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Editor’s Introduction

If you’re looking for observations and analysis that give dimension, texture, and light to the unfolding developments in revolutionary Syria and Bahrain—and, for that matter, in the larger Middle East—you’ve come to the right place.

In this issue, we continue our effort, begun by Jackson Diehl in the May/June 2012 issue of World Affairs, to broaden readers’ understanding of the array of interests and visions—fueled by sharp and increasingly violent conflicts among religious and ethnic groups and by the growing confidence of fundamentalism and sectarianism—that are driving the Arab Middle East as it lurches unsteadily toward a new and uncertain era, and as the US and its allies consider initiatives (which unfortunately appear to be narrowing) that might help the region to evolve toward political freedom, economic prosperity, and a willingness to solve its problems by negotiation and diplomacy rather than roadside bombs.

Just back from Syria, Charles Glass presents us with a collage of voices that testify to the collision between a large number of stakeholders in that beleaguered polity. In this place of extreme and widespread poverty and illiteracy, where the absence of free expression or the free flow of information and ideas is pronounced, “truth, facts, and reality” are determined in real time by deeply rooted and profoundly divisive religious, sectarian, and ethnic allegiances and the fear they inspire.

Syrian rebels are at war with its reigning tyrant, Bashar al-Assad, who has defined his country as the indispensable nation for the region’s most notorious killers in Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas—an effort that has earned him the uncompromising support of China and Russia as he tries to evade international efforts to stop his killing spree, which has left ten thousand of his subjects dead. While accounting for the “many variables and competing interests” and the contingent unpredictability of the rebellion’s outcome, Michael Totten makes a strong case that the United States has far more to gain than lose by helping the rebels dethrone Assad.

On the other hand, David Rieff, in his essay, rejects the West’s “contemporary utopian progress narratives” and cautions against “civilizing missions” to liberate peoples, arguing that their unintended consequences have historically reinforced and enflamed sectarian divides rather than bridged them. Rieff argues that well-intended interventionists, liberals, and neocons alike are hampered in their efforts by a stubborn denial of the centrality of sectarianism and an underestimation of its perdurable influence in the worlds they try to change for the better. This blind spot causes them to forget the daunting lessons the persistence of sectarianism teaches just in time to repeat old mistakes again—as evidenced, he believes, by calls for US intervention in Syria today.

In another, once more tranquil part of the Middle East, Elizabeth Dickinson learns from a recent trip to Bahrain just how potent sectarianism is and how thoroughly it has uprooted the fragile shoots of the Arab Spring there. Full-scale war has not yet come to this island country, where the Shia majority has placed demands before the minority Sunni ruling family and backed them with growing violence. There is an “increasing sense,” Dickinson warns, “that this conflict is on an inevitable path toward escalation” and the window of opportunity to peacefully resolve the crisis is fast closing, as protesters hurl Molotov cocktails, the ruling family stalls, Saudia Arabia intervenes, and American diplomacy fumbles.

Speaking of American fumbling, P. J. O’Rourke accuses his baby boomer generation of having betrayed America’s quest for the big, the bold, and the spectacular—and guided the country “on a course of willful self-diminishment.” With wit and example, O’Rourke makes the case that the boomers have replaced hopeful thinking with wishful thinking, bold ideas with benign idealism, the high-skilled with the high-minded, and the belief that we can make things better with make-believe. It’s classic P. J.—insightful and humorous with sharp teeth. 

China plays a role in these pages too. Mohan Malik writes with erudition on China’s tense rivalry with India, which increasingly manifests itself in diplomatic maneuvering and military preparations. Gordon Chang writes on the recent turmoil in China’s leadership and what it means, while Ethan Gutmann explores the country’s gruesome organ harvesting program, a big dirty secret just now coming to light.

There’s more, of course. Stefano Casertano analyzes what seems a death spiral in Italy’s economy and the new government’s ineffectual efforts to reverse the unhappy trend. Armin Rosen asks if a Khartoum Spring is coming to Sudan. And Robert Saldin writes about wartime in America.

As always, let us know what you think.

James S. Denton

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