Commentary Magazine


Topic: Arab Middle East

More on the Freedom Agenda

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

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The Slap Heard Round the World

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has. Read More

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has.

The danger is that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel and close to Hamas, hijacks the revolution. The goal of U.S policy must therefore be to influence this revolution, to the degree we can, in a way that advances U.S. interests and American ideals. This means taking an active role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in support of those who stand for liberal democracy (for more, see here).

The hour has grown quite late. As Max Boot points out, the equivocation of the Obama administration needs to end. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading Egyptian dissident who appears to be rapidly gaining power, is right when he said the United States is “losing credibility by the day” by its support for the Egyptian dictator. Mr. Mubarak is, politically speaking, a Dead Man Walking. There is still time, but not much time, for the president to get on the right side of this revolution and the right side of history. Secretary of State Clinton’s comments yesterday, in which she called for an “orderly transition” to a representative government, were certainly an improvement from where the administration was last week, when she was assuring the world of the staying power of Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Biden was declaring, against three decades of evidence, that the Egyptian president was not a dictator.

Having worked in three administrations and in the White House during a series of crises, I have some sympathy for how difficult it is to navigate through roiling waters, when one has to act on incomplete information in the midst of chaotic and constantly changing events, the outcome of which is impossible to know. In that respect, the Obama administration deserves some empathy. It’s never as easy to guide events when you’re in government as it is to critique events when you’re outside of government.

Still, as my former colleague William Inboden has written, it seems to me that the Obama administration can be held responsible for two important errors: (a) its failure to anticipate what is happening in Egypt and prepare contingency plans. and (b) its neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. “These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review,” Professor Inboden writes. “The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers.” But not, apparently, to the Obama administration, which seems to have been caught completely off guard. If the spark that set the region afire was impossible to anticipate, the dry tinder of the region was not.

One Arab nation that so far hasn’t been convulsed by the political revolution now sweeping the Middle East is Iraq — the one Arab nation whose government is legitimate, the produce of free elections and political compromise, and that has the consent of the people. When it came to Iraqi democracy, most of the foreign-policy establishment assured us that self-government there could never take root, that Iraq would simply be a pawn of Iran, that the ethnic divisions in Iraq were too deep to overcome, and that (as Joe Biden argued at the time) the only solution was partition. At this stage, it’s reasonable to conclude that these judgments were quite wrong. And while one can certainly debate whether the Iraq war was worth the blood, treasure, and opportunities it cost, it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self-government. It isn’t perfect by any means — but for the Arab Middle East, it is a model for other nations to aspire.

(h/t: Victor Davis Hanson)

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An Unusual Alignment of Interests

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Over the weekend, all, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Syria’s and Libya’s calls for armed attacks against Israel. Most aren’t interested in signing a treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon, but at least they don’t yearn for another Operation Cast Lead or a Third Lebanon War. The status quo ultimately isn’t sustainable, but it’s mostly non-violent right now. There’s nothing urgent about it as long as the Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance bloc isn’t fueling its missiles.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential of the Sunni Arab regimes, flatly reject the idea of dialogue with Tehran while publicly supporting the peace process theater. Even if they’re no more sincere about the latter than Bashar al-Assad, as long as their rhetoric matches their immobility and conflict aversion, who cares?

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave Ayad Allawi and his slate of staunchly anti-Iranian candidates a plurality of votes in the recent election. The moderate Nouri al-Maliki came in second while the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last. Iran tried to Lebanonize Iraq with its Sadrist militias but seems to have failed. The Saudis are profoundly relieved, and the rest of the Arabs outside Syria surely are, too.

So what we have here, for the most part, is an Arab Middle East that wants to put the Israeli conflict on ice and resist the resistance instead — which is more or less what the Israelis want to see happen. It’s an unusual alignment of interests, but it is authentic. Iran’s Khomeinist regime has been gunning for Arabs in the Middle East since it came to power — and not just in Lebanon and Iraq but also in the Gulf and North Africa.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unreliable allies (and that’s being generous), but their interests really do overlap with our own and even with Israel’s once in a while. Assad, at the same time, can’t always be bothered even to pretend he shares interests with the U.S. and Israel. His government has been sanctioned and stigmatized for a reason, and it’s not because he’s misguided or misunderstood.

