A Time of Change in the Middle East

We have reached a turning point in the Middle East. Many of the factors that we thought were reliable verities are turning out to be false. The Middle East is not going to arrive at peace by democratic consensus. The only way peace can come is through force applