The Middle East Needs Some Time Alone

My mind says not to try to do this in less than book-length form, but I don’t want to spend more of your time or mine rehashing tired old arguments, or reinterpreting old quarrels.  This contentious part of the world and its intractable disagreements are beyond dysfunctional in myriad ways, so why is the US still hopeful of being the magical peacemaker from the other side of the world?  What really can be done?

Disclosure: I am a retired US Foreign Service officer, but with no real expertise in this part of the world.  My wife is Lebanese-American, but she is not my “muse” on this topic.  We met outside the Middle East; we  may agree on some portions of US policy in the region, and disagree on others.  I have visited (briefly) both Israel and Lebanon, but never served in either.  Everything you will read here is my own opinion, formed over decades of listening to and reading dismal news from there and looking at it all with a critical eye.  Similarly, all conclusions are my own.  Whew!  In other words, this is all coming from me and only me.

An anecdote: In 1984, when I was being screened for State Department employment, two interviewers told me the ground rules of the interview: that one would pose a question and I would have up to seven and a half minutes to respond, whereupon the other would be free to cross-examine me.  I said I understood, and they gave me a glass of water.  Then the first one asked what I thought US policy should be in the Middle East.  I came back a few seconds later with what I thought was a good icebreaker of an answer:  “If I give a good enough answer to this one, are you going to recommend that I be nominated as Secretary of State?”  One smiled.  One didn’t.  You just can’t please them all when it comes to that part of the world.

So how does one summarize centuries of strife and circumstances that constantly threaten to draw the US (or for that matter, Britain, France, the EU, Russia and others) into regional conflicts, cold or hot, and thus, make them larger than regional?  Many believe that the region became troubled only with the appearance of modern Israel.  That’s an oversimplified view, since it seems to define one event as the genesis of everything troublesome that has happened since then.  So it would follow that if somehow Israel were to disappear, all would be well; thus the appeal to some.  Of course, several million Israelis have no intention to disappear.  Neither do several million  displaced Arabs.  The US tends to see all the Middle East through an Arab-Israeli lens, so I’ll stick mostly to that, for the sake of brevity.

It is true that Israel was an imposed “solution” to a primarily European problem: the surviving remnant of European Jews had just been through the Holocaust, and they wanted a homeland of their own.  This was nothing new.  There was already a Zionist movement that advocated a gathering of small Jewish populations into a homeland in the region known as Palestine, recently part of the Ottoman Empire.  That empire had supported the losing side in World War I, which resulted in its dismemberment.  Modern Turkey, the Ottoman core, was established in the early 1920’s.  Other, less central parts of the empire became the list of countries of today’s Middle East, with borders drawn largely by European powers.  Palestine, however, remained a British “protectorate” under a League of Nations mandate until its division (in 1948) into Israel and Arab territories.

At the time of that division, there was some discussion at high levels of the US government as to whether the new state should even be recognized; those in favor cited the establishment of a homeland for a population that had been decimated in the recent war.  Those opposed warned that recognition would harm relations with the Arab nations in the area.  Both positions had some merit, at least from a “realpolitik” standpoint; President Truman came down on the “recognition” side.

The next 25 years or so saw a continuation of the slow-motion struggle among three principal actors: exterior powers (the US, Russia, Britain, France, and sometimes the United Nations) the Israelis, and the Arab populations both inside Israel and throughout the Middle East.  Oddly enough, the impetus for continuing struggle on all sides seems to be based on assumptions regarding the eventual outcome.  These assumptions (which I will detail below) are nebulous and unproven, but fervently believed and acted upon by all parties.

A large part of the Jewish population of Israel appears to believe that the longer the situation remains status quo on the ground, it becomes more resistant to any large-scale change.  There are also currents of religious justification (“God gave us this land…”) probably the most unshakeable conviction, since it can never be proven or disproven.

Arabs who live in Israel are persuaded that their population will eventually overwhelm the Jewish one, and the power of numbers will overturn the “Jewish state” now situated on what they refer to as “Occupied Palestine.”

Arabs throughout the Middle East piously offer support to displaced Palestinians, including arms.  Conspicuously missing: offers to admit any of these people to official residency and eventual citizenship.

Some exterior actors (the US included) seem to work on a two-assumption track: 1) That if only everyone in the region gets past their own assumptions about what is “right” and learns to see what is possible and feasible, this can all be overcome, and 2) All that is really necessary for assumption 1) to happen is for a key Arab actor to get behind it.  “Key Arab actor” in this case might mean Saudi Arabia, or conceivably Egypt.  US efforts, then, always seem aimed at moderation in Arab action and reaction to transient stimuli, and at Israeli patience and moderation to what Israelis see as provocations by the Palestinian population both within and just outside Israel.

The Soviet Union in the old days, and Russia today, aim mainly at preserving influence (and a Mediterranean military presence) in the area.  Today’s Russian machinations in the region must be financed by a much smaller oil export income than was the case even three years ago; Putin made a noisy but not very effective intervention in Syria to prop up Assad’s government, but it has largely ended with Assad still in the presidency, but only as long as the Syrian military feels secure in the flow of Russian support (material, advisory, and intelligence) for the core of privileged military officers and their civilian facilitators.  Should Russia find it expedient to cut Assad loose and support someone else, it will happen, with what many would find surprising speed and ease.