President Barack Obama clearly wants to tilt U.S. foreign policy more toward the Arabs, but he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of our alliance with Israel. Just start with what Washington, Jerusalem, and most of the Arab states have in common and build outward from there. The present alignment may only come round once in a century, so we best not blow it.

More than any other Arab head of state in the world, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has mastered the art of telling listeners what they want to hear.

Last week, he said his country is fully committed to peace in the Middle East, though he worries the Israel government isn’t. He knows this is what bien pensants in the West like to believe. He knows they find it refreshing that he can talk like a liberal while Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten apocalypse.

He also knows how to talk like the right kind of hardliner. Yesterday, he condemned the double suicide-bombing in Moscow’s underground metro and urged the international community to “fight terror around the globe.”

It’s no wonder, then, that some in Washington, Paris, and even Jerusalem think he’s a man they can do business with. All they have to do is convince him that his alliance with Iran is counterproductive, that it runs contrary to his self-evident interests and public pronouncements.

Syria, though, is the most aggressive state sponsor of terrorism in the world after Iran. Assad doesn’t even try to keep up the pretense when he isn’t preening before peace processors. Last week, he said Israel only understands force — a statement perfectly in line with his behavior. And just two days ago, he and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi urged the Palestinian Authority to scrap negotiations with Israel and return to its terrorist roots.

It’s hard to say if Western diplomats and foreign policy makers are actually suckered in by his act or if they’re just playing along because doing so suits them. Either way, they’d be wise to ignore him even when he makes the right noises and pay a little more heed to what other Arab leaders are saying instead. Their interests are far more in line with ours than Assad’s are.

Over the weekend, all, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected Syria’s and Libya’s calls for armed attacks against Israel. Most aren’t interested in signing a treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu any time soon, but at least they don’t yearn for another Operation Cast Lead or a Third Lebanon War. The status quo ultimately isn’t sustainable, but it’s mostly non-violent right now. There’s nothing urgent about it as long as the Syrian- and Iranian-led resistance bloc isn’t fueling its missiles.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two most influential of the Sunni Arab regimes, flatly reject the idea of dialogue with Tehran while publicly supporting the peace process theater. Even if they’re no more sincere about the latter than Bashar al-Assad, as long as their rhetoric matches their immobility and conflict aversion, who cares?

Meanwhile, Iraqis gave Ayad Allawi and his slate of staunchly anti-Iranian candidates a plurality of votes in the recent election. The moderate Nouri al-Maliki came in second while the pro-Iranian Iraqi National Alliance came in dead last. Iran tried to Lebanonize Iraq with its Sadrist militias but seems to have failed. The Saudis are profoundly relieved, and the rest of the Arabs outside Syria surely are, too.

So what we have here, for the most part, is an Arab Middle East that wants to put the Israeli conflict on ice and resist the resistance instead — which is more or less what the Israelis want to see happen. It’s an unusual alignment of interests, but it is authentic. Iran’s Khomeinist regime has been gunning for Arabs in the Middle East since it came to power — and not just in Lebanon and Iraq but also in the Gulf and North Africa.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are unreliable allies (and that’s being generous), but their interests really do overlap with our own and even with Israel’s once in a while. Assad, at the same time, can’t always be bothered even to pretend he shares interests with the U.S. and Israel. His government has been sanctioned and stigmatized for a reason, and it’s not because he’s misguided or misunderstood.

President Barack Obama clearly wants to tilt U.S. foreign policy more toward the Arabs, but he doesn’t have to do it at the expense of our alliance with Israel. Just start with what Washington, Jerusalem, and most of the Arab states have in common and build outward from there. The present alignment may only come round once in a century, so we best not blow it.

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Threatening Israel Isn’t Enough Anymore

Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei posted a comment on his website (yes, even he’s doing it now) predicting the inevitable destruction of Israel, a task he generally delegates to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Definitely, the day will come when nations of the region will witness the destruction of the Zionist regime,” he wrote. “How soon or late … depends on how Islamic countries and Muslim nations approach the issue.”

Israelis should be pleased to hear they’ll be allowed to exist a bit longer if Saudi Arabia dithers. And Saudi Arabia is going to dither for a long time.

According to the Financial Times, a majority of citizens in 18 Arab countries think Iran is more dangerous than Israel. And according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a substantial number of Saudi citizens are even willing to support military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.

