December 18, 2009

The Eclipsing of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

According to a new study of public opinion by the folks who host the Doha Debates in Qatar, a clear majority in 18 Arab countries now thinks Iran poses a greater threat to security in the Middle East than Israel. The leadership in most of these countries has thought so for years. That average citizens now do so should be encouraging news for everyone in the region — aside from the Iranian government, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Some may find it hard to believe that so many Arabs think Iran is more threatening than Israel, but I don’t. Leave aside the fact that Iran really is more threatening. Arabs and Persians have detested each other for more than a thousand years, ever since Arabs conquered premodern Iran and converted its people to Islam. The lasting ethnic enmity between the two is compounded by religious sectarianism. Most Arabs are Sunnis, most Persians are Shias, and Sunnis and Shias have been slugging it out with each other since the 8th century.

After the Iranian revolution against the Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic exploded into the Arab Middle East with a campaign of imperialism and terrorism. Khomeini never concealed his ambition to lead the whole Muslim world, and the government he founded has been hammering the established Sunni Arab order with a battering ram ever since.

Iran had excellent relations with Israel before Khomeini scrapped the alliance and switched to the Arab side. Like his successor Ali Khamenei, he used violent anti-Zionism to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs. It worked to an extent for a while. Most Arab governments didn’t buy it, but the people often did.

As recently as 2006, Iran, despite the fact that it has a Persian and Shia majority, picked up considerable cache among Sunni Arabs for attacking Israel from Lebanon with its Hezbollah proxy. (Lebanese Sunnis weren’t very happy about it, but Sunnis in Egypt and Syria certainly were.) The Egyptian and Saudi governments were alarmed, and they condemned Hezbollah for sparking the conflict.

This was unprecedented. While it barely registered in the West, it was huge in the Middle East, so huge that some of the more paranoid Lebanese Shias started thinking that the Sunnis and the Israelis were conspiring against them.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one excitable individual said to me at a Hezbollah rally in downtown Beirut. The guy was bonkers, of course. Israel doesn’t need bombs from the Gulf, and no one in the Gulf would donate or sell them even if Israel asked. Still, the man correctly sensed that Sunnis in the region aren’t as willing to team up with Shias against Israelis as they used to be.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:29 AM | Comments (2)

December 17, 2009

Fresh Material Coming I Promise

Sorry I haven't been around here much lately. My book has been all-consuming.

It's about two-thirds finished now, and I've reached a break point where I can stop and attend to this Web site again. I had to drop everything for a while to prepare the manuscript-in-progress for a publisher who asked to see more after reading my proposal and sample chapter.

I know it looks like I haven't been writing much, but I've actually been writing a lot. I'm just putting it into a box instead of posting it on the Internet. I have a huge amount of material here on my desk that no one has read. My wife hasn't even read it yet. And it's better than anything I have ever written. I wish I could share it with you right now. The wait will be worth it, though, trust me.

In the meantime, I'll get some fresh material up here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:59 AM | Comments (1)

December 14, 2009

So Long, Movable Type

Okay, so I've decided to change this Web site's publishing software from Movable Type to Wordpress. Most of you won't care or notice the difference, but those of you who leave comments will have a much easier time of it shortly.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:07 AM | Comments (3)

December 12, 2009

Trouble with the Comments

There seems to be yet another problem with the comments section. I may have to port this site over to Wordpress if the folks at Movable Type can't get this straightened out soon. I've been using MT for years, but my patience with these problems is nearing its end.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:05 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2009

Hezbollah's Delusions

Jonathan Spyer has posted a warning at the Global Research in International Affairs Web site for anyone who cares to pay attention. Read the whole thing, but here's the bottom line.

Hezbollah's new manifesto condemns the United States as the "root of all terror," and a "danger that threatens the whole world." The document also reiterates the call for the destruction of Israel, describing the need to "liberate Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa" as a "religious duty" for all Muslims. There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that these sentiments are intended for the printed page only. Indeed, recent visitors to Lebanon speak of a high, almost delusional state of morale among circles affiliated with Hezbollah. In the closed world around the movement, it is sincerely believed that the next war between Israel and Hezbollah will be part of a greater conflict in which Israel will be destroyed.

The true balance of power is rather different, of course. And as Hezbollah slowly swallows other elements of the Lebanese system, the conclusion being reached in Israel is that any differentiation between the movement and the nest it has taken over is increasingly artificial - and will not be maintained in a future conflict.

The history of the region shows that anti-Western ideological waves can indeed eventually be accommodated and dealt with pragmatically - but this cannot be achieved at the moment of their rise. The examples of pan-Arabism and Palestinian nationalism suggest that only following military defeat and socioeconomic failure are flexibility and pragmatism likely to make an appearance. Political Islam has not yet reached this stage. Current events in Lebanon show its local Shi'ite manifestation to be in a state of rude health. It is brushing aside local foes, marching through the institutions, as tactically agile as it is strategically deluded. Yet its latest manifesto suggests that it remains the prisoner of its ideological perceptions. The recent history of the Middle East, meanwhile, indicates that gaps between reality and perception tend to be decided - eventually - in favor of the former.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:28 PM | Comments (7)

December 9, 2009

How Crowded is Gaza?

Like almost everyone who has written about the Arab-Israeli conflict, I've described Gaza as one of the most densely populated places on earth. It's one of those "media facts" that get mindlessly repeated because it has been printed so many times it seems true, like it's the sort of thing everybody just knows.

Maybe it's time to lay this one to rest.

(Thanks to Roger L. Simon for finding this video.)

UPDATE: Martin Kramer has more, including interesting visiual comparisons of Gaza to New York, Paris, and London.

