How to Win Hearts and Minds in the Middle East

September 28, 2015

By Tom H. Hastings

In the field in which I teach, Peace and Conflict Studies, we examine alternatives to violence or the threat of violence in the management of conflict. We are a transdisciplinary field, that is, we don’t only draw from an interdisciplinary set of research findings–e.g. Anthropology, Economics, Education, History, Law, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Sociology–but we do so with certain provisos.

Our stance favors fairness, justice, and nonviolence. Our research examines both why humans use destructive methods of conflict and why and how we use constructive, creative, transformative, nonviolent methods of handling conflict. We look at interpersonal conflict and social (group-to-group) conflict.

This research may be done by scholars from a wide variety of disciplines but it has implications across the board. Using our findings, what might it look like to apply them to US foreign policy in general across the Middle East? What would history suggest might be the logically expected outcomes?

Some initiatives that might be attempted:

  • Apologize for past mistakes, aggressions, or exploitations.
  • Cease all arms transfers to the region.
  • Withdraw all troops and close all military bases in the region.
  • Negotiate a series of peace treaties with individual nations, groups of nations, or supranational bodies (e.g., Arab League, OPEC, UN).
  • Negotiate disarmament treaties with individual nations, with regional groups of nations, and with all signatories.
  • Negotiate a treaty that bans war profiteering.
  • Accept that the people of the region will draw their own boundaries and select their own forms of governance.
  • Use economic, social, and political means to influence the region toward best practices.
  • Launch major clean energy collaborative initiatives with any interested nation.

While none of these projects would bring peace and tranquility to the Middle East by itself, that transformation is the logical outcome of extended efforts in these directions. Putting the public interest first, rather than private profiteering, would reveal that some of these measures have almost no cost and potentially high benefit. What do we have now? Policies with quite high costs and no benefits. All sticks and no carrots is a loser approach.

Game theory and history suggest that measures that treat nations well tend to produce nations that act well, and vice versa. Treating Germany badly after World War I produced conditions giving rise to Nazism. Treating the Middle East as though their average citizens should live in poverty under dictatorial rule supported by US military aid—while the US corporations profited mightily from their oil—produced conditions that led to acts of terrorism.

Crushing terrorism with military force has proven to create larger and larger manifestations of terrorism. The first terror attack by Fatah was 1 January 1965—on the Israel National Water Carrier system, which killed no one. The escalation of harsh response and imposition of humiliating conditions helped lead us through escalating acts of terror all the way to the caliphate we see today with medieval horrors no one could predict 50 years ago, but here we are.

I grew up playing hockey in Minnesota. My Dad, who played for the University of Minnesota after he returned from serving in the Philippines in World War II, was our Peewee coach. One of his mottos was, “If you’re losing, change something.” We lose bigger and bigger in the Middle East every time we apply more brute force. Time for a change.Φ

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is core faculty in the Conflict Resolution Department at Portland State University and is Founding Director of PeaceVoice.

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