May 29, 2009

The Mother of All Myths

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.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at May 29, 2009 11:36 AM

I was born and raised in the Middle East and I am up-to-date on the "people’s" not media’s or governments’ point of view. I have been living here in the US for decades that I am not influenced by the conspiracy theories or hatred! Whenever I travel there, I try to interact with the waiters, cab drivers, shop owners, and regular people you meet on the street. In addition to people who have been involved in politics for ages. Whenever I bring up the US and ask about their feelings, their response is: "they support Israel!" Even the March 14 supporters in Lebanon, their unfavorable view of the US is due to its support to Israel.

I believe that solving the Palestinian-Israeli problem could settle a lot (not all) conflicts in the Middle East. Iran will not have an excuse to support Hizballah and Hizballah will not have an excuse to own missiles!

I agree that there are other issues in the Middle East (shia-sunni conflict) that the US has nothing to do with it. But solving the Palestinian problem could calm things tremendously!

Posted by: GK Author Profile Page at May 29, 2009 4:16 PM

GK, when anyone makes a statement such as "I am up-to-date on the "people’s" not media’s or governments’ point of view." I cringe because it shows your bias -anything you say afterwards is tainted.

You may know the opinion of those people you met and spoke with, or at least what they told you, but please stop your self-acclaimed level of knowledge or "expertise" at that.

One of the great points of the article is that while all of us have a viewpoint that is seen thru our personal experience and upbringing, our analysis of a situation should rise above that coloration as much as possible. (If centricity is not a word, it should be :))

Even if there were no Israel there would be a Hezbollah, or at least a similar proxy organization, and that organization would still obtain the best weapons they could.

Posted by: Ron Snyder Author Profile Page at May 29, 2009 5:17 PM

Does the average citizen in Iran really care about Israel if they're not constantly reminded of it? How likely is it that the issue would mostly disappear in twenty years if the citizens weren't constantly reminded about how horrible the Jews are? I believe that the apparent point of the article stands - Israel's the official reason given for much of what is wrong with the Middle East, but even if the borders of Jordan extended clear to the sea shore, an excuse would be found. What that exact excuse might be I can't tell you (Sunni control of Mecca might be one for the Shiites in Tehran; threats of American hegemony - much as Chavez in Venezuela constantly rails against - might be another; nosy Westerners who don't understand how the glorious civilization of the Middle East really works might work to stave off Westerners who keep pestering about reforms). But another reason would be found.

Posted by: junior Author Profile Page at May 29, 2009 5:39 PM

Scapegoating is so easy, and interesting for what it can reveal by way of projection. When Israel pulled out of Gaza, I remember thinking, another excuse gone; what will replace it?

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at May 29, 2009 8:41 PM

It isn't as big a distance from legitimate grievance to an irrational festering hate as most people think. All it takes is pervasive positive reinforcement on a cultural level, and there you have it. That's why I think Dennis Ross is both right and wrong. He's right that there isn't much REAL linkage between Israel and all the other problems the Arab/Muslim world faces. But I think he's wrong in that Arabs/Muslims don't see it that way. I think they do believe there is a linkage. And that's why there can realistically never be a solution to this problem. All that "righteous" hatred isn't going to just go away. It takes generation to deal with such issues. And Arabs/Muslims haven't even started trying to tackle the problem yet. I don't know what would happen if there was a sudden diplomatic breakthrough that resulted in the "peace process" becoming a formal peace treaty, but I bet there be blood in the streets.

Posted by: programmmer_craig Author Profile Page at May 30, 2009 10:25 PM

I think this may be a situation where neither side is actually right. There is NO WAY that a Palestine issue would solve all Middle-East issues. HOWEVER, solving the issue there will take a bit of wind out of the sails of those who use it as a rallying cry. Israel will still have enemies, as far as any history indicates, Israel has always had enemies in the surrounding area.

The Palestinian issue is a touchstone. Any Muslim group that wants to raise emotions, will haul out the poor pali people and BAM! they have support. Psy-Ops 101.

Reality is perception. Hezbollah has to work hard to maintain the perception of protecting Lebanon. If they didn't have the Palestinian people to point at, they wouldn't have much ground to get traction on. (ie. they can't say "See, Israel will do that to US, if we weren't stopping them!").

However, there is no single solution, no Red Pill or Blue Pill.

Posted by: dclydew Author Profile Page at June 1, 2009 10:33 AM


1. Saddam shoved hundreds of thousands of people into mass graves and the Syrian government killed close to 40,000 civilians in Hama in the 1980s. Are people as mad at them as they are at US/Israel? In other words, is it more acceptable for Arabs to kill other Arabs than for non-Arabs to kill Arabs?

2. The Palestinians are treated like second class citizens throughout the middle east. Except for Jordan, they are refused asylum and citizenship. Kuwait and several other gulf states expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers during Gulf War 1. Is it considered okay for Arabs to mistreat Palestinians but not okay for Israelis to do so?

3. Since there seems to be so little regard for the Palestinians among other Arab people, does all this outrage really revolve around Palestinian welfare or is it really about the loss of honor that resulted from being defeated by Israel?

Posted by: Boojum Author Profile Page at June 1, 2009 11:06 AM

"Former President Carter, like most Westerners, has a Western-centric view of the world. It could hardly be otherwise."

The -centric view may be acceptable if we are talking about those brainwashed by their own government's or a compliant media.

It should not be an acceptable rationale for the strategy of so-called regional experts.

Posted by: Davod Author Profile Page at June 2, 2009 1:23 AM

"it is the cowardly pawns of the Zionist entity that will have forced this 'agreement' on the Palestinian people. What of all those expelled in genocide from their homes in 1948? What of the racist regime that still occupies the rest of Palestine? We cannot and will not agree to such an injustice!"

a paraphrasing of something i heard in a coffee shop the other day

Posted by: A-Squared Author Profile Page at June 3, 2009 5:53 PM
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