By Barry Rubin
Prof. Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university.
by Barry Rubin
March 22, 2007
Whether or not the Middle East is beyond redemption, it certainly seems to be beyond satire. The attempt to turn radicals into moderates, terrorism into resistance, serial political murderers into negotiating partners, and situations of total anarchy into great opportunities for diplomatic progress never ends.
But here is one of my favorites in this genre, quoted from Newsweek--where it was published without any hint of irony:
"'The Supreme Leader [of Iran, Sayyid Ali Khameini] was deeply suspicious of the American government,' says a Khameini aide whose position does not allow him to be named. 'But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts [of September 11] and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America.' For two weeks, worshipers at Friday prayers even stopped chanting 'Death to America.'"
Two whole weeks! Is that holding out the hand of friendship or what?
At any rate, this reveals one of the main problems of the Middle East at least as far as Western involvement is concerned. Far too much of the quality time of leaders, policymakers, and diplomats is spent on the impossible--or at least highly improbable.
Here are the four things that, aside from Iraq, take up the most time on the agenda of Western leaders regarding the Middle East. All of them are doomed to fail, which makes one wonder about this set of priorities and manner of thinking.
Making friends with Iran while trying to persuade it, through relatively mild measures, to stop working on nuclear weapons.
The fact is that Iran is not going to abandon this drive to get atomic bombs and the missiles to deliver them on target, certainly not unless subjected to the toughest possible diplomacy. Everyone should know this by now. Yet, the pretense is that watered-down diplomatic wrist-slaps are going to make some difference. This doesn't mean that someone needs to attack Iran--though the threat of attack, even as a bluff, is a key pressure--but it does mean Tehran's leaders have to conclude that the cost of proceeding is too high and dangerous. And that's a long way from happening yet.
As for reconciling Iran, the nature of the regime--not just of the president but of the whole ruling establishment--is just not going to make that possible. On the one hand, there is ideology. Iran's leaders believe what they say and have their own goals of regional hegemony. On the other hand, reinforcing this strategy is what the regime needs to do to survive, which requires having the United States, the West, and Israel as scapegoats for its own failures and justifications for its repression.
Making friends with Syria to get it to stop supporting terrorism against Iraq and Israel; stop seeking to take over Lebanon also using terrorism. As with the case of Iran, however, the regime in Damascus is not just a blank slate or a government asking for the redress of reasonable grievances. Here, too, there are a whole set of other problems: the nature of the dictatorship as well as its ideology, ambitions, and requirements for survival.
Consider the tale of night-vision goggles. U.S. forces in Iraq discovered that Syria gave the terrorist insurgents there night-vision goggles. Israeli forces in Lebanon found that Syria gave Hizballah night-vision goggles. European governments are now considering Syrian requests for even more night-vision goggles, supposedly to be used to block arms-smuggling to its own clients, smuggling which the Syrian government itself is doing.Here is what a reporter from the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram, Dina Ezzat, who investigated the issue, concluded about what Israel would get if it gave the Golan Heights, and if the West gave Lebanon to Syria. Their first alleged reward would be "the stability of the regime" in Damascus. In other words, they would get the pleasure of having President Bashar al-Assad still in power. Second, Damascus would be willing to curtail "its facilitation of the arming of Hizballah while decreasing its assistance and accommodation of Palestinian and Iraqi militant resistance groups." And, third, it would be willing to reduce "its intelligence cooperation with Iran." That's it. Not real peace, just a 20 percent reduction in covert war.
Trying to moderate Hamas. Like Syria and Iran, Hamas does not want to be moderate. Unlike them, it hardly pretends otherwise. It continues to make clear its virulent anti-Semitism and goal of destroying Israel. To their credit, the Europeans are holding the line. But again, a huge amount of time and energy is going into this dead-end effort.
Suddenly, at the worst possible moment in history for success, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the top priority for many governments. Fatah has collapsed; Hamas is extremist and believes time is on its side, every Israeli concession has inspired escalation by the Palestinians and others. Every lesson of the last 14 years has pointed at the intractability of the conflict. True, efforts can be justified by saying, "We have to try" or the belief that pretending to do so will make Arabs and Muslims happy. Yet, now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pinning her reputation on making progress. Why tie your future to an inevitable failure?
I could add here two other points--thinking it possible to "solve" the internal situation in Iraq and expecting that radical Islamists can be reconciled to Western interests. What do all these things have in common? Not looking at how the interests and ideas of extremists direct them; wishful thinking that concessions and empathy can resolve real conflicts. And so on.
Now, ask yourself this question: with so much effort going into guaranteed failures, is it surprising that there are so few successes?