January 5, 2009

No Way Out?

The Middle East can look somewhat normal on the surface to first-time visitors, but it’s mind-bogglingly dysfunctional, and it is obviously so to anyone who has spent even a couple of months in the region. (It is also obvious to some people who know almost nothing at all about that part of the world.) Sometimes, especially when I’m in Iraq, I think the problems there are simply bottomless and that a solution does not exist. President Bush couldn’t fix it. President Obama will not fix it either. If you don’t believe me – wait.

It’s hard for many naturally optimistic Americans to believe this, but sometimes I fear it is true. Time and experience has done that to me. The Middle East just grinds people down. Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad – these are not places you want to spend too much time if you have faith in the human race and linear progress.

I hope I am wrong, but I won’t be proven wrong in the short term.

Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlanic is feeling this much more intensely than I am right now.

I have friends in Gaza about whom I worry a great deal; I've seen many people killed in Gaza; I've served in the Israeli Army in Gaza; I've been kidnapped in Gaza; I've reported for years from Gaza; I hope my former army doesn't kill the wrong people in Gaza; I hope Israeli soldiers all leave Gaza alive; I know they'll be back in Gaza; I think this operation will work; and I have no actual hope that it will work for very long, because nothing works for very long in the Middle East. Gaza is where dreams of reconciliation go to die. Gaza is where the dream of Palestinian statehood goes to die; Gaza is where the Zionist dream might yet die. Or, more to the point, might be murdered. I'm not a J Street moral-equivalence sort of guy. Yes, Israel makes constant mistakes, which I note rather frequently, but this conflict reminds me once again that Israel is up against an implacable force, namely, an interpretation of Islam that disallows the idea of Jewish national equality.

My paralysis isn't an analytical paralysis. It's the paralysis that comes from thinking that maybe there's no way out. Not out of Gaza, out of the whole thing.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 5, 2009 4:54 PM

Take a deep breath. Look. Not all problems can be "solved". That is not new. Some problems need to be managed long-term. Think diabetes, as opposed to a broken bone.

The best explanation for the dysfunction of so much of the mideast is islam. Supremacism, magical thinking, intolerance, fatalism, a herd mentality, and hatred of the "other" (=infidel) all derive directly from the texts of islam as they have been taught, understood, and (perversely) treasured for close to 1400 years. And remember: islam is not a race, nor is it a "religion" in the sense that most westerners think. It is not merely a personal faith. It is a (ok: not-monolithic, but close enough for the purpose of this) political and social ideology with religious trappings, believed by people of a variety of races. It is totalitarian. See Ibn Warraq: http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm?frm=3766&sec_id=3766

Islam, necessarily expansionist from the example of its prophet, is and has been a long term problem for neighboring non-muslim societies since the 7th century. In the absence of large scale use of nuclear weapons, which would be so destructive as to be unacceptable, there is no "solution". But there have been times when islam was less of a threat. Those times (e.g. 18th to 20th centuries) were when muslims were in a weak position, and realized that they were in a weak position and, out of necessity, toned down their behavior.

Proper management of the jihad is to cause muslims to realize that they are weak. The replacement of oil as the fuel of the planet (or at least of middle eastern sources of oil-- although total replacement of fossil fuels would also address global climate change) would make a big contribution to weakening jihadi islam by turning off an economic spigot. Another spigot, all foreign aid, should be stopped. The aid is often viewed as jizya, or tribute owed, thereby reinforcing their pathology. Less "Globalism" and less importance and power for transnational political organizations such as the UN and the EU would also help, as they and their bureaucrats provide much aid and comfort which encourages pathology. See Martha Gellhorn from 1961 in The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/196110/gellhorn

Attempts to restructure so many of these failed muslim states should also be halted. Muslims need to realize that their horrible lives in their dysfunctional societies are caused by islam. They need to stew in their failures until they understand that in so many places, for so long, islam (i.e. shariah societies) has been the problem. The necessary cure is less islam or a transformation of islam, rather than more islam or a reformation (i.e. back to the 7th century with the wahabbis or other literalists). Ataturk's Turkey, which has lost its secular way in the last two decades, is an example of how a society improves when islam is weakened or limited. Note: Ataturk is no hero for me. His brutal Turkish nationalism was responsible for mass murders of Greeks in Asia minor and continuing refusal to accept any responsibility for the Armenian genocide. However, his efforts to separate Turkish society from shariah were brilliant.

The only people who can change islam are muslims themselves. They can be prodded by outsiders and by their circumstances. Until the prodding works (easily hundreds of years or more), and in order to help that prodding along, it is in the interest of all non-muslim societies to eliminate foreign aid to muslim societies, replace oil as the world's energy source, reduce the availability of western (or eastern) technology and medicine for muslim societies, and reduce the flood of immigration from muslim societies (except: allow persecuted non-muslim minorities). The stoppage of immigration to the west, from muslim societies, will close a safety valve for these societies. That would not be so nice for muslim societies but would be a good thing for non-muslims who wish to live in freedom, rather than shariah. Further, it should be understood that in muslim societies and shariah, negotiations and treaties are understood differently than they are in the "west" (which often wrongly assumes that western concepts are universal). A clear understanding of The treaty of Hudaybiyya should be instructive for all non-muslims.

