Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reality and unreality in the Middle East

UPDATE: Maybe the ISG is just a decoy blowing smoke in our faces and the real action is elsewhere. Everybody who's somebody in the Middle East has a sponsor. The Kurds have us, in effect, as their sponsors. Willingly or not, the Iraqi Shi'ites have Iran as their sponsor.

That leaves only the Iraqi Sunnis without a sponsor. Hmmm ... I wonder who could fill that role (hat tip to Reynolds). And there's more ... and this ....
Tom Donnelly of the Center for Strategic and International Studies puts it better than I can:
It just hasn't worked out the way the punditocracy planned: The "adults" of the Bush 41 administration were supposed to talk Bush 43 off the ledge, get him to give up his dream of democracy in Iraq and return to reality. But the main recommendation of the Baker- Hamilton "Iraq Study Group" - withdrawal by early 2008, covered by negotiations with Iran and Syria - has little value outside Washington, and none in Baghdad or the region.
The ISG report (the Hamilton part) actually has valuable advice, similar to the 9/11 Commission Report, on changing how the US government works. But the diplomatic part (the Baker part) is mostly a fantasy of misguided and/or obsolete ideas. (The funny thing is the early 2008 withdrawal date was the original Pentagon plan - that's how Washington works: you present your original plan as a bold breakthrough and radical departure. :-) The Washington Post's editorial board weighs in cogently on this aspect, and former Reagan-Bush-Clinton diplomat Dennis Ross discusses the Iran-Syria axis at length here in the New Republic (requires subscription). And read this as well. Or, if you prefer your politics in the form of cartoons, US News obliges with this priceless offering: a grim situation can't be made cuter than that.

Iran and Syria aren't friendly or ready to help - they're only ready to deal if they're afraid of us or want something we can give them, as Max Boot explains (requires registration). What happens months or a year or two hence, when we no longer have anything to bargain with, and they're no longer afraid of us? Chaos, that's what - a full-blown proxy war in Iraq, Lebanon, and maybe elsewhere. Lebanon is already feeling the intense Syrian pressure again, as Hezbollah prepares to destroy what's left of the Cedar Revolution.

The ISG report did reach its real audience, the news media, incessantly asking, "Will Bush listen?", never asking the right question: "Will the media listen?" Of course, the media has largely given up on reporting from Iraq. Most of its reporting is from Washington, which makes sense: that's where the main quagmire is.

The tragedy of the neoconservative democracy crusade is that it's pre-empted real conservative policy possibilities, a "really real" realism based on correct understanding of the Middle East and the conflict were now in, instead of the ever-misleading and now-obsolete Baker-Scowcroft "realism," or the well-intentioned but now-fading-into- history liberal-internationalism.

What we need to recognize is that the policy paradigms of the Cold War era are exhausted and obsolete. "Realism" is dead. The old standbys (it's Israel's fault! start up the "peace process" again! suck up to the Saudis!) will no longer work. (For one thing, the designated fall guys for the US-Iraq mess - Israel and the Kurds - are not lining up to be sacrificed - why should they? That era is over.) What we need is new ME policies reconsidered from scratch with the oil factor and Israel playing no fundamental role. The ME's basic problems have to do with a toxic mix of Islam, political illegitimacy, and religious reaction. The region's dominant and long-indulged groups (Arabs, Sunni Arabs in particular) are largely unwilling to face their own problems and instead obsessively blame outsiders or "deviants." The oil money hugely exacerbates these problems, fueling an extreme fantasy of grievance and entitlement, while flooding the region with the by-products of modern civilization: electronic media, modern weapons, etc., that reinforce the Islamic world's growing reaction and intolerance.

The resulting conflict is a clash between civilizations, but also a clash within a civilization, giving rise to a series of wars (Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, etc.) that are not "civil" in the strict sense - they do not respect national boundaries, because Islam denies the legitimacy of the nation-state. The conflict is a composite of smaller conflicts, between Sunnis and Shi'ites, between moderate and extremist Muslims, between Arabs and non-Arabs, and between Muslims and non-Muslims, all simultaneously. Superficially, these wars are just internal tribal and sectarian conflicts. But when you look closer, you discover that in Iraq, as in Lebanon, local conflicts are blown up and made much more difficult by the sponsored-proxyship phenomenon, a classic feature of the modern ME "dark ages", inflamed by the honor-shame system. The sponsors here: Iran and Syria (sponsoring the Shiites and even helping the Sunnis) and private parties in the Gulf sponsoring the Sunni jihadists allied with al Qaeda. As with Israel and the Palestinians in the 90s, attempts like the Oslo "peace process" to move towards conflict resolution are defeated when the most extreme parties can look towards hardline rejectionist states like Iran and Syria for support. Local conflicts become swept up in global jihad and are transformed from difficult to impossible.

Meeting these challenges means breaking with classical American and Western policy, largely driven by the need for oil, protecting oil supplies and oil regimes, and recycling petrodollars through contracts. (The resulting corruption-for-oil-$$ needs to be seen for what it is and so often isn't. See here, for example. Unlike the ludricrous "blood-for-oil" lies of a few years ago, the oil-$$-realism-sucking-up-to-the-Saudis/ Iranians/whatever phenomenon is very real.) In the case of Europe, important additional factors include a non-fatal but persistent anti-semitism and the weird combination of prejudice against Muslim immigrants while pandering to the worst elements of the Islamic world, especially a factor in France.

This kind of cynical "realism" seems, well, "realistic" - workable at least in the short run. But we've outlived the short run and today live with the consequences, like al Qaeda. "Realistic" policies like this are myopic and destructive in the long run. And remember: we're living in that long run now.

The wrong-headed thing called "realism" today (the Saudi-Egypt-Kissinger-Baker- Scowcroft axis) is superficially like the real 19th century thing, but at a deeper level, has little connection with reality. Today, we're faced with a clash of civililzations even farther from 19th-century balance-of-power realism than the 20th-century clash of ideologies.

There are real barriers to implementing better ME policies. The oil-$$-corruption factor plays a large and insidious role here, as it is not only in play among Washington power brokers, but also fuels "radical" "Middle East studies" in academia. It is rarely reported in the American news media, unless a catastrophe like 9/11 happens. Notice how the issue came up after 9/11, but then faded away. The news media returned to "the" ME conflict, which is supposedly just Israel and the Palestinians. The news media almost never register the truth: there is one big meta-conflict (jihad, or violent political Islam), made of up lots of smaller conflicts, of which Israel is a piece.

The news media itself is a major barrier to better thinking. It endlessly recycles obsolete and wrong ideas and policies, if they fit its dimwitted and warped view of the world. And since there is so little shame in public life any more, people associated with policy and intellectual failures get to peddle their wares endlessly too, long after they've overstayed their welcome. They're never kicked out of the public square and can clog it with no end of distractions and junk. Only the better-educated editorial writers and experienced commentators can act as a counterweight to the flow of political detritus through the "news" and "news analysis" (read: BS) columns.

POSTSCRIPT: A remarkable and prescient essay (in French) "Towards a New Foreign Policy" appeared in 1992 that (fourteen years ago!) predicted the decline of traditional realism in the post-Cold War period with a startling clarity that elites all over the Western world haven't yet caught up with. The anonymous essay in particular dwelled on the obsolete and destructive Arabist policies that de Gaulle inaugurated in the mid-1960s. The pseudonymous author is reportedly now a highly-placed French diplomat. His essay is discussed and quoted at length (in English) here.

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