some land swaps, and agreement in principle to Jerusalem as the capital of both states. But leaders failed to deliver – and extremists on both sides torpedoed the confidence-building measures that were required for historic compromises. The assassination of Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish terrorist derailed the peace process; Yasser Arafat declined the best offer that Israel would ever make; and Binyamin Netanyahu set out to annex large parts of the West Bank. “For a while, the vision of a Palestinian state and an end to decades of conflict seem to be coming into focus,” Bowen writes. But, “If there was ever a moment for peace, it came and went.”

[See also: What does Yair Lapid as prime minister mean for Israel?]

The attacks of 9/11 refocused the world’s attention on the wider Middle East. President George W Bush promised to hunt down the terrorists and those who harboured them. The world rallied around the US, with Nato invoking Article 5 for the first time in its history: “An attack on one is an attack on all.” The attacks were launched by al-Qaeda, based in Afghanistan. But Iraq also came into the crosshairs over allegations that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Seeking parliamentary approval for the UK to join the US in the invasion of Iraq – when no UN Security Council Resolution was forthcoming – the prime minister, Tony Blair, told the House of Commons in March 2003:

“It will determine the way in which Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century, the development of the United Nations, the relationship between Europe and the United States, the relations within the European Union and the way in which the United States engages with the rest of the world… It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation.”

These words now seem prescient – but not in the way that Blair envisaged. Bowen recalls asking Blair, during the prime minister’s “triumphant” visit to Basra in 2003, where Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were. “Tony Blair looked at me for a moment, then turned and walked away without answering.” Bowen notes that the invasion of Iraq was a “catastrophic error that set off a chain of disastrous consequences that still thunder around the Middle East”. The Iraq War mobilised a new generation of jihadis with a vision not of liberal democracy but of a caliphate; it changed the region’s balance of power in Iran’s favour; it led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people; it damaged the legitimacy of the US as the standard-bearer of democracy; it undermined the rules-based international order; and in Western nations it contributed to a loss of people’s faith in their leaders.

The second decade of the 21st century seemed to hold greater promise for the Middle East, as young people across the Arab world took to the streets in 2011 to protest injustice and demand better governance and jobs. Bowen reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the demonstrations that were gripping the region. While many observers were caught up in optimism that the Arab Spring would lead to the overthrow of dictators and the spread of democracy, Bowen offered caution in his reporting, highlighting a crisis of governance in the region. Sclerotic regimes fought back to counter the revolutions and Islamist jihadis flourished amid the chaos.

In Syria, when President Bashar al-Assad responded to the demands of peaceful young protestors with violence, Barack Obama called for Assad to go – but gave minimal support to force his departure, fearful of replicating the quagmire of Iraq. Despite declaring the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line”, Obama did not carry out his threat of repercussions when Assad gassed around 1,400 people in a Damascus neighbourhood in 2013 – after David Cameron failed to gain UK parliamentary support for military action. Instead, Obama grasped Russia’s last-minute proposal to remove Assad’s chemicals. Assad was let off the hook. He carried on killing his people and driving them out of the country –and he continued to use chemical weapons. Putin saved the Assad regime, changing the course of the war, and demonstrated Russia’s resurrection as a major power.

[See also: The long shadow of Chairman Mao]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 – based on manufactured arguments and faulty assumptions – marked the “the definitive end of the post-Cold War era”, Bowen writes. It revealed the extent to which Russia – and China – have not been integrated into the new world order, how sidelined the UN has become, and how hypocritical appeals to uphold the rules-based international order sound in the Global South since the US intervention in Iraq.

While attention is now focused on Ukraine, the Middle East may well be on the verge of further disaster. Bowen eloquently describes how Middle Eastern governments have been unwilling to and incapable of addressing the festering grievances of their citizens, and how external intervention has caused different crises to interconnect.

Across the region, tensions are escalating once more, and, as Bowen writes, “instability is infectious”. In Lebanon people are storming banks to try to access their savings, which their government has deliberately squandered; Iranians are protesting in the streets following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, arrested by the morality police for not wearing her headscarf appropriately; the killing of nearly a hundred Palestinians by Israeli soldiers this year is raising fears of a third intifada. Meanwhile, Iraqi farmers cannot cultivate their land due to mismanagement of water and climate change, and refugees fleeing their collapsing states continue to drown in the Mediterranean.

Throughout his personal account, Bowen keeps the reader focused on the consequences events have for individuals. Many are killed due to their identity or, in the case of Abed Takkoush, his Lebanese driver, mistaken identity. Bassam Wahbh, a Syrian shopkeeper, keeps in his freezer his amputated finger, which kidnappers sent to his family as a ransom demand; Izzeldeen Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor who, despite the loss of three of his five daughters, still maintains his belief in coexistence. We need to care about these people because, as Bowen reminds us, what happens in the Middle East reverberates around the world.

The Making of the Modern Middle East: A Personal History
Jeremy Bowen
Picador, 368pp, £20

Emma Sky is director of Yale’s International Leadership Center and author most recently of “In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt” (Atlantic). Jeremy Bowen appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November

[See also: British diplomacy in the dock]

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed!