Humanitarian Lessons from a Century of Conflict in the Middle East

For most of the past 20 years, the heavy presence of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan remained in the backdrop of public discourse. While some policy-makers, advocates, and scholars tried to raise red flags, and there was a general sense that the American public—on both sides of the political spectrum—was tired of funding “endless wars,” the war persisted through four American administrations. When President Joe Biden finally started to pull remaining troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, fulfilling an agreement made by his predecessor, Donald Trump, the blowback was swift. Images of desperate Afghans clinging to departing American planes flooded social media along with messages from interpreters and guides begging for evacuation support from their American contacts. Now that one of the endless wars had seemingly ended, after thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent with very few lasting achievements to report, many were left asking: what have we learned about war and its effects?

While Afghanistan is not an Arab nation and is not considered part of the Middle East, this ongoing and urgent crisis unraveling before the eyes of the world echoes many of the same mistakes made by foreign interventions across the Arab region over the past century. In 2019, a report from the Costs of War Project at Brown University made a staggering finding: in the years since 9/11 and through 2020, the United States had spent more than $6 trillion on war, largely concentrated in the Middle East. Trillions more have been spent by the United States and many other actors in the region for the past century, in the name of ceaseless efforts to achieve the elusive and poorly defined goal of peace in the Middle East. Today, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) “remains the least peaceful region in the world.”

Retrospective analysis of these efforts and, at times, the contemporaneous statements of the politicians and policy-makers directly involved, illuminates that for all the time, money, and energy spent on waging war in the Middle East, there are minimal successes and even fewer of them are sustained. Yet, there are apparently few lessons learned to apply to the next crisis. Many of the figures who are most responsible for destabilizing the region are celebrated as heroic leaders and afforded ample public opportunities to criticize current policy-makers, without accounting for their own failings. Meanwhile, the behavior of some of the worst actors in the region itself, which has led to widespread oppression, corruption, and human rights abuses, is consistently tolerated and enabled. “It’s too complicated,” as is often said dismissively.

Immediate political outcomes are often the top-line priority for cable news pundits and many governmental actors. What is regularly left out of the conversation are the longer-term humanitarian outcomes of the people directly affected by conflict. Learning political lessons so as not to repeat them is vital. As unsuccessful as these efforts have been, however, what remains are catastrophic humanitarian outcomes that may be later used as justifications for even more foreign intervention. What are the humanitarian lessons we can learn after a century of war in the Middle East?

Leaving Behind Broken Societies

War is far more than what happens on the battlefield. It permeates every aspect of life and is destructive to social indicators across all demographics—except perhaps the most elite class of a country. Health systems in the conflict-affected states of the region, like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Palestine, are greatly lacking, and education systems are deficient. Even without active war, the emphasis on militarization and rampant corruption throughout the region have limited health and education outcomes in other politically problematic states like Egypt and Lebanon. And perhaps the worst indicators for the future of these societies are how their children are treated: conflict prevents millions of children from going to school, poverty and economic inequality nearly ensure that a poor family will stay poor for generations, and the toxic stress of living in war causes significant mental and physical problems for children that can persist into adulthood.

No influx of money could easily repair a society that has been mistreated, ignored, and traumatized for years, and in the case of some Middle East conflicts, for decades.

No influx of money could easily repair a society that has been mistreated, ignored, and traumatized for years, and in the case of some Middle East conflicts, for decades. Yet economic investment on the heels of military action is still often treated as a cohesive package in foreign intervention, overtly ignoring the lived experience and trauma of the affected populations. Humanitarian agencies are tasked with the tireless work of trying to provide conflict-affected people with a semblance of normalcy, but they are often only able to prevent short-term emergencies. There are many reasons for the insufficient humanitarian investment in long-term goals to build state capacity, including funding shortfalls or inconsistent funding, lack of understanding or not prioritizing the requirements of local people, and the need to show short-term success in order to retain donors and attract new ones.

With billions of dollars in aid spent on millions of people in the Middle East, yet with the result of continually insufficient outcomes, it is important to remember that humanitarian efforts are not meant to address the root causes of conflict but only to prevent suffering. The burden on humanitarian agencies to support vulnerable populations has never been higher, but without working in tandem with mechanisms of accountability and substantive political negotiations, they cannot contribute to genuine peacebuilding.

Ignoring the Needs of the Most Affected

War is justified as a solution to a multitude of intersecting problems: some combination of terrorism, ideological disputes, assertion of power, and territorial or economic gain are among the most common. Often, there is also at least some consideration, albeit cynically, of a need to protect vulnerable populations like women, children, or religious and ethnic minorities. When it comes to wars in the Middle East especially, emphasizing the subjugation of women and sexual minorities in the region is one of the few justifications used on a bipartisan basis. Yet it is the needs of these very populations that are often overlooked in peacemaking and development efforts.

To be clear, the current state of women’s rights in the region is abysmal, and sexual minorities are subject to both state-sponsored oppression and exclusionary social stigmas that limit their freedoms. The threats faced by these populations are real; at the same time, the interventions put forth are rarely successful in achieving meaningful gains for these populations to thrive in their home countries. As scholar Lila Abu-Lughod opined, “I suspect that the deep moral conviction people feel about the rightness of saving the women of that timeless homogeneous mythical place called Islamland is fed by something else that cannot be separated from our current geopolitical relations.”

