The Boiling Politics of the Mideast

The political caldron that we call the Mideast is boiling harder than usual these days. For the past fifty years, the principal goal of U.S. foreign policy in the region has been stability, but that is a bit like hoping to lose weight while hanging out at Ben & Jerry’s every night. Seeking stability in the Mideast is a geo-strategic game of whack-a-mole, except it is not a game.

The Syrian Army is reported to have moved into the neighborhood Bab Amr in Homs yesterday, after weeks of shelling, detaining all males above the age of fifteen. The brutality of the Syrian regime is matched only by the inability of anyone to do anything about it. The resistance in Syria is shadowy in ways the resistance in Libya was not and the regime of Bashar al-Assad, unlike that of Qaddafi, has strong backing from Iran which does not want to see its client deposed and its enemies within the region strengthened. Italy and France were willing to take the lead in Libya, but Italy is not stepping up to take the lead in Syria and France, given their complicated history with Syria, couldn’t do much even if they wanted. The U.S., quite understandably, is unlikely to take the troops recently returning from Iraq and dispatch them anew to Syria. There is, in short, no good solution, only a series of bad and worse solutions, the worst of which is to do nothing. At the very least, the international community should encourage the creation of safe zones in the north, protected by Turkey, to which those who must flee from Assad’s murderers might find safety and security.

Syria’s benefactor, Iran, is having elections for parliament today. Of course, the sanctity of the electoral process in that theocracy is not very high on the list of values for anyone, but it is also the case that different elements in the regime want different results from the voting, so perhaps the efforts to stuff the ballot box will offset each other. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad me be equally loathsome to Western eyes, and I would not want either man to be my leader (or mayor!), but they are also rivals. Normally, a rivalry can weaken both men, which would be a good thing, hastening the end of the regime. But, sometimes, rivals think the way to gain advantage is to be more extreme, more bellicose, more anti-Western than your opponent. We can hope that the two rivals engage in a grudge match that brings them both down, like two simmers drowning each other, but it is also likely that their rivalry will make Iran less stable and more erratic, which is the last thing the West wants and the last thing the long suffering people of Iran need.

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are preparing to meet on Monday, likely to discuss a range of issues but most especially what to do about Iran’s nuclear program. Again, there are no good options. My friends who know more about Israel and its military than I do, tell me that any military effort to “take out” Iran’s nuclear facilities is exceedingly difficult. A strike might be able to delay, but probably could not cripple, the Iranian efforts, but a strike would certainly so enrage Iranians that they would recommit themselves to the nuclear program with renewed fervor. Additionally, who is to say that an Israeli strike would not prompt Russia and China to be even more forthcoming in their relations with Tehran, providing nuclear technology as well as vetoes at the UN.

In Egypt, some of the Americans detained by the government have been released, which is good news. But, problems remain. The trial of Hosni Mubarak may be just, but it sends exactly the wrong signal to Assad in Syria: We want dictators to leave, not dig in. Mubarak should not be allowed to die in his own bed, but I worry that executing him will convince dictators for decades that there is no use compromising and the only way to stay alive is to stay in power. The “truth and reconciliation” process in South Africa fades from the memory after seeing Saddam Hussein hung and Qaddafi’s bullet-ridden body on display.

Of course, the only thing we know for sure is that the Mideast will become fodder for U.S. politicians who seem to be egregiously ignorant of history and who see Mideast politics through the lens of evangelical understandings about the end times. Not exactly a recipe for thoughtful discussion about the role of the U.S. in that troubled region. And, the lesson of the Iraq War hangs over all of our dealings in the region: We can make things worse.

There are no silver bullets here. The goal of stability is as elusive as ever. Tribal and religious animosities color much of the region’s politics. Fanatics get a hearing and sometimes a seat in the government. A friend the other day was discussing a personal situation and she said, “I am not sure how we fix this.” There are some problems in life that can’t be fixed, some problems for which there are no solutions. And, at great cost in human life, I fear we are about to see that tragic fact played out in the Mideast in the weeks, months and years ahead.


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