Notes on Borders, Trade, and Population Control in the Middle East
Resolved: The United States should significantly reform its policy toward one or more countries in the Middle East.
U.S. Middle East policy has a problem with borders, as do the people of the Middle East. U.S. policy deals with countries rather than people or provinces. Here in the U.S. we live in a country so large borders are rarely a problem for most. Families can buy goods produced anywhere in the country without border controls, checks, or taxes. We can drive or fly to visit friends and relatives in neighboring or distant states without needing official visas or passport checks. And we can take jobs at companies in other states without requesting state or federal work permits.
Across the many small countries of the Middle East, borders restrict trade and employment opportunities, making life smaller and poorer.
It is a mistake though to blame the last century of Middle East conflict on the artificial colonial borders established after World War I.
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Tempting though it is to blame the chaos of the modern Middle East on the conniving of colonial powers and the failures of the “peace” that ended World War I, no one can say with certainty that the war-ravaged region would be more peaceful had the British and the French not weighed in.
What Anderson does say in “Lawrence in Arabia,” a lengthy, detailed account of the war’s impact in the Middle East, is that deceit and double-dealing by European powers set the stage for the last 100 years, which as one can see today, is chaotic, violent and extremely discouraging.
From that time, one can argue, springs the intense anger in the Arab world against Western powers that have sought oil, alliances, military bases and even a homeland for the long-displaced Jewish people.
The idea that better borders, drawn with careful attention to the region’s ethnic and religious diversity, would have spared the Middle East a century’s worth of violence is especially provocative at a moment when Western powers weigh the merits of intervention in the region. Unfortunately, this critique overstates how arbitrary today’s Middle East borders really are, overlooks how arbitrary every other border in the world is, implies that better borders were possible, and ignores the cynical imperial practices that actually did sow conflict in the region.
William Easterly in The Tyranny of Experts, describes U.S. and World Bank development policies toward developing countries and contrasts their concern with “governance” rather than the rights of individual people.
U.S. policies toward the Middle East have included securing oil, establishing and helping defend Israel, regime change in Iran, freeing Kuwait and its monarchy, then invasion and regime change in Iraq, bombing and regime change in Libya, and most recently bombing and regime change in Syria (plus invasion and regime change in Afghanistan).
Apart from these programs a series of foreign aid programs involve various economic and social interventions into Middle East societies, from population control to renewable energy. U.S. aid to establish and support population control projects in Egypt and other Middle East countries, for example, is discussed in this report:
Still, population control has long trumped USAID democratization efforts in Egypt. Even though initial bureaucratic opponents of population control in Egypt sought to divert this funding to alternative purposes, once Mubarak actively supported population control, these programs were less vulnerable to internal opposition. 18 Thus, although USAID channeled more foreign aid through Egyptian NGOs in the 1980s, elite support for population control, and close MOSA regulation of Egyptian family planning NGOs, meant that USAID maintained bilaterally funded population programs. As Egyptian bureaucrats became convinced of the value of population control, their interests tended to coincide with those of USAID. [Source.]
For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservatives chafed at Mr. Mubarak’s almost single-minded focus on contraception and two-child families as a core component of public policy. Mr. Mubarak used family planning — a foreign imposition — to mask the government’s failed strategies, some Islamists said. [NYT source]
For more on U.S. AID and U.S. foundation efforts to reduce population growth in developing countries, see Matthew Connelly’s Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population. The New York Times reviews Fatal Misconception here.
In “Fatal Misconception,” Matthew Connelly, an associate professor of history at Columbia University, carefully assembles a century’s worth of mistakes, arrogance, racism, sexism and incompetence in what the jacket copy calls a “withering critique” of “a humanitarian movement gone terribly awry.”
The NYT reviewer argues that Connelly critique is unbalanced and don’t recognize the benefits of population control. And he compares Fatal Misconception to White Man’s Burden.
“Fatal Misconception” is to population policy what William Easterly’s “White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good” (2006) was to foreign aid: a useful, important but ultimately unbalanced corrective to smug self-satisfaction among humanitarians.
Much of the poverty and conflict across the Middle East today follows not from ancient tribal and religious hatreds, nor from French, British, U.S. or German imperialism or the borders set after World War I. Economic ignorance has played a key role for centuries, with endless restrictions on trade and investment mixed with corrupt politicians and legal systems. The leaders across the Middle East after World War II were eager to take control of resources and hire economic advisors to “modernize” their economies. But “modernization” planning and state control just opened the door for more and deeper corruption. Financial support and economic advice from the U.N., World Bank, IMF, USAID, funded more economic misadventures over the decades since World War II.
Population control projects were just some of dozens or hundreds of misguided social and economic interventions experimented with across Middle East countries with funding from western governments and foundations. Many of these are discussed in more detail in past posts that reference various scholarly books, articles, and videos.