A change in perspective is required when addressing problems in the Middle East, former State department employee Alan Van Egmond said while in Bonita Springs on Friday.
The 37-year veteran of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, who oversaw U.S. civilian-military cooperation in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2009 to 2013, gave a lecture on what he dubbed the “Middle East Cauldron”.
“The definition of a cauldron is a situation characterized by instability or strong emotions. Now, the Middle East certainly qualifies as that,” Van Egmond said.
There are a number of misconceptions about the Middle East that can interfere with America’s ability to positively interact with the region, according to Van Egmond, starting with something as simple as defining what countries make up the region. Most would include the Arab Peninsula and Iran but what about North Africa or Turkey? Are Pakistan or even India included? All of these countries have been important players in regional clashes but may or may not be included in different definitions of the region.
Another challenge in the way the US’s approaches the Middle East is the idea of national borders. Van Egmond said that some of the countries in the region are very old, with strong national borders and identities, while others are relatively ill defined, and some are barely a century old, created after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, with little regard to culture or geography.
“Some countries like Egypt, their borders have remained [mostly] the same for eons,” said Van Egmond. “Others, like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, still have borders that are meaningless. They are just dotted lines on the map.”
He pointed out that these ill-defined borders can quickly lead to conflict when valuable oil reserves are found in disputed territory, only adding to regional instability.
Proxy wars, or wars funded and otherwise supported by outside nations in a third-party country, are another layer of abstractions which can make it difficult to understand what is happening in the Middle East. Van Egmond said that it is important for Americans to understand who is supporting and influencing regional conflicts if the problems that underlie those conflicts are going to be addressed and solved.
“A lot of the conflicts you are seeing in the Middle East today are proxy wars. One of the major dynamics is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That’s what is happening in Yemen, which is one of the most serious conflicts underway right now,” said Van Egmond. “That’s what is happening in Afghanistan, it’s a proxy war between Pakistan and India. It used to be a proxy war between Russia and Britain.”
There are a number of hurdles between the US and lasting positive change in the Middle East, according to the State Department veteran, but he still holds positive outlook on the future of the region.
“We are a work of progress here in the United States, we don’t have all the answers, we don’t have all the solutions, but with our spirit of hope and optimism it is very possible we can do this, and we have done this, and we keep doing it.”
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