The Middle East is a region where so many things seem to happen, so little appears to change, and far too much is said about it all.
Partly this is due to the area’s turbulence; partly to obsessive hyper-reporting in an era when everyone claims to be a Middle East expert and the most basic exercise of logic is often absent. Yet, at the same time, silly ideas and policies often also correspond to real needs.
Here’s a list of examples.
- Israel-Palestinian talks and the “peace process” occupy the attention of world leaders and media when they go, and will go, absolutely nowhere.
- Lebanese politics are absolutely deadlocked over the election of a new president because Syria, Hizballah, and Iran demand control over that country’s government and will paralyze the balloting until they get it.
- Endless speeches, investigations, proposals, and conferences discuss Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons yet do between little and nothing about it.
- Billions of dollars go to the Palestinian Authority supposedly to help it raise Palestinian living standards and build a stable polity when this entity makes not the tiniest step toward reform and fighting corruption, much less battling terrorism.
Mechanisms for change do exist. The problem is that, like the above items, they usually don’t function.
For example, in March there will be elections in Iran. These are conducted along the lines once declared by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro: within the revolution, everything; outside it nothing. Most reformist candidates are disqualified from competing. Still, there is an element of pluralism since the ruling elite itself is so fractionalized.
An election could shift more power away from the ultra-extremist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making Iran marginally less dangerous. But it cannot turn Tehran toward a new course in which it would give up its regional ambitions, sponsorship of terrorism, or drive toward nuclear weapons. The most important component, international pressure, is far weaker than it should be.
In the Palestinian case, the internal factors for positive change are even more limited. Fatah has talked about having a party congress in March, which might or might not happen. The existing PA leadership lacks either the power or interest for clamping down on incitement to terrorism or an anti-corruption drive. The wider Fatah leadership actually embraces extremism and looting. Neither seems inclined to share power with a “young guard” leadership which might be more honest but is also, if anything, more radical. Not much hope can be expected there. The most important component, international pressure, is far weaker than it should be.
As for Hamas, while factions seem to exist there are no moderates in sight. Outside observers are determined to credit Hamas with a victory in the Gaza Strip. Yet it is typical of most such radical “triumphs,” not gained by themselves but given by those who should be their adversaries.
In fact, the Egyptian border is again closed, with the Cairo government more determined (if still not determined enough) to control its own territory. Hamas’s policy is merely running Gaza into the ground a bit more slowly. Still, the most important component, international pressure, is far weaker than it should be.
Regarding Lebanon, a key ingredient of any solution is to frighten the Syrian government by moving ahead on the international tribunal investigating Damascus’s involvement in murders there of peaceful politicians and journalists. With little publicity, this effort is advancing slowly, yet is largely overshadowed publicly by outspoken testimonies from too many na√?‚??√?¬≥¯ve Westerners about how moderate the Syrian dictatorship claims to be.
In one memorable case, two U.S. members of Congress went to Damascus, publicly bragged as to how Syrian President Bashar al-Asad promised them he would release liberal dissidents, then remained silent as he jailed even more such people. Syria has good reasons to believe that the next U.S. president will reverse course and appease–I mean, engage–the regime. The most important component, international pressure, is far weaker than it should be.
One of the biggest developments is the assassination of Imad Mugniyah, arguably the most single important international terrorist outside of al-Qaida, in Damascus. Amidst all the coverage and analysis, it should be remembered that Mugniyah’s personal importance was that he linked together Hizballah, Iran, Syria, and Fatah. He also embodied the nexus between anti-Israel and anti-American terrorism.
Particularly amusing was Syria’s explanation for his presence there. According to the state-controlled al-Thawra, February 14, Mugniyah had snuck into the country unbeknownst to the omnipresent dictatorship. No doubt this also applies to the Iraqi insurgent and Lebanese Fatah al-Islam terrorists who operate there. (The regime is more openly proud of its sponsoring Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizballah.)
Still, the Syrian government does not seem worried by all these people getting in and out so easily, the article concluding, “There is nothing in that area warranting [special] precautions and vigilance.”
In the Middle East, there are all too many things warranting precautions and vigilance–but only of the right type.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).