A third of Saudi respondents say they would approve an American strike, and a fourth say they’d back an Israeli strike. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Supporting Israel is taboo in the Arab world, and that goes double when Israel is at war. This is not the sort of thing most Arabs are comfortable admitting to strangers, yet one-fourth of Saudis just did. Read More

Iran’s tyrant Ali Khamenei posted a comment on his website (yes, even he’s doing it now) predicting the inevitable destruction of Israel, a task he generally delegates to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Definitely, the day will come when nations of the region will witness the destruction of the Zionist regime,” he wrote. “How soon or late … depends on how Islamic countries and Muslim nations approach the issue.”

Israelis should be pleased to hear they’ll be allowed to exist a bit longer if Saudi Arabia dithers. And Saudi Arabia is going to dither for a long time.

According to the Financial Times, a majority of citizens in 18 Arab countries think Iran is more dangerous than Israel. And according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a substantial number of Saudi citizens are even willing to support military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.

A third of Saudi respondents say they would approve an American strike, and a fourth say they’d back an Israeli strike. The actual number is almost certainly higher. Supporting Israel is taboo in the Arab world, and that goes double when Israel is at war. This is not the sort of thing most Arabs are comfortable admitting to strangers, yet one-fourth of Saudis just did.

(Intriguingly, a clear majority of Saudis interviewed in the same survey think their own terrorism and religious extremism is more troubling than either Iran or Israel. There may be hope, at least in the long run, for that region yet.)

Iran’s rulers constantly threaten Israel with violence and even destruction because they know the Arabs are against them. They need to change the subject to something they all can agree on. Ever since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in 1979 and voided Iran’s treaty with Israel, regime leaders have believed they’ll meet less resistance while amassing power for themselves in the region by saying, Hey, we’re not after you, we’re after the Jews.

It isn’t enough anymore. Even arming and bankrolling terrorist organizations that fight Israel isn’t enough anymore. Most Arabs simply do not believe Ahmadinejad and Khamenei when they not-so-cryptically suggest that their nuclear weapons will be pointed only at Israel. By a factor of 3-to-1, Saudis believe Iran would use nuclear weapons against either them or another Arab state in the Persian Gulf before using nuclear weapons against Israel.

Most Arabs hate or at the very least have serious problems with Israel, and I expect that will be true for the rest of my life, even if the Arab-Israeli conflict comes to an end. Yet the Middle East is forever interesting and surprising, and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” even applies to an extent when “the enemy of my enemy” is the “Zionist Entity.”

This was made abundantly clear during the Second Lebanon War, in 2006, when Sunni Arab regimes tacitly took Jerusalem’s side by blaming Hezbollah for starting it and saying nothing, at least initially, about the Israeli response. The war was fought in an Arab country, but it was a proxy war between two non-Arab powers. Lebanon merely provided the battle space.

The Sunni Arab “street,” so to speak, didn’t take Israel’s side. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah managed to turn himself into a heroic big shot for a while by taking the fight to the enemy, but the most recent victims of Hezbollah’s violence were Sunnis in Beirut in 2008, and no one in the Middle East has forgotten it.

With only a few exceptions, the region has been firmly controlled by Sunni Arab regimes since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, yet none of these governments are strong enough to project power abroad. As author Lee Smith notes, they can’t even defend themselves. A number of analysts have pointed out in the last couple of years that the political agenda in the Arab Middle East is now set by non-Arabs in Jerusalem, Tehran, Washington, and to a lesser extent, Ankara. Syria’s Bashar Assad helps set the regional agenda as the logistics hub in the Iranian-Hezbollah axis, but he’s a non-Muslim Alawite, not a Sunni, and he’s doing it as a mere sidekick of the Persians. If all that weren’t enough, the Sunnis now depend on Israelis to defend them, and they’re not even sure the Israelis will do it.

We’ll know Iran’s power play is actually working if and when Sunni Arab governments issue not just boilerplate denunciations of the “Zionist Entity” but actually join the Iran-led resistance and fight Israel like they used to. In the meantime, they’re falling in behind their enemy, although they dare not admit it to anyone.