Non-muslims need to drop the expectation that a "solution" must be found; also, to drop the expectation that any particular tactic or invasion or military action or negotiation will "once-and-for-all" be the cure, the solution.

Think of it as tough love. Long term.

Posted by: del Author Profile Page at January 5, 2009 7:43 PM

I share the cynicism.

Al Anbar Awoke, after being written off. Though, how bad must it get in Gaza and elsewhere before others awake? Serious dissatisfaction in Iran offers tangible possibilities there. But is an arab Petraeus, with a guiding plan anchored in local security, even possible? One discouraging but understandable theme in dispatches I read out of Iraq in recent years is Iraqi (or just arab? you guys would know) pessimistic fatalism; as long as it prevails, change will only be in our vocabulary, not theirs.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at January 5, 2009 10:20 PM

Hamas in Gaza- method to the madness?
The paradox of Palestinian Nationalism is
that, historically, it has had a wider
horizon and been more ambitious in its
aims that Zionism.
Thus, whereas British Zionists were content
to limit a Jewish Homeland in Palestine to
being a subaltern, parish-pump, affair
consecrated to the greater glory of the
British Empire; and whereas even
Jabotinski's maximalist supporters saw
Israel as playing second fiddle to European
powers; the British appointed 'Grand Mufti'
Husseini used his 'bully pulpit' to build
himself up into an international figure.
The 1929 uprising- in which his men killed
more Arabs than Jews- showed that he was
not inferior to any of the great dictators
in terms of ruthlessness in establishing
his sway over his own people. His adoption
of Hitlerite Anti-Semitism gave him the
status of foremost Muslim leader- able even to
topple the government of (British
sponsored)Iraq. His exploits in Europe as
Hitler's favourite Muslim- in particular in
Yugoslavia- which earned him War Criminal
status, showed that the Palestinians had a
leader whose horizon was much wider than
that of the wretched refugees from Europe
whose courage established the State of Israel.
It is quite true that Husseini's policies
were an abject failure- but a principle had
been established- Palestinian politics must
be about gambling with the lives and land of the
masses so that leaders can grand-stand.
Arafat's great contribution- apart from
enriching his clique- was to achieve a
fitful prominence on the International stage
that Ceaucescu- not to mention other
dictators of that ilk- must have envied.
The examples Husseini and Arafat set
have to do with ideological opportunism.
Arafat's bogus 'secular socialism' no
longer has a market. What there is a market
for is socially-conservative Islamism-
especially if backed up with better delivery
of Social services and charitable income
Enter Hamas. However, Hamas has been
painted into a corner and is now bracketed
with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. This aint
the neighborhood they want to be in. Their
target market is (relatively) moderate
Sunnis especially in the Gulf. Ideologically
they can't compete with some of the more
lunatic Taleban inspired variants on the
market. However, by being seen to be on the
front-line (incidentally, they'll be claiming
this as a victory no matter what happens)
they're able to ditch the Iranians- who,
they suspect, will offer them up as a
sacrifical lamb to Pres. Obama.
Actually, this may be all the Israelis want.
It seems Tehran's sabre rattling has got the
Israelis worried. But, in that case this may be an unusual war in which both sides are aiming at the same outcome.
After all, the Israelis are no longer
claiming 'regime change' as one of their
My guess is that Israel has changed its mind about
the Golan Heights- that would be a true existential threat- and that, in any case, Pres. elect Obama has signalled a tougher approach to the dinosaurs in Damascus and the pterodactyls in Teheran.
If Hamas can act as the lightning rod for the Israel issue then those two sclerotic regimes might find themselves forced back to earth- and that means the negotiating table with the new President who (hopefully) has struck 'regime change' from the American diplomatic lexicon.

Of course, since we're talking about the Middle East, the potential remains for everything to turn pear shaped to the detriment of all parties.

Posted by: vivek Author Profile Page at January 5, 2009 11:42 PM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/06/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Posted by: David M Author Profile Page at January 6, 2009 10:46 AM

I'd guess that Ireland during the late 19th-early 20th century looked pretty hopeless too. During the same time period, Europe and Russia were slow-moving train wrecks. Now, things are better. Kind of.

Like Europe, the Arab middle east is not a place that accepts immigrants. The desire to have an ethnically 'pure' state motivates a lot of the politics there. People from immigrant nations (Canada, America, Israel) are usually horrified by the open racism they see in Arab/European countries. Ethnic nationalism, fueled by petrodollars is causing a lot of the problems in the area. Fortunately, the petrodollar boom is (was?) a temporary thing.

The political mess can't be blamed entirely on Islam, but the lack of linear progress can. Wahhabi-dominated Islam forbids 'innovation', in religion and in their society.

