The Need for Geography

The Need for Geography

I am delighted to have the opportunity to guest blog on Opinio Juris, and look forward to dialoguing with you in the coming days. Many thanks for including me. I want to lead off with a few reflections on international law and geography that seem relevant in our heated pre-election environment.

Beginning with Harvard in 1947 and continuing over the decades that followed, many of the elite U.S. universities expelled their geography departments. Harvard’s president even questioned geography as a university discipline. By the end of the twentieth century, Dartmouth College was the only member of the Ivy League to still have a geography department. Although Harvard’s 2006 launch of a Center for Geographical Analysis may be a sign of this tide reversing, the dearth of geography education in many elite universities creates a troubling difficulty: Many of those making major international law and policy decisions have had minimal exposure to geography.

This lack of geographic training may serve as a barrier to thoughtful analysis of the many complex choices that arise in the international arena. For example, a recent op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times by Alec Murphy of the University of Oregon’s Geography Department highlights the dangers of simplistic geopolitical analyses of the Middle East. The piece begins by noting:

After more than three years and a deluge of information to the contrary, why do 64 percent of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had strong links with al-Qaida? Ignorance or gullibility might be part of the answer, but Donald Rumsfeld’s recent statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee provides another clue.

If we leave Iraq soon, Rumsfeld argues, “the enemy would tell us to leave Afghanistan and then withdraw from the Middle East. And if we left the Middle East, they’d order us and all those who don’t share their militant ideology to leave what they call the occupied Muslim lands from Spain to the Philippines.”

Since the early days after 9/11, two vastly different geopolitical visions have dominated thinking about the Middle East.

The Rumsfeld — and Bush — vision sees the region as a staging ground for attacks against the West by an increasingly broad-based movement aimed at expanding the influence and territory of the “Islamic world.” The other sees the region as an unstable and fragmented area with many authoritarian regimes, as well as some dangerous but diffuse terrorist movements.

He later cautions:

Despite repeated efforts by the critics of Bush’s Iraq policy to highlight the differences between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, most people’s perceptions have not changed. Why? Perhaps because the critics are not speaking to the real reasons people think there is a link.

Confronting those reasons means taking on the Bush-Rumsfeld geopolitical vision. This is no easy task given the shifting arguments coming out of the White House and the limited exposure of most Americans to the history and geography of the Middle East.

Ironically, the Bush-Rumsfeld geopolitical model and the future hope of radical Islam are remarkably similar. Radical Islamicists clearly understand the diversity of the Middle East and the opposition they face from many state leaders. Their goal is to overcome that diversity and opposition by fostering a sense of common cause against the West in general, and the United States in particular. Wars are usually won by figuring out your enemy’s geopolitical objectives and undermining them. Under the circumstances, should we really be taking our enemy’s geopolitical vision as our starting point?

He concludes:

Arguing that Saddam had no direct connection with 9/11 will have little impact on continued support for the Bush-Rumsfeld foreign policy unless it is accompanied by an effective challenge to the geopolitical visions that sustain belief in that connection. That means highlighting regional complexities and emphasizing the dangers of playing into extremist geopolitical visions. Sadly, policies motivated by the “Middle East as a staging ground” geopolitical model are like self- fulfilling prophecies. Each day we insist on treating the Middle East as a monolithic bloc, we stoke the fires that make it more so.

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