Thursday, March 5, 2009

Misconceptions of the Middle East
A Panel Discussion
March 3, 2009

Comments by Harry Targ


We are all gripped by the growing economic crisis. Americans see that crisis as originating in the United States in the recent past and resonating around the world; first us, then Europe, then the countries of the Global South. This frame on the global economic crisis has even begun to extend to public discussion of issues of national security and political/military stability.

For example, Dennis C. Blair, president Obama’s new Director of National Intelligence, testified before Congress on Thursday, February 12 warning that global economic turmoil and possible political instability brought about by it could surpass terrorism as the number one threat to the United States. In addition, Blair said, the economic crisis would threaten the reputation of the United States’ “stewardship of the global economy.” Finally, the New York Times quoted Blair as suggesting that the economic downturn was “the primary near term security concern” and that if it continued it would imperil some governments (New York Times, February 13, 2009).

What I found constructive about this statement was that, for the first time in a long time, a US security spokesperson recognized a connection between economic wellbeing and political stability. By implication, if a bit of a stretch, it suggested that peoples around the world, as well as at home, had deep-seated and legitimate economic concerns.

What was less constructive was the suggestion that the economic crisis at home was recent; that economic crisis around the globe is a byproduct of the recent crisis at home; and that ordinarily there had been “US stewardship of the global economy.”

Recent Global Economic Context

I would like to suggest that, with some significant exceptions, most of the peoples of the globe have been living in economic crisis for at least thirty years and this long-term economic crisis has to be factored into any discussion of conflicts as seemingly intractable as that of the Middle East.

Looking at the last third of the twentieth century, Canadian economist James Davies, wrote in a study prepared by the World Institute for Development Economics Research released in 2006 that “income inequality has been rising for the past 20 to 25 years and we think that is true for inequality in the distribution of wealth.” In 2,000 the study showed, the top 1 percent of the world’s population accounted for 40 percent of the world’s total net worth, with the bottom half owning 1.1 percent. Edward Wolff, another economist participating in the study wrote that “”With the notable exception of China and India, the third world has drifted behind.” (New York Times, December 6, 2006).

The starkest interpretation of this kind of data was reflected in a 2003 article by Egyptian economist, Samir Amin, who claimed that the global economy is creating what he called “the precarious classes,” both in agriculture and manufacturing, who cannot count on day-to-day remunerative activity to survive. He estimates that 2/ 3 to ¾ of humankind are among the “precarious classes.”

Relevance to the Middle East

A financial publication called “Arab Banker” printed a summary of a World Bank study called “Two Years After London: Restarting Palestinian Economic Recovery” in 2007. The World Bank, the Arab Banker, and other sources indicated the following alarming data:

-the percentage of Gazans living in poverty has been steadily increasing from 1998 (21.6%) to 2006 (35%).
-Israeli policies isolating Gaza from the Israeli and global economy-work, imports, exports- made matters worse.
-without remittances and food aid the poverty rate in Gaza has risen to 67% since Israeli and US policies were put in place to punish the Hamas regime.
-restrictions on Gaza’s access to the global economy has led since 2006 to 90% decline of Gaza’s industrial operations.
-In 2007 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations were suspended due to an Israeli import-export ban
-industrial employment declined from 35,000 in 2005 to 4,200 in 2007

In addition, economic data on Israel and the occupied territories suggests that West Bank and Gaza gross national product per capita has been about 10 percent of that of Israel. In sum, the global distribution of wealth and income referred to above has been replicated in Israel and Palestine.

Let me just add two pieces of information about the United States to this condition of pain and suffering. First, as a recent Amnesty International report suggests, the United States has been Israel’s predominant military supplier for years. AI noted that under a current 10-year agreement, the US will provide $30 billion in military aid over the next 10 years. (AI has called for an arms embargo of weapons supplied to both Israel and Palestinian armed groups, who receive aid from Russia, Iran, China, and various underground sources).

Finally, the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes recently reported some findings of an attitude study that they carried out in seven predominantly Muslim countries and the Palestinian territories. Majorities in all these countries supported the US removing its bases and military forces from Islamic countries. In addition, they approved of attacks on US troops in Iraq and elsewhere in the Gulf and Afghanistan. However, only very small minorities approved attacks on American civilians and generally respondents opposed the use of violence to achieve religious or political goals. The authors say the respondents agree with al Qaeda’s goal of forcing the US to withdraw from the region but they disagree with their methods. And large percentages see the US as wanting to expand Israeli borders in the region even though 59% of Palestinians said the US wants to create a Palestinian state.

What Does This Mean?

First, I would argue that Intelligence Director Blair is largely correct. Violence and political instability in the world is intimately connected with economic wellbeing. What he does not mention is that the economic crisis we face today in the United States and the industrial capitalist world, is a crisis that countries of the Global South have experienced at least since the 1970s. He, and most pundits, refuse to articulate the view that violence in a multitude of forms is connected to the lack of economic justice.

Second, data suggests clearly that in the occupied territories the notion of “precariousness” is an apt way to describe the condition and daily consciousness of Palestinian peoples. Shifting currents in Palestinian politics, I hypothesize, are also connected to patterns of economic growth and decay. In the 1950s and 1960s, secular leaders in the Arab world, including Palestinians, offered a vision of economic change for their people that was processed in Washington, and European capitals as threatening to dominant economic interests. Paradoxically, the US began to support alternative political currents in the region with a religious agenda, such as the followers of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan and Hamas in Palestine. Subsequently, these groups, in their words and, to some extent, in their deeds more effectively respond to the sense of economic injustice that peoples like the Palestinians experience.

There is no easy solution but the United States and other wealthy countries must participant in a disinterested economic reconstruction of the occupied territories. Only that will break the back of anger, mutual hatred, and the kind of political instability Dennis Blair was talking about.

In addition, Israel must be prevailed upon to share the land and resources of the region. Economic development must be coupled with economic justice for all.