By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
For more than three centuries now, noted philosophers, historians and politicos of the day from Edmund Burke to George Santayana to Jesse Ventura have all told us to know the history of a place or a people or “be doomed to repeat it.” Seems like simple enough advice. Yet a quick look through recent global headlines, particularly those related to events now unfolding in the Middle East, and it makes one wonder if anyone is paying attention.
Less than 25% of all Americans have passports that enable them to travel abroad to explore other cultures. Most of our children are exposed to very little history in their schools. Our universities tend to not include history in their required curriculum. Our national leaders seem to not focus on, or think about, the history of a people when making strategic decisions that are consequential long into the future. Nor do they seem to invest time in understanding the culture of the countries with which they want to ally or even to go to war.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen Hitler fail to learn from Napoleon. Both not only attempted a two-front war but were so foolish as to allow their armies to become bogged down deep in Russian territory as the brutal Russian winter set in. Like Napoleon a century earlier, Hitler’s armies also went down to defeat.
After World War II, America had an opportunity to ally itself with Mao Tse Tung but chose the wrong Chinese leader. In Vietnam, our leaders underestimated the radicalized passion of Ho Chi Minh, who, inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was among a group of Vietnamese nationals who unsuccessfully petitioned the Versailles Conference to help his country shed French colonialism following the First World War, 50 years earlier. Soon thereafter, Ho embraced communism and the rest is “history.”
In recent days, a lot of global media attention has centered on the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and its aftermath. Nowhere were its repercussions more keenly felt than in the Middle East, where the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire following the war caused national borders in the region to be arbitrarily redrawn with little to no regard for local tribal, religious or cultural sensitivities.
William Faulkner once wrote, “the past is not dead; it’s not even the past.” So, today we reap a whirlwind born out of decades of simmering tensions and tribal and sectarian hatreds. It often seems like our national leaders have not studied the Middle East or taken the time to understand its culture. Of course, brilliant historians and leaders abound, they have counseled wisely. But, our leaders, including our current President and our most recent State Department Secretaries, have not heeded their advice or simply have chosen to ignore the realities.
We’ve all read or heard that the root of today’s problems in the Middle East can be traced to the sectarian bad blood between the Sunni and Shi’ite factions of the Muslin faith. The tensions date back more than 1,400 years when the Muslim community had to decide who would lead after the Prophet Mohammed passed away. Some supported the idea that succession should run directly within his family (the Shi’ites) but other Muslims believed a pious individual who would follow the Prophet’s customs was acceptable (the Sunnis). Today, Sunnis represent 85%-90% of the global Muslim population.
But others, today, believe there is more to the story than a one-to-one correlation between these doctrinal differences and what is happening now in the region. They suggest the fighting now is more a fight for power than the variations in beliefs held by the Sunnis and Shi’ites, and the dwindling presence of the U.S. in the region means there isn’t anyone who can broker a deal or keep the tensions in check.
Thus, the region is in turmoil today. Our allies wonder if our words have any meaning anymore, and we, as a nation, seem to be floundering on the world’s stage, chasing after straws blowing in the wind. As subsequent events have proven, the Arab Spring turned out to be far more complex than first reported and portrayed.
Today, in Iraq, the U.S. installed and still supports a Shi’ite majority government, while the country’s Sunni minority population, which ruled the country since the end of World War I until Saddam Hussein was toppled and now fears a Shi’ite backlash, seethes. Over in Afghanistan, one has to wonder what those in that country, who cooperated with us over the past decade, are thinking as we prepare to exit that theater too.
The Tunisian revolution, meanwhile, was economic, not political. Egypt’s revolution (I was in Cairo as it unfolded) began as an economic protest and evolved into an effort by the Muslim conservatives to gain power.
Syria’s conflict began as an attempt to overthrow a Shi’ite minority government by a Sunni majority population. The U.S. considered supporting the Sunni insurgents, but didn’t follow through. Now, this conflict has erupted into something much more menacing as the ISIS insurgents try to establish a caliphate throughout the region.
And the examples continue to grow. We supported Saudi Arabia when it moved its troops into Bahrain as the country’s majority Shi’ite population challenged its Sunni minority government. In Libya, we supported the overthrow of the dictator in what was an internal tribal conflict.
Today, there is a Leadership vacuum in the Middle East due in part to our government’s failure to understand and to be sensitive to the region’s history, culture and people. We appear inept and feckless when dealing with the new/old regional power brokers of Saudi Arabia/Qatar and Iran. All this is enough to make one’s head spin. It’s like listening to that classic Abbott & Costello comedic skit, “Who’s on First.”
You’re probably wondering why I’ve devoted an entire column to events now unfolding in the Middle East. It’s because we must learn from others’ and our own mistakes. However complex the events may seem, what’s happening now in the Middle East will have far-reaching global consequences if we don’t get it culturally and historically right this time.
Closer to home, cultural understanding can play a key role in your personal and business life as well. It can improve your relationships with your employees, partners and customers. And if you work for an overseas company, either in the U.S. or abroad, it will serve you well to make the effort to learn its culture and heritage. So do your homework, be realistic about what you learn, use what you learn to your advantage and be flexible as long as you’re not violating your own basic values or breaking any laws