The reality is that, aside from some targeted efforts and initiatives, women and other marginalized groups are almost entirely left out of peacemaking decisions at the state level, often due to assumptions that prioritizing such issues, including gender, is too disruptive in this region. Only since the early 2000s was consideration of gender regularly included in western-led political efforts in the Middle East, and primarily in discussion of offering more opportunities in schooling and employment. Ignoring women in peacebuilding does not just worsen conditions for affected women and their families—such as increasing hunger, gender-based violence, and other poor social outcomes, while limiting their opportunities for education and public engagement—but evidence suggests that excluding women from peacebuilding is detrimental to sustained peace. Women disproportionately affect the future of conflict-affected children and make up the majority of displaced populations from many Middle East conflicts. Yet, this patriarchal paradigm continues and is enabled by external actors, regardless of the level of deterioration in a country. Hardly any women have been included in recent peace negotiations in Yemen and Libya, for example, two of the most fraught humanitarian crises today.

Over-militarizing today’s wars without giving priority to humanitarian aims at the onset of foreign interventions makes it nearly inevitable that populations will be forced to flee, due to either direct violence or threats of resource insecurity.

An extension of crises within the Middle East is the disproportionate number of refugees the region produces, making up 40 percent of the global refugee population. Most population displacement is involuntary; almost all refugees would prefer to stay in their homes, and most people who are displaced hope to return home once it is safe, even in the case of highly violent conflicts like Syria. Yet over-militarizing today’s wars without giving priority to humanitarian aims at the onset of foreign interventions makes it nearly inevitable that populations will be forced to flee, due to either direct violence or threats of resource insecurity. Furthermore, when perpetrators terrorize populations with overt war crimes, like destruction of hospitals, schools, and homes, there are often no consequences aside from statements of condemnation, and this  encourages escalation. Such scenarios have occurred with multiple state actors across the Middle East. Other interventions that would sustain local communities, like ensuring stable food and water prices and supply, are underemphasized. As a result, desperate people will leave. Upon their arrival to a host country, many refugees are then demonized, oppressed, and excluded from society.

Learning Lessons for a New Period of Fragility

Decades of evidence suggest that the way war is waged today simply does not lead to achieving stated aims. Yet policy-makers seem too invested in outdated approaches to attaining security, or in maintaining a hawkish posture, that they are unwilling to accept that evidence. Millions of people—combatants and civilians—have been traumatized by wars in the Middle East in just the last decade; and over the past century, countless injustices have been committed throughout the region. As wars last longer now than they have historically, it has also become clear that massive disruptions, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, can quickly and fundamentally shift global priorities. The Middle East cannot begin to tackle the impending challenges of the twenty-first century without finally addressing the challenges of the last one.

Wars of today are often showcases of the latest and greatest military equipment the world has to offer. When a military jet, after more than a trillion dollars of investment and decades of development, continues to report malfunctions and barriers to use, the automatic response is simply to spend more to make it work, as failure is not an option. Yet when it comes to humanitarian interventions, not only is the funding lacking but so is wider investment in purposeful humanitarian action. It is not possible to claim that the aim of war is to protect or improve some population’s life, while at the same time to invest little in developing local infrastructure, building local capacity, or supporting legitimate local actors. An entire global infrastructure has been built to support and encourage military investment and alliances, with much of this effort going to protracted or failed interventions throughout the Middle East. Envisioning an alternative infrastructure that centers human security is difficult when considering current political trends, but it is necessary in order to contend with the inevitable challenges to come.

An entire global infrastructure has been built to support and encourage military investment and alliances, with much of this effort going to protracted or failed interventions throughout the Middle East.

Rather than be treated primarily as passive victims, women as well as other vulnerable populations should be meaningfully involved in political negotiations and development efforts. Women and other marginalized groups are very active in civil society and grassroots organizations, often finding themselves up against significant and sometimes life-threatening barriers. The work already being done by these populations should be centered and supported, rather than emphasizing humanitarian initiatives funded by foreign donors that do not prioritize the needs of people on the ground and, notably, that are subject to political whims of foreign countries. Further, treatment of global refugee flows by host countries requires a significant realignment. With protracted conflict and impending climate change, refugees and migrants coming out of the MENA region are not likely to stop. Aside from making life in home countries as safe and dignified as possible, all states need to adapt to this reality and commit to supporting host countries to help refugees thrive.

Wars Are Won off the Battlefield

There are a multitude of political lessons that must be acknowledged for many humanitarian efforts to make a difference. Fighting corruption on all sides must be treated as a priority; precious money, trust, and accountability are lost every moment corruption is accepted as merely a part of the realpolitik needed to be successful in a war in the Middle East. Authoritarians and states that abuse human rights must be held accountable regardless of—and in many cases, especially because of—their relationships with the rest of the world. Foreign leaders whose actions directly lead to death and destruction should be held accountable in their own countries. Importantly, military interventions should be treated as exceptions, and military budgets should reflect that status in any given state’s toolbox, while social services are fortified. A war may be won on a battlefield, but without making the support of life as the overarching goal, there will be no sustainable peace—only temporary quiet.