Hogan's Alley

Friday, July 20, 2007

Rethinking The Middle East Mess

(Photograph of Mark Helprin by Jim Harrison for Harvard Magazine)

When last I wrote about Iraq I hopefully noted reports that the long awaited oil sharing legislation has been agreed to by the parties. Sadly, that was nothing but a chimera generated by smoke and mirrors. It fell apart quickly and will fester over the course of the coming August vacation period of the Iraqi legislature.

In America, we witness the continuing display of politics as show business. The Democrats in Congress, unable to muster enough votes for any meaningful measures to stop Bush, continue to conduct performance art. They are protected by the certain knowledge that their inability to force a withdrawal from Iraq means that they will not have to have any accountability for the aftermath of that withdrawal. Assuming they take the White House in 2008, the new President will have the power to conduct a draw down in any way she or he chooses and will have four years to manage, absorb and spin the outcome.

The President, for his part, seems to be an immovable object. He has persuaded himself that the future of the region, the safety of the United States and his legacy as President will be enhanced by his quixotic persistence in trying to wring some form of quietude in Iraq out of the current chaos. You can count on him to keep stumbling ahead on the ground until the last minute of January 20, 2009. He may, for the sake of his party, try to craft some apparent reduction in the number of troops before November 2008, but that too will only be for show.

In the midst of this hopelessness, Andrew Sullivan has pointed to two recent articles that attempt to rethink the entire equation in the Middle East and to craft a silk purse from the distinctly non-kosher pig's ear we find today.

First there was Sarah Kass in the Wall Street Journal, passed on by Thomas Barnett. This was followed by a piece in a similar vein by Mark Helprin in yesterday's NY Times. (Beware the TimesSelect wall.)

The central idea is that the current disorganization in the region and the apparent rise of Shiite fundamentalism in the spectral persona of Ahmadinejad's Iran, coupled with the breakup of the Palestinian state, may just provide an opportunity to begin to settle the central festering sore that has served to inflame the Middle East for decades. Maybe, just maybe, there is an opportunity to forge a settlement between Israel and the Fatah group in the West Bank that could be approved by the Sunni states in the region, allowing them to refocus on the growing threat from Iran.

Both pieces should be read fully, but I will quote Helprin here, both because of the difficulty of accessing his piece for some and my general affection for him as a writer, more about that later. He suggests that thirty years ago the smart money among the commentators was betting against any lasting peace between Israel and Egypt when Begin and Sadat reached their accord. The fact is that that agreement has not been breached in the intervening period.

Some quarters of government, burnt by the predictable failure of the current administration to transform the political culture of the Middle East into that of the Vermont town meeting, deny this potential, as if by analogy. But the analogy is invalid. The conditions are not the same, the task is entirely different and, unlike the United States, Israel has no timetable (implicit or otherwise) for withdrawal from the region — as its enemies well know.

As America blunts its sword in Iraq, it has relieved Iran of much anxiety in regard to its own vulnerabilities, set up a predominantly Shiite government in Baghdad, and made the Arab world more receptive to Iranian views. This Shiite ascendancy is comprised of a resurgent though weak Iran, Hezbollah’s Shiite rump state in Lebanon chastened by the war it “won” a year ago (with such a victory, defeat is unnecessary), and the alignment with Iran of Syria and Sunni radicals like Hamas.

Contrary to the received wisdom, last summer Hezbollah overplayed its hand. Israel emerged shaken but with few casualties and an economy that actually grew during the hostilities. It took 4,000 of the vaunted Katyusha rockets to kill 39 Israelis, they did little material damage, and not one has been launched in the year since the war. Israel showed that upon provocation it could and would destroy anything in its path, thus creating a Lebanese awakening that has split the country and kept Hezbollah fully occupied. Though Hezbollah is rearming, it remains shy of Israel.

Hamas, too, has overplayed its hand, which has provided the opening from which a Palestinian-Israeli peace may emerge. For the first time since 1948, a fundamental division among the Palestinians presents a condition in which the less absolutist view may find shelter and take hold.

He points out that the wider region may also want to take advantage of this opportunity:

The sudden and intense commonality of interest between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is the equivalent of the Israeli-Egyptian core of 1977. But today, the Arabs, in the second circle, have largely reversed position. Fearful of Iran’s sponsorship of war, chaos and revolution, they will apply their weight against the rejectionists.

Egypt, the Persian Gulf states and Jordan have so much to contend with at home and in the east that they cannot afford an active front in their midst, and are therefore forming ranks against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, bringing most of the rest of the Arab states with them.

This is extraordinary and it is where we are now: on the verge of a rare alignment of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the leading Arab nations and the major powers. Though it is true that one of Moscow’s chief interests is to keep the Middle East roiled so as to preserve the high oil prices that are now Russia’s lifeblood, when the region moved from Soviet to Western arms Moscow was relegated to the periphery, where it remains. Though Europe is militarily paralyzed, it wields great economic incentives; and though the United States has of late been a graceless lummox drunkenly knocking everything awry, its powers remain pre-eminent and its will constructive.

The principals, the important Arab states and the leading powers of the West are arrayed against a radical terrorist front that, unlike the one in Iraq, is geographically fractured, relatively contained, terribly poor and very much outnumbered. Anything for the worse can happen in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and usually does; but now the chief pillars of rejectionist policy lie flat and the spectrum of positions is such that each constructively engaged party can accommodate the others.

In the heat of a failing war, historical processes have unfrozen. If Israel and the Palestinian Authority can pursue a strategy of limited aims, concentrating on bilateral agreements rather than a single work of fallible grandeur, they may accomplish something on the scale of Sadat’s extraordinary démarche of 30 years ago. The odds are perhaps the best they have been since, and responsible governments should recognize them as the spur for appropriate action and risk.

For such a desirable outcome to occur, many parts will have to align neatly and consecutively. Tony Blair and his Group of Four will play a central part. With any luck intelligence will prevail in Jerusalem and Ramallah and the other capitals of the region.

I am less sanguine about the likelihood of intelligence in Washington. Perhaps this new view of the region will take hold, if repeated often enough, like the concept of a three way division of Iraq gained currency last year. If adopted and nurtured by one or more Presidential candidates and other players, perhaps it will achieve critical mass. That assumes, of course, that further analysis does not poke some great holes in its logic.

As for my affection for Mark Helprin, it is primarily for his novels, although his writings on world affairs are also always thought provoking. His three great novels are "A Winter's Tale", which magically envisions a Manhattan divided between the very rich and the very poor in the new ice age that was then (1983) envisioned by environmentalists. This was followed by "A Soldier of the Great War", which remembers a soldiers experiences in the Italian Alps during World War I. Finally, there is "Memoir From Antproof Case" in which a devoted hater of coffee relocates to South America, from where he ponders the events of his life.

Choose any one of them. If you are looking for an intelligent, compelling novel this summer, you cannot go wrong.

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