The oil rich nations have tried to buy knowledge by building branches of Western universities in places like Abu Dhabi. Universities like NYU are more than willing to sell themselves, but the students don’t seem to be applying what they've learned. How can you learn if your religion forbids innovation and believes that science is written in the Koran?

Countries with a mostly Muslim population and secular governments, like Lebanon and Turkey, used to have decent universities, but as Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi Islam gain influence in the area, those universities are being neglected.

I can visualize peace in the Arab/Islamic Middle East, but I can't visualize real technical, linear progress.

Posted by: maryatexitzero Author Profile Page at January 6, 2009 10:50 AM

I'm not so depressed, because I do see a way forward, if not a way out. That way isn't necessarily to choose to oppose either Arabs or Israelis. Rather, it is to oppose tyranny in whatever form it appears.

Tyranny is easy to spot because it involves the suppression of communication (either by restriction or by drowning out others), the lack of representative consent to collect taxes, and the absence of a safe way to appeal in case of punishments imposed by authority.

Tyranny can appear in the form of a cruel despot like Kim Jong-Il, or extortion from local criminal thugs, or a domineering speaker on a platform. If their actions are unopposed and held to be justified out of bias, that ensures their tightening grip upon a captive population. So they all need to be fought, in battles that take place at the local, national, and international stages.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at January 6, 2009 10:51 AM


In the words of a Jewish sage, one is not obligated to finish the task, but neither is one free to desist from it. Peace may seem impossible, but we must push forward. But we must not do so blindly.

The next step seems obvious to me. The two immediate problems are Hamas attacks on Israel and the absence of--in the words of today's most prominent Palestinian Arab politician--one authority, one law, and one gun. The solution to both of these problems is the one and the same: disarm Hamas in Gaza.

European observers are not the answer, because they will not disarm Hamas (see UNIFIL in Lebanon). Tightening the borders is not the answer, because that will do nothing to disarm Hamas and will slow but not prevent the rearming of Hamas.

A multinational military force with Israeli, PA, Quartet, and Arab League components must be tasked with disarming Hamas. This may seem like an impossible coalition, but I cannot imagine that anything less could succeed in a way that would advance the prospects for peace.

Israel can keep pounding Hamas, but it cannot restore the authority of the PA over Gaza. Only a multinational force can do this, and the support and participation of Arab League members is necessary in order to give the PA's return to Gaza a veneer of legitimacy.

If the world wants to do something about the tragedy of Gaza, then the world is going to have to get its hands dirty. Otherwise, the world should shut up while Israel does the best that it can on its own.

Posted by: Ben F Author Profile Page at January 7, 2009 6:30 AM

Yes, disarm Hamas ... why not ask for them to surrender?

But anyway, Israel might have a couple more weeks to kill specific Hamas leaders.

Again Israel is doing a Bush-poor job in Public Relations.

Cantonization and more different Arab local leaders would help, including cantonization within Israel so that an Arab-Israel majority canton allows a non-Jewish culture inside of Israel.

There's also Jewish surrender, where the US accepts all Jews who want to evacuate to the USA. If 4 mil. Jews came, that would rapidly fill up a lot of empty houses and provide the basis for a US expansion.
This may be unrealistic, but it's not a joke -- it's a better solution than letting Iran get a nuke and seeing Tel Aviv in a mushroom cloud. That is now the Israeli race: Palestinian peace before Iran gets a nuke, or a much changed power game.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at January 7, 2009 7:48 PM


Please correct me if you believe that I am wrong, but I have never, ever, ever, ever heard an Arab spokesperson, Palestinian or otherwise, speak of peace with Israel. There are many calls for a just peace, but those in the West who are not sensitive to the code words overlook the fact, and those in the know choose to ignore the fact, that all of these Arab spokespersons deem Zionism, and Israel's creation and existence as a sovereign Jewish state, to be unjust. A "just peace" means the eradication of Israel as we know it.

So I don't think we are anywhere close to being able to speak of peace in the sense of a sovereign Jewish state having good relations with its Arab neighbors (to say nothing of with Iran). Peace is not going to be achieved before Iran gets the bomb, unless something happens very soon that halts Iran's pursuit of the bomb. It is fantasy to believe otherwise.

If worst comes to worst, the Jewish people will suffer another Holocaust, from which they will rebound just as they always have and always will; the Iranian strikes will kill far more Arabs than Jews; the USA may suffer some extremely damaging but ultimately survivable EMP attacks; and Persian power will be shattered so thoroughly that it will not recover for centuries, if ever. The only Iranians who do not understand this are the ones who believe that the Mahdi will miraculously save the day.

Getting back to my original point, yes, disarming Hamas in Gaza will be horribly difficult and bloody, but it's necessary if we have any hope of moving towards peace, and it can be done with political legitimacy if sufficient pressure is brought to bear to coerce the Arab League to be part of the team. Anything less, IMO, and Israel, along with anyone else interested in peace, will remain at the mercy of those who pursue a "just peace."

Posted by: Ben F Author Profile Page at January 8, 2009 7:50 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Winner, The 2008 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

Read my blog on Kindle


Recommended Reading