Mar 18, 2015

March 18, 2015: Middle East Wreckage, Hard Realities, Miserable Choices

“Alas, we are not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, your father’s Iran or the Iraq your son or daughter went off to liberate”
-----Thomas Friedman, New York Times

In a New York Times  article entitled “Go Ahead, Ruin My Day”, Pulitzer Prize columnist Thomas Friedman surveyed the wreckage strewn about the Middle East in the wake of yesterday’s depressing results in Israel. “It is hard to know what is more depressing”,  he wrote,
“that Netanyahu went for the gutter in the last few days in order to salvage his campaign–renouncing his own commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and race-baiting Israeli Jews to get out the vote because, he said, too many Arab Israelis were going to the polls–or the fact that it seemed to work”.  “ But the fact is”, he continued, “A good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious nationalist tropes Netanyahu deployed in this campaign. That, along with the fact that some 350,000 settlers are now living in the West Bank, makes it hard to see how a viable two-state solution is possible anymore no matter who would have won.”

This is not entirely the fault of Netanyahu, Freidman observes, the conflict in Gaza with Hamas, and the rejection of the two-state solution by the Palestinians by previous Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert “built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did”.  True enough, the long and twisted events of the last decades have created new difficulties and fashioned new and, increasingly, harder realities.

Moving to Iran, Friedman rightly notes that critics of Obama’s negotiations assume that the United States has more leverage than it has.  “In the brutal Middle East”, he observes, “the only thing that gets anyone’s attention is the threat of regime-toppling force. Obama has no such leverage on Iran.”  The truth–the new reality is that whatever leverage the United States possessed by way of threat of force has been spent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Our military is now so exhausted that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big U.S. land army into the Middle East ‘should have his head examined’”.   Had those wars succeeded the reality would now be different, but they didn’t.  “Geopolitics is all about leverage”, writes Friedman, “and we are negotiating with Iran without the leverage of a credible threat of force.”  Obama is left to do the best he can with what he has, with no good options before him.

Moving from Iraq to Iran, Friedman delves into the ‘transnational’ dynamics and complexities of the region. “O.K.,” he writes, “ so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?

“In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sana and Baghdad.”

ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism — mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really?” (1)

We are left with only a series of miserable choices made infinitely more grim by the ham-handed policies that both misguided military adventure one the one hand, and ‘benign neglect’ on the other, have fostered.  Both ISIS and the Israeli election are stark warnings that the hour is getting late.
1. “Go Ahead, Ruin My Day” .  Thomas Friedman, Op-Ed, New York Times 3.18.15

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