Dennis Ross, Special Advisor on Iran for the Secretary of State, has a book coming out next month that inconveniently takes issue with the Obama Administration’s thesis of “linkage.” “Of all the policy myths that have kept us from making real progress in the Middle East,” Ross writes in a chapter titled “The Mother of All Myths,” “one stands out for its impact and longevity: the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away.” Meanwhile, the Obama Administration – which Ross currently works for – is pressuring Israel in part because the president hopes progress toward the resolution of the Palestinian conflict will help derail Iran’s drive for the development of nuclear weapons.
Ross finished the manuscript and sold it to Viking Press before the president hired him, but he was right when he wrote it, and he’s still right today. The biggest problems in the Middle East – and Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons surely is one of them – have little or nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Iranian regime’s hatred of Israel is real, to be sure, and nuclear missiles in its arsenal would pose a serious threat, but Iran, in all likelihood, would wish to arm itself with the world’s most powerful weapons even if Israel did not exist.
Scholar Martin Kramer identifies nine regional “conflict clusters” and argues that “these many conflicts are symptoms of the same malaise: the absence of a Middle Eastern order, to replace the old Islamic and European empires. But they are independent symptoms; one conflict does not cause another, and its ‘resolution’ cannot resolve another.”
Ross almost sounds like he’s debunking a strawman when he says believers in the theory of ‘linkage’ think “all other Middle East conflicts would melt away” if only the Palestinians had a state. I don’t know if President Barack Obama would go that far, but former President Jimmy Carter nearly does. “Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region,” Carter said, “Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight. Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.”
The populations of Egypt, Jordan, and other Arabic countries have a nearly inexhaustible list of grievances against the United States. Many are based on phantasmagoric and state-manufactured conspiracy theories that have nothing to do with the West Bank, Gaza, or anything else in the real world. And their populations certainly were inflamed by the invasion of Iraq regardless of what they thought of Saddam Hussein. American support for Israel aggravates a huge number of Arab Muslims, but most of the region’s “conflict clusters,” as Kramer calls them, have little or nothing to do with either Israel or the United States.
Former President Carter, like most Westerners, has a Western-centric view of the world. It could hardly be otherwise. Most Chinese have a Chinese-centric view of the world, Indians an Indian-centric view, etc. One of former President Carter’s problems here is a Western-centric analysis.
Of the Middle East’s five most serious problems aside from the Arab-Israeli conflict, only one – the war in Iraq – was caused in any way by Israel or the United States. And Israel is not involved in the war in Iraq. The other four – radical Islamism, the dearth of democracy outside Lebanon and Iraq, Iran’s push for regional hegemony, and the conflict between Sunnis and Shias – simply can’t be blamed on the United States, Israel, or the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Let’s look at these problems in order. The war in Iraq obviously involves the United States, but neither Israelis nor Palestinians have much, if anything at all, to do with it. “Certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq are interactive,” former National Security Advisor for President Carter Zbigniew Brzezinski said in 2003. At best, that was barely true in 2003 and the idea is nonsense today. Iraq’s insurgents and terrorist groups spent the last six years fighting Americans and each other. What could a car bomb in a Baghdad marketplace set by Iraqis to kill other Iraqis possibly have to do with Israel? I’ve visited Iraq seven times and only once heard an Iraqi mention Israel before I asked about it myself. Almost all Iraqis I’ve spoken to about the Arab-Israeli conflict seem to find my questions strangely off-topic and irrelevant to their problems and lives.
Radical Islamists hate Israel and the United States, but they would still cause trouble even if Israel and the United States ceased to exist. The modern Sunni variant of radical Islam began with the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and has since expanded to six continents. It’s easy enough to de-link this problem from the Arab-Israeli conflict just by looking beyond the Middle East. The Taliban isn’t fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan to “liberate” Gaza. They throw acid in the faces of unveiled women. They blew up ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan with anti-aircraft guns. An independent Palestinian state could not possibly sate their bigotry or their appetite for destruction against others. And that’s just one example.
It’s hardly Israel’s fault that most Arab regimes are not democratic, and “linking” the Arab-Israeli conflict to Arab despotism only serves the region’s tyrants. Jay Nordlinger effectively skewered what he calls the excuse-makers after attending the World Economic Forum on the Middle East a few weeks ago in Jordan. “Arab countries can’t drop crippling socialism until Israel leaves the West Bank,” he wrote, paraphrasing these excuse-makers. “Nepotism must continue until Israel leaves the West Bank. Women cannot drive until Israel leaves — and ‘honor killings’ must go on. Corruption must prevail in Arab countries as long as Israel occupies the West Bank. Etc., etc. This attitude is not only insane — it is harmful to the point of destructiveness.”
No doubt the Iranian regime sincerely hates Israel, and an Iranian nuclear bomb would be a grave threat to Israelis, but the Iranians aren’t at all likely to give up their push for these weapons if the West Bank and Gaza become sovereign. Iran’s current government has been aggressively striving for regional dominance over the Arab states since the Khomeinists emerged as the strong horse in the post-revolution struggle for power. Iran, or the Persian Empire as it used to be called, has fought for regional dominance since the time before Islam even existed.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, far more people have been killed by Sunnis and Shias slugging it with each other (a million alone in the Iran-Iraq war, and tens of thousands in Iraq much more recently) than have ever been killed in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The hatred of Sunnis and Shias for one another predates the founding of Israel by more than 1,000 years.
It will be a great day when the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved at last. But the Middle East would remain a violent dysfunctional backwater if it ended tomorrow. It’s not at all likely to end on President Obama’s watch anyway. It won’t be the president’s fault. Nothing anyone can do in the short term will persuade the likes of Hamas to give up the dream of the destruction of Israel, let alone sign a permanent peace treaty with Benjamin Netanyahu. It certainly won’t happen before Iran can develop nuclear weapons, as the president hopes. The time left on that clock is too short.