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The Eclipsing of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

According to a new study of public opinion by the folks who host the Doha Debates in Qatar, a clear majority in 18 Arab countries now thinks Iran poses a greater threat to security in the Middle East than Israel. The leadership in most of these countries has thought so for years. That average citizens now do so should be encouraging news for everyone in the region — aside from the Iranian government, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Some may find it hard to believe that so many Arabs think Iran is more threatening than Israel, but I don’t. Leave aside the fact that Iran really is more threatening. Arabs and Persians have detested each other for more than a thousand years, ever since Arabs conquered premodern Iran and converted its people to Islam. The lasting ethnic enmity between the two is compounded by religious sectarianism. Most Arabs are Sunnis, most Persians are Shias, and Sunnis and Shias have been slugging it out with each other since the 8th century. Read More

According to a new study of public opinion by the folks who host the Doha Debates in Qatar, a clear majority in 18 Arab countries now thinks Iran poses a greater threat to security in the Middle East than Israel. The leadership in most of these countries has thought so for years. That average citizens now do so should be encouraging news for everyone in the region — aside from the Iranian government, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Some may find it hard to believe that so many Arabs think Iran is more threatening than Israel, but I don’t. Leave aside the fact that Iran really is more threatening. Arabs and Persians have detested each other for more than a thousand years, ever since Arabs conquered premodern Iran and converted its people to Islam. The lasting ethnic enmity between the two is compounded by religious sectarianism. Most Arabs are Sunnis, most Persians are Shias, and Sunnis and Shias have been slugging it out with each other since the 8th century.

After the Iranian revolution against the Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic exploded into the Arab Middle East with a campaign of imperialism and terrorism. Khomeini never concealed his ambition to lead the whole Muslim world, and the government he founded has been hammering the established Sunni Arab order with a battering ram ever since.

Iran had excellent relations with Israel before Khomeini scrapped the alliance and switched to the Arab side. Like his successor Ali Khamenei, he used violent anti-Zionism to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs. It worked to an extent for a while. Most Arab governments didn’t buy it, but the people often did.

As recently as 2006, Iran, despite the fact that it has a Persian and Shia majority, picked up considerable cache among Sunni Arabs for attacking Israel from Lebanon with its Hezbollah proxy. (Lebanese Sunnis weren’t very happy about it, but Sunnis in Egypt and Syria certainly were.) The Egyptian and Saudi governments were alarmed, and they condemned Hezbollah for sparking the conflict.

This was unprecedented. While it barely registered in the West, it was huge in the Middle East, so huge that some of the more paranoid Lebanese Shias started thinking that the Sunnis and the Israelis were conspiring against them.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one excitable individual said to me at a Hezbollah rally in downtown Beirut. The guy was bonkers, of course. Israel doesn’t need bombs from the Gulf, and no one in the Gulf would donate or sell them even if Israel asked. Still, the man correctly sensed that Sunnis in the region aren’t as willing to team up with Shias against Israelis as they used to be.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a minor historical hiccup compared with the ancient feuds between Arabs and Persians, and Sunnis and Shias. It has barely lasted a fraction as long and has hardly killed anyone by comparison. Arabs and Persians killed hundreds of thousands of each other in the Iran-Iraq war alone in the 1980s. The civil war between Sunni and Shia militias in Baghdad a few years ago was much nastier than any of the Israeli-Palestinian wars.

It took time for all this to sink in with everyday Arab citizens. For a while there was a disconnect between the region’s Sunni Arab rulers and people. It looked like Iran, by supporting Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, might actually pull off the most unlikely of coups in rallying the mass of Sunni Arabs in support of Persian Shia hegemony. That disconnect now seems to be over.

Thanks to the Iranian government’s stubborn insistence on developing nuclear weapons, the age-old strife between Persians and Arabs, and Shias and Sunnis, may finally be eclipsing the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Most in the Western media and foreign-policy establishment still haven’t caught on. The policy implications for both the U.S. and Israel are profound, and the sooner Washington and Jerusalem figure this out, the better.

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More on Moran

In yesterday’s The Hill, we read this:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) went after fellow Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia Tuesday, calling on him to retract his comments about the Israel lobby. “His remarks were factually inaccurate and recall an old canard that is not true, that the Jewish community controls the media and the Congress,” Hoyer said at a news conference in the Capitol. In an interview published in the September-October issue of Tikkun magazine, Moran said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, “has pushed this war from the beginning. . . . They are so well-organized, and their members are extraordinarily powerful—most of them are quite wealthy—they have been able to exert power.” Asked if he considered Moran’s remarks anti-Semitic and if he should apologize, Hoyer reiterated that he found them “factually inaccurate” and said Moran should “retract” them. In a statement issued by Moran’s office, the congressman admitted that the tone of his remarks was “unnecessarily harsh,” but that he stood by his statements that AIPAC does not represent “mainstream American Jewish opinion.”

