September 7, 2008
If I had to nominate the funniest cartoon I've ever seen, it was a very simple one showing a driver in a car at a "T" junction. He was staring desperately at three signs that read: No Left Turn; No Right Turn; No U-Turn.
The Middle East isn't quite like that, but the current moment--though surely temporarily--seems somewhat akin to that drawing.
It isn't as if there weren't lots of action, but that the action is merely like the above-mentioned driver revving his engine and honking his horn. I wouldn't go so far as to invoke William Shakespeare's line from "Macbeth": "Full of sound, and fury,Â signifying nothing." But the current moment's antics surely don't signify progress.
The Israel-Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel-Syria peace negotiations are going nowhere; the French plan to charm Syria into moderation is going nowhere; the Western attempt to lightly press (not push) Iran into abandoning its nuclear campaign is...well, you get the picture.
And then we await upcoming changes in Israeli politics (who will be prime minister and when will be elections), in American politics (who will be the next president in January), in Palestinian politics (how long will PA head Mahmoud Abbas's term last, a year or less?), in Egyptian politics (when will Egyptian President Husni Mubarak name a successor or die), and in Iranian politics (who will be elected president next June).
Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's important to understand that the impasses within the Middle East are not determined by those events, which have their own deeper, internal causes. One would think from many sources that if only President George Bush tried harder or Israel had a more stable government that there would be an Israel-Palestinian peace treaty next week. Comforting and hopeful, perhaps, but stupid.
Come to think of it, the most interesting aspect of Middle East politics today is not so much what actually happens but whether leaders will understand what is going on and devise policies that have some relationship to reality.
What's really important? While terrorist attacks make the headlines, the real historical news is being made by the quiet, daily battles for hearts, minds, and institutions between Arab regimes and Islamist oppositions. The future is being written in the internal maneuverings in which the hard-hardliners in Hamas have kicked out the relatively less-hard hardliners in the Gaza Strip. It is being assembled by the PA's total immobility regarding economic or social development and reducing corruption.
The trend is being set as the West convinces Iran and Syria that they can get away with anything, specifically continuing radical policies not only without cost but even with apparent diplomatic gains. It won't be much longer, they are saying in Tehran and Damascus, until the West gives way entirely. Syria gets Lebanon and no investigation of its terrorist assassinations there; Iran gets nuclear weapons; while Europe and America accept this new status quo.
In search of having a list of great achievements for U.S. policy under the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, who is being good this week. Nothing has changed substantially except Qadhafi was intimidated by a moment of perceived U.S. power, which has now passed. Given Qadhafi's proverbial restlessness, imaginative brain, and likely view that America is not so strong, this era of good feelings might not last very long.
In Iraq, every turnover of a province or statistical downturn of terrorist attacks is a signal of relative success for recent U.S. policy there. Yet this development, as good as it is, surely isn't a one-way street. Sunni tribes may not stay bought; tremendous factionalism within the Shia majority could blow up the situation. Trying to handle the repeatedly postponed issue of who controls the city of Kirkuk could lead to Arab-Kurdish conflict.
Again, though, the story is being written in the details. A new Iraq could be emerging whose main allies are the United States and Iran, a result of the Sunni Arab world's terrible mishandling of the Iraq issue, treating the Iraqi regime as a virtual pariah state.
The misunderstanding of all of this relates to what a high-ranking State Department official used to privately call "the sword in the stone" thesis. (It's such a powerful concept that even this person nowadays has fallen under its spell). Only the true king, went some variants on the legend of King Arthur, could pull the sword Excalibur from the rock. The Arab-Israeli conflict, or more generally the unstable Middle East, becomes the diplomatic equivalent. Solve it, and your name will live for all time. Oh, and you get a Nobel Peace Prize for your mantelpiece.
And so many believe that if only there was some brilliant ruler with the right ideas, everything in the Middle East could be solved. Unfortunately, this idea is usually embraced by naïve politicians with the wrong ideas. Senator Barrack Obama is currently on that list, and French President Francois Sarkozy has apparently nominated himself.
In the Middle East, the same thing takes the form of a great resistance fighter, with Salah al-Din the role model. At this point, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad raise their hands and shout, "Me! Me!"
Note well that in the West this idea is associated with being nice to the extremists through concessions and confidence-building, while in the Middle East it is associated with being tough and violent, smiting the infidels hip and thigh. That contrast alone should tell you something.
What is needed is not some super new plan, a surfeit of charm, or the great leader but rather a great change in Middle East ideologies and societies. Not only is that process a difficult one, but it isn't even starting. To cite one example, in 2008, Palestinian moderation and realism is no greater than it was in 1988 and arguably worse than it was in 1998. To note another, there are more radical Islamists than ever.Â If anything, things are headed in the wrong direction and a lot of the mainstream ideas about in the West would make things worse.
Sort of makes nothing happening sound better.