The Mideast Mess

by Michael Sean Winters

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Just when you think the Mideast can’t become more dangerous and problematic, it gets more dangerous and problematic.

The worst news yesterday came from Yemen where a coup has apparently taken place. Shiite rebels were negotiating with the country’s president, and the prime minister and his cabinet did not approve of the negotiations and resigned. The Yemeni government has been critical in U.S. efforts to fight Al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula and while that government was unable to stamp out the terrorists, they were at least helping. Chaos will only allow the terrorists to thrive.

The resignation of the government in Yemen also raises the prospect of a full-scale civil war in Yemen. More chaos. The struggles between Shiite and Sunni political leaders rarely lead to amicable solutions and a sense of common purpose. The country is majority Sunni but the Shiite minority is well organized and well-funded by Iran. Al-Qaeda would be only too happy to play one group off the other, and both groups seem likely to accept assistance wherever they can find it. More bloodshed and instability seem the only likely outcome.

Just across the border, Saudi Arabia is mourning the death of King Abdullah. It is difficult to hear the encomiums to the Saudi royals. Yes, Abdullah permitted a single coeducational school and appointed the first woman to lead a government agency in the country’s history. But, the Saudis also continue to behead people with some regularity and flog others and, in various ways, exhibit a barbarism that it deplorable. Their commitment to the most extreme expressions of the Islamic faith has unleashed an extremism that they can’t control and with which they are in some sympathy, even while they recognize the danger to their own dynasty. And, I am sure I am not the only one who gets nervous when I see a member of the Cheney family waxing nostalgic about the Saudi royal family.

Yet, no one can deny that Saudi Arabia has been the best ally the U.S. has in that part of the world apart from Israel. By comparison with other countries, they are relatively stable. So, our alliance with them should be viewed the way we viewed our World War II alliance with Stalin. He was a thug, a mass murderer, a truly horrible person, and probably the second most dangerous human being in the twentieth century. But, we joined forces with him to defeat the first most dangerous person in the century.

If all that were not enough, here comes Bibi Netanyahu, agreeing to address Congress in March and urge that body to pass stronger sanctions on Iran. I could not be more sympathetic with Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear program: For them, this is a direct threat of the greatest magnitude. I also share Netanyahu’s obvious assessment that Barack Obama would be a good person to play poker with: This administration does not have a very great track record when it comes to international negotiations. But, surely Netanyahu knows that Israel’s long-term and short-term interests are linked to their alliance with the United States and he has no business insinuating himself into an internal debate about the future of U.S. policy in such a public way.

Shame on John Boehner, also, for inviting this intrusion by Netanyahu. It had the potential to backfire on Boehner too. I am certainly as alert as most people to the falsity of the charge that the “Israeli lobby” is something nefarious. Americans who are concerned about the fate and future of Israel have a clear constitutional right to petition the government with facing a charge of “dual loyalty,” a charge with which Catholics in this country are well familiar. But, Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu will only feed the appetites of those who make the false charge by offering up a true charge: Foreign leaders can negotiate with our government, they can register their objections and their concerns, but they should not get involved in trying to decide U.S. government policy with a public address in the most prominent political forum imaginable. I fear greatly that this will harm Israel in the long-term.

I wonder sometimes why anyone would want to be president. The Mideast is not a part of the world we can walk away from or ignore. Egypt is governed now by its military, and they are the good guys at the moment. Jordan is chronically unstable. Syria is in a three-way civil war with no end in sight and a likelihood of spilling into Lebanon. The Saudis remain stuck in an earlier century. Yemen is in collapse. Iran is led by religious extremists. Iraq under Saddam Hussein personified some of the worst evils a government is capable of, yet our invasion and toppling of his regime has only made it worse. And, our only natural ally in the region, Israel, is led by someone whose ego seems to be driving him to truly bad judgments. These issues and problems will not go away before November. They will not go away in my lifetime. They may never go away. If you were not feeling Augustinian before you read this morning’s paper, you should be by now.

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