So the game goes on year after year, with US effort and money going to try to create a climate of moderation and goodwill, while current Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu nods his head, all the while authorizing more settlements in Palestinian areas, the better to consolidate eventual Israeli control in case he is ever forced to any real negotiations.  Palestinian leaders don’t even nod any more as their part of a “two-state solution” grows ever smaller.  Hezbollah controls the southern half of Lebanon with the tacit support of the local populace, since they have seen Hezbollah stand up to Israeli might–more than they have seen other Arab forces do.

Meanwhile, two trends among Palestinians work against any permanent settlement: the belief that History is on their side, and they eventually will conclusively win the conflict, and an increasing radicalization of Palestinian thought–an acceptance of the perceived need for more or less permanent struggle against what they see as illegal occupation of their land.

So where are we–meaning the US–in today’s Middle East?  We are not often seen as an honest broker by anyone, since there are fluctuations in US policy with each presidential administration, and 4 or 8 years is a blink of the eye to those whose views are shaped by ancient ideologies and religions that celebrate heroes such as Suleiman or David.  And the idea that we have “leverage” in the area is overplayed.  We export billions in military equipment to Israel yearly and also to its natural foes (though the exports to one always outweigh the other).  This buys us little favor or influence with any of the parties.

We receive mainly hostile reaction from the Arab actors on the one side, and this has grown stronger with the addition of so many stories of death and destruction in Iraq since the ill-conceived war there began in 2003, with a US-led invasion.  The infamous photos from Abu Ghraib, the looting of museums, etc., would have gotten plenty of ill will, but the subsequent revelations that there was no real plan for a postwar recovery in Iraq, and that the architects of said war, notably Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc., appeared to have no idea of the nature of Iraqi internal conflicts made it worse on an exponential scale.

Iraq has become more satellite-like in its relations with Iran, for years the bête noire of the region in US policy.  Can anyone detect any clear, intelligent policy aims in any of this?

Are there bright spots on a map littered with fiascos such as Libya, where there is no longer any functioning government?  It seems Tunisia may have continued incremental progress since the Arab Spring; Egypt, on the other hand, seems more a nest of vipers than ever before, uncertain of whether to go mostly fundamentalist Islamic or full-throated 7th century.

Meanwhile, the elephant in the room of this group of (primarily) Muslim nations, Saudi Arabia, has succeeded in spending the last century avoiding any sort of sociological or political reform.  It remains a sort of family theocracy, where women have almost no political or educational  rights; the House of Saud (which now numbers in the hundreds) shares little power with the people; there is little governmental accountability; and most work other than the traditional professions is done by foreigners–who have even fewer rights than the citizens and can be deported if they do anything to upset this “order.”

Saudi Arabia has exported militants all over the region and beyond to espouse the Wahhabi version of Islam, an extremely strict and equally intolerant strain which has animated many enthusiastic acts of terror and destruction.  It is financed by the income gained by the kingdom from the sale of oil, of which, of course, Saudi Arabia has huge reserves.  This sets up a dynamic whereby the oil is bought by Western nations to feed their industries and cars, and the money can be put to any use the King (and the powerful clergy) decides is fit.  The influence of Wahhabism has grown more powerful and more intolerant over the last three decades as oil income has peaked.

Where does the US come in?  As one of the foremost enablers of the hellish Saudi regime, not only for the US money that flows for the Saudi oil empire, but also for the fact that US troops were used with the active encouragement of that regime during the two Gulf Wars–largely to protect Saudi Arabia from the threat of Iraqi attack a la Kuwait,1991.  Successive US administrations have turned a blind eye to indefensible Saudi practices, up to and including beheading people for adultery, all so the oil would keep flowing, and American companies would continue to profit.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Netanyahu openly attempts to meddle in internal US politics, as in the recent kerfuffle which saw him wrangle an invitation to speak before Congress on direct invitation behind the back of the President, the Constitutional head of foreign policy.  Both political parties try to look like the bigger “friend of Israel” during all this, but the Republicans, in their current frenzy of Obama derangement, were only too glad to encourage and abet this propaganda stunt.

Israel is not a US ally.   There is no treaty of mutual defense.  Their efforts to spy on Western nations play on the loyalty of Jewish citizens of those nations, but are not limited to that method, and do not exclude the United States.  The case of Jonathan Pollard is illustrative, but there have been many others.

Why then is US policy so favorably inclined toward Israel?  Simply put, Israel knows how to play the game.  They have really good lobbyists and PR people.  Even that, though, does not account for all of the favoritism.  Once again, religion plays a role.  Though the US has no established religion, various Protestant denominations and splinter groups believe and teach that Israel is special to God Almighty, and therefore must be protected and shielded from harm.  Laugh, if you like, but as long as some Congressman in some backwoods district can appeal to his constituents that he is doing the Lord’s work by helping protect His chosen people (never mind that it may be in preparation for the Apocalypse) he’ll do it.

I wish our Congress would find some other way to encourage the development of peace and understanding in the Middle East that didn’t involve sending troops or money.  It couldn’t do much less good than we’ve already accomplished.

President Obama’s somewhat standoffish attitude toward Netanyahu and the lukewarm reception he got in a recent visit to Saudi Arabia tell me something–that these two countries, so accustomed to silent US assent to almost anything they decide to do, may see that era grinding to an end.  If that is the case, I look forward to a new era with a more even-handed US policy.