Commentary Magazine


The Middle East Has Always Been Hard

As Jennifer Rubin pointed out yesterday, President Barack Obama admitted in an interview with Joe Klein at Time magazine that he was "too optimistic" about his ability to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that it’s "just really hard." Those of us with experience in the region are thinking, "Well, duh," right about now, but at the same time, I sympathize. In the first half of the last decade, I felt naively optimistic about the region myself.

Things were looking up after the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party regime in Iraq, the termination of the second Palestinian intifada, and the Beirut Spring that ousted the Syrian military occupation from Lebanon. I was hardly alone in getting carried away. Middle Easterners felt it too — or at least some did. "It’s strange for me to say it," Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said shortly after the uprising against Bashar Assad’s overlordship in his country began, "but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world. The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

The Middle East’s "Berlin Wall," so to speak, may have cracked, but it didn’t fall. Iraq all but dismembered itself after its successful election. Hezbollah blew up the Levant and put Lebanon’s "March 14" revolution on ice. Palestinians elected Hamas and transformed Gaza into a suppurating jihad state. It could be a while before I allow myself to feel upbeat and sunny again. The Middle East makes suckers of everyone who feels upbeat and sunny.

Nothing happened in the region when Obama took office that justified a renewed sense of optimism. If the Green Revolution in Iran replaces the Islamic Republic regime with something more civilized, that will be something. Even then I’d be careful. Violent conflict is the default state of affairs in that part of the world, and it always has been.

Most Westerners who get involved in the Middle East come away disappointed and disillusioned after a while. One common problem is a kind of projection, a belief that the region is more like our part of the world than it actually is. For instance, Obama said, as though it surprises him, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hard "even for a guy like George Mitchell who helped bring about the peace in Northern Ireland."

Northern Ireland is in Western Europe — in the United Kingdom even. The two conflicts resemble each other in a couple of ways, but Ireland is nothing like Gaza. The people of Belfast are no less inheritors of the liberal Western tradition than residents of Dublin and London. No part of the world at the turn of the 21st century was more amendable to conflict resolution than Western Europe, and that included even the rough parts of Western Europe. The war there was barely even a war compared with the Middle East’s wars. Slightly more than 100 people were killed on average each year in Northern Ireland during "the troubles" between 1969 and 2001, fewer than the number murdered in many American cities during peace time. Each year of the second intifada, by contrast, was 10 times as deadly. (Each year of the Lebanese civil war, meanwhile, was 100 times deadlier.)

Northern Ireland was a ways outside the Western mainstream, but it had that peaceful mainstream it could join. The entire Middle East is difficult and dysfunctional. There is no peaceful political mainstream. Ethnic and religious violence is normal — not just between Arabs and Israelis, but also between Arabs and Persians, Arabs and Kurds, Kurds and Turks, Kurds and Persians, Muslims and Christians, and Sunnis and Shias. The idea that peace is likely to break out there any time soon was memorably ridiculed in the Adam Sandler comedy You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. "They’ve been fighting for 2,000 years," said the main character’s mother. "It can’t be much longer."

I’ve been critical of some of the president’s Middle East policies, but it isn’t his fault the Arab-Israeli conflict has now lasted 62 years instead of winding down in the 61st. It may not be as intractable as the one between Sunnis and Shias — that one has lasted for more than 1,000 years — but nobody can fix this right now. The Middle East doesn’t need a diplomatic process; it needs a revolutionary transformation of its political culture, like what we saw in Western Europe after World War II and in Eastern Europe after the real Berlin Wall fell. Something similar may very well occur in the Middle East at some point, but it’s not going to happen all of a sudden because Barack Obama or any other American president tweaks our foreign policy.

If the "peace process" is sure to fail right now — and it is — announcing it as a foreign-policy priority only sets Obama up as a weak leader who can’t deliver the goods. His credibility suffers, and so does America’s leverage. He ought to focus on conflict management and damage control, and try not to make anything worse.

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