In today’s Politico, we learn that

Sixteen of Democratic Rep. Jim Moran’s House colleagues rebuked him in a withering letter Wednesday for saying last week that the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “pushed [the Iraq] war from the beginning.” It was the Virginia congressman’s latest dust-up over Israel—and one that brought a demand for a retraction by the House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. Moran’s colleagues . . . called the remarks of the Virginia congressman in the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun inaccurate and “deeply offensive.”

First, all praise to Representative Hoyer and his colleagues for condemning Representative Moran’s comments. As for Moran: this isn’t the first time he’s waded into this cesspool. In 2001, he said then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was coming to Washington “probably seeking a warrant from President Bush to kill at will with weapons we have paid for.” And in 2003, at an antiwar forum in Reston, Virginia, Moran said: “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should.”

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In yesterday’s The Hill, we read this:

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) went after fellow Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia Tuesday, calling on him to retract his comments about the Israel lobby. “His remarks were factually inaccurate and recall an old canard that is not true, that the Jewish community controls the media and the Congress,” Hoyer said at a news conference in the Capitol. In an interview published in the September-October issue of Tikkun magazine, Moran said the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, “has pushed this war from the beginning. . . . They are so well-organized, and their members are extraordinarily powerful—most of them are quite wealthy—they have been able to exert power.” Asked if he considered Moran’s remarks anti-Semitic and if he should apologize, Hoyer reiterated that he found them “factually inaccurate” and said Moran should “retract” them. In a statement issued by Moran’s office, the congressman admitted that the tone of his remarks was “unnecessarily harsh,” but that he stood by his statements that AIPAC does not represent “mainstream American Jewish opinion.”

In today’s Politico, we learn that

Sixteen of Democratic Rep. Jim Moran’s House colleagues rebuked him in a withering letter Wednesday for saying last week that the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, “pushed [the Iraq] war from the beginning.” It was the Virginia congressman’s latest dust-up over Israel—and one that brought a demand for a retraction by the House Democratic leader, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland. Moran’s colleagues . . . called the remarks of the Virginia congressman in the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun inaccurate and “deeply offensive.”

First, all praise to Representative Hoyer and his colleagues for condemning Representative Moran’s comments. As for Moran: this isn’t the first time he’s waded into this cesspool. In 2001, he said then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was coming to Washington “probably seeking a warrant from President Bush to kill at will with weapons we have paid for.” And in 2003, at an antiwar forum in Reston, Virginia, Moran said: “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should.”

AIPAC, Moran said in his Tikkun interview, supports “domination, not healing. They feel that you acquire security through military force, through intimidation, even through occupation, when necessary, and that if you have people who are hostile toward you, it’s OK to kill them, rather than talk with them, negotiate with them, try to understand them, and ultimately try to love them.”

Where to begin? Perhaps with this point: the chief architects of the war to liberate Iraq— President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice—are not Jewish. They are not neoconservatives. And they are not and never have been under the power and sway of the “Jewish lobby.”

The reasons to go to war with Iraq were made clear publicly and repeatedly by the President and members of his administration. We believed, as did the rest of the world and every leading member of the Democratic Party, that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of WMD (it turns out he retained the capacity to build them once the sanctions regime fell apart). In addition, Saddam was the most destabilizing figure in the Middle East, having invaded two nations (Iran and Kuwait), incursions that were responsible for the deaths of more than a million people. He was among the most malevolent figures in modern times, having committed genocide against his own people. He defied sixteen U.N. resolutions over a dozen years. He was a supporter of terrorism. And he was a sworn enemy of America. Beyond all that, President Bush wanted to begin the difficult process of turning the Arab Middle East away from tyranny and toward liberty. If AIPAC never existed, the Iraq war would have commenced. Yet Mr. Moran insists that the role of a Jewish lobby played a decisive role in the United States’s going to war.

This assertion is not only risible, as anyone who worked in the Bush administration can tell you; it is also malicious. It perpetrates the anti-Semitic canard that “The Jews” and their lackeys are all-powerful, manipulative, and in the process of hijacking American foreign policy. Think dual loyalties and all that. (This calumny is now at a bookstore near you, in the form of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.)

I don’t know what lurks in the heart of James Moran. What I do know is that he seems quite eager to fan smoldering embers, with the purpose of igniting fires of division and hatred. It’s all very ugly stuff, and it ought to be condemned in the strongest terms.

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