I've been reading the May 2008 issue of Vanity Fair. The green issue (and why is it every month's issue has to have a theme? I miss the old days, when the articles were disjointed and eclectic and each was a small treasure unto itself). Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. weighs in with "The Next President's First Task: A Manifesto." It's about energy and energy innovation, and he advocates energy independence. Fine. Difficult to quibble with that. Actually, we should've established our self sufficiency long ago. But so far, so good. His final sentence caught me, though: "And for the first time in half a century we will live free from Middle Eastern wars and entanglements with petty tyrants who despise democracy and are hated by their own people." Ouch?!
Having traveled through and worked in the region on multiple occasions and having just returned from living and working in Jordan for almost two years, that sentence struck me as the kind of arrogant, brash, hypocritical comment that gets us into trouble in the region on a regular basis. Some of those Middle Eastern wars were a consequence of our failed policies in the region. A lot of the petty tyrants were elevated to their lofty positions and remain there quite securely as a result of U.S. aid to and intervention in the region. They do tend to despise democracy, despite whatever lip service they give it to Western audiences, and they are hated by some of their own people. Not all, though.
There are segments of society that benefit from the status quo. The unelected dictators in the region stay in power, in part, through cooptation. For example, they regularly appoint new, oversized governments, then dissolve them, then reappoint, then dissolve again. In Jordan, I've been told, even someone who serves only one day as a government minister reaps lifetime benefits, in addition to whatever he (and, yes, it is usually a he, but there is one minister, the current Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, Ms. Suhair al Ali, who has survived a number of government shuffles) can grab while in office. These include cars, homes, kickbacks, per diems, security, travel allowances, the ability to double dip from both the Jordanian government and any wealthy-country donors whose funds pass through the ministry. And then there is all the wasta, the informal Arab system of handing out jobs and other perks to family members and friends, regardless of merit or qualifications or talent. In a tribal society, such largesse has useful ripple effects. Material swaths of society benefit from just that one individual's good fortune. And that is how sizeable numbers become beholden to the dictators in the region. It's not so much that the autocrats are respected or revered. To the contrary, they are feared. But there are benefits to sidling up to them. For the most part, the people who do and choose to march in lockstep are just fine under the current system. They've sold their souls, but that doesn't seem to bother too many of them.
However, in a country like Jordan, those people represent perhaps 5% to 10% of the population. A number of them proudly told me they are upper class. There is not much of a middle class, so that leaves pretty much everyone else out of the loop and wondering where the next meal is coming from. Life for the unwashed masses is pretty bleak. Because of wasta and its detrimental effects on ambition, hard work, and upward mobility, there is little chance of a bright future for them, unless someone in the family can earn a scholarship to study abroad and then remains there upon graduation and sends money back home. These are the people I worry about.
Since I've been home, people have asked me, "What is going on in the region? What should we as a country be doing?" The truth is that I am still sorting it all out. Reverse culture shock and all that jazz. I do understand how people here can be so disgusted with it all that they want to walk away and wipe their hands of the entire mess. Some days I am one of them. I do agree with RFK, Jr. that we should wean ourselves from energy dependence, for all kinds of reasons, one of them being that it gives us more political options in the region. If it were only the dictators and the self-declared upper classes to be concerned about, I would have no compunctions about walking away from it all. But there are a lot of decent, hard-working people who are looking for a savior, hoping for a miracle. I met them every day in Jordan. . .every single day. They are trying to feed their families of 10 on the equivalent of US$10 a day, working in the blazing sun shining shoes or selling bread for 12 to 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week. They don't even have 500 fils to buy a newspaper, yet when they'd see me, they'd smile, ask about me and my work, introduce me to their friends and family members, invite me to tea and dinner, ask me to come to their daughter's wedding in a couple weeks. Sooner or later (and usually it is sooner) they ask, "How does one get a green card?" The men are sometimes less diplomatic and propose, in my case, usually to comic effect. But don't we who were born luckier have an obligation to do everything we can for the people who weren't? Is it really all right for some of us to have so much, while others have almost nothing. . .and only through an accident of birth?
I am deeply concerned about the widening gap between the haves and the have nots, the West and the Middle East. Sensitivities in the region are very high, sometimes too high (e.g., the Prophet cartoons brouhaha). I am not an apologist for all that is wrong in the region. . .and surely there is plenty. But I also don't think it helps to deny our own culpability or to fan the flames.
I am interested in what others have to say on this topic. How do we unstick ourselves and find peace in the region? Please discuss.
Causes Ellen Sheeley Supports
For All Women Foundation