Gaza on New York.jpg

1.5 million people live in Gaza. How many more millions do you suppose live in the Gaza-sized space in New York shown above?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:29 AM | Comments (35)

December 8, 2009

The Calm Before the Storm?

The Middle East is quieter than usual right now, but I'm afraid it's not going to stay that way for much longer. Michael Young in Beirut is concerned, too, and his new piece in NOW Lebanon is a must-read.

Obama has always prided himself on being a realistic assessor of American limitations. However, listening to Hassan Nasrallah gloat at the weakness of the United States, you had to wonder if the US president misses the point. Power and success are in many respects fruits of perception. Just look at Nasrallah himself, who persuaded many a fool that the hecatomb of 2006 was a divine victory for Lebanon. Modesty in the exercise of foreign policy is a bad idea, particularly for the leader of the world’s most powerful country, whose destabilization, whether we like it or not, only destabilizes the global political and economic order.


Obama’s caution is defensible in some regards. War alone cannot be the benchmark of American power. Nothing would do more to harm the US than for it to sink itself into myriad conflicts it cannot win outright. In some ways, however, Obama failed to pick up on that lesson in the political realm, making ambitious promises concerning several complex Middle Eastern issues, without setting clear priorities, so that today, with little progress evident in any of them, the president stands discredited.

The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:34 PM | Comments (10)

December 4, 2009

The New West Bank

Tom Gross describes the new West Bank in the Wall Street Journal.

It was in much better shape than I expected when I visited in 2006, but it did not look like this:

[W]e had driven from Jerusalem to Nablus without going through any Israeli checkpoints. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has removed them all since the Israeli security services (with the encouragement and support of President George W. Bush) were allowed, over recent years, to crush the intifada, restore security to the West Bank and set up the conditions for the economic boom that is now occurring. (There was one border post on the return leg of the journey, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but the young female guard just waved me and the two Palestinians I was traveling with, through.)

The shops and restaurants were also full when I visited Hebron recently, and I was surprised to see villas comparable in size to those on the Cote d'Azur or Bel Air had sprung up on the hills around the city. Life is even better in Ramallah, where it is difficult to get a table in a good restaurant. New apartment buildings, banks, brokerage firms, luxury car dealerships and health clubs are to be seen. In Qalqilya, another West Bank city that was previously a hotbed of terrorists and bomb-makers, the first ever strawberry crop is being harvested in time to cash in on the lucrative Christmas markets in Europe. Local Palestinian farmers have been trained by Israeli agriculture experts and Israel supplied them with irrigation equipment and pesticides.

A new Palestinian city, Ruwabi, is to be built soon north of Ramallah. Last month, the Jewish National Fund, an Israeli charity, helped plant 3,000 tree seedlings for a forested area the Palestinian planners say they would like to develop on the edge of the new city. Israeli experts are also helping the Palestinians plan public parks and other civic amenities.

Outsiders are beginning to take note of the turnaround too. The official PLO Wafa news agency reported last week that the 3rd quarter of 2009 witnessed near-record tourism in the Palestinian Authority, with 135,939 overnight hotel stays in 89 hotels that are now open. Almost half the guests come from the U.S or Europe.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:54 AM | Comments (10)

Read This Web Site on Kindle

Remember, you can read my blog on Kindle if you haven't already signed up. If you don't own a Kindle, you can pick one up here.

I'm spending a lot of time on my book right now and am making good progress, and I have more long-form material coming here soon, too.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:38 AM | Comments (0)

December 3, 2009

Obama's Afghanistan Speech

I'd rather spend a day working on my book than picking apart President Obama's speech where he announced a "surge" of troops in Afghanistan, so let me just say I agree with both John Podhoretz and Tom Ricks, two men who often don't see eye-to-eye on foreign policy and the military.

Here's John Podhoretz in Commentary:

Whatever the flaws in the speech itself — and they were considerable — Obama’s announcement and the details of the plan together represent a landmark moment. After spending a few months desperately looking for another choice, a third choice, a cute choice, Obama did in fact surrender to the logic of the presidency. Having called the conflict in Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” he has committed the nation to it, and himself to it.


He is clearly acting against his own gut instincts and those within the ideological tendency that is his natural and longtime home, and that does take courage. Indeed, that is what accounts for the unsatisfying quality of the speech he delivered. He was trying to find language with which he could make his decision explicable to people like him — indeed, perhaps even to an alternate-universe Barack Obama who hadn’t won the presidency and would almost certainly have viewed the notion of committing more troops to Afghanistan in a Bush-like “surge” an awful proposition. That mollification isn’t really possible, and so the speech didn’t work as a matter of rhetoric or suasion.
But that is a missed opportunity for him. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the policy that matters.

And here is Tom Ricks in Foreign Policy, basically seeing things the same way, yet from the other side of the political spectrum:

This speech was an ode to ambivalence, an aria of ambiguity, a rasher of reluctance. It was addressed to those who, like him, really didn't want to send more troops to Afghanistan. It was for those who care more about rebuilding New Orleans than Kandahar or Mosul. He was explaining to them why he was breaking with them. He had after great deliberation concluded that it was necessary to escalate.

To really get this speech, I think you had to be someone who voted for Obama, who believed he was elected to end our wars, and was feeling terribly and personally disappointed with the president over the possibility of a surge in Afghanistan -- and the failure to close Guantanamo, and the lift the ban on gays in the military, not to mention the bailout of Wall Street fatcats. Hence the explicit discussion of the Vietnam analogy, and the review of the folly of invading Iraq in 2003.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:04 AM | Comments (9)

December 2, 2009

The Other Shoe

Maybe you won't think this is funny, but I do: The famous shoe-throwing Iraqi has a shoe thrown at him by another Iraqi in Paris. Don't miss the video.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:33 AM | Comments (8)