September 24, 2006

Moving Beyond The Middle East

I have Middle-East fatigue; I admit it. It deeply saddens me that a region that only encompasses roughly three percent of the world’s population usurps so much of the world’s attention and energy. While it is true that the carnage in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and more recently in Lebanon, is highly disturbing and demands attention, (unfortunately) there are other areas of the world where the suffering and oppression is much greater (in fact, orders of magnitude much greater).

In an ideal world international energy would be focused at least somewhat proportionally to the scale of the problems; areas where the most people are suffering would receive the most attention. If this were the case, Africa would receive much more attention than it currently does. Aside from the continuing genocide in Sudan that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives most people are probably unaware that the war in Congo over the past decade has claimed almost four million lives. If we add in the continuing toll of diseases such as Aids and malaria that kill millions a year in Africa, it is clear that that a more rational assessment of the world’s needs would give a much greater priority to this continent and its peoples.

Many argue that the Middle East commands so much attention not so much because of the security threats, but because of the vast oil resources (which relates to our economic security). While certainly true, what is ironic is that since our invasion of Iraq the price of oil has increased and become more volatile and the rising tensions with Iran have only worsened the situation. It appears that our aggressive militaristic stance in the Middle East has not only decreased stability and increased violence, but made us more dependent on the whims of Middle Eastern dictators, who can now push up their profits with a few harsh words to the international community (see an excellent talk with Thomas Friedman and Senator Lugar (R) on the “first law of petropolitics” on For aTv).

Another added layer of irony is that if we actually had a sensible energy policy, accompanied by significant increases in fuel efficiency standards, we could begin to address the threat of global warming, another serious global problem, and at the same time dampen the influence of Middle Eastern oil producers.

Aside from the huge humanitarian issues in Africa, the rise of China, North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons production program, and the failure of the latest round of the World Trade Organization are huge issues with serious ramifications that demand significant diplomatic resources. Unfortunately, there are only so many resources at our disposal and most of them are currently focused on damage control in Iraq and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The point is that there are huge opportunity costs of focusing so much attention on one small region in the world.

Unsurprisingly, in Bush’s UN speech this week he spoke almost exclusively about the Middle East and didn’t address any of the other major world issues. No wonder the rest of the world believes that the U.S. foreign is profoundly myopic.

I look forward to a time when the Middle East does not grab all of the headlines and the international community can get back to focusing on problems that have a much greater overall impact on the world’s welfare. I won’t hold my breath.

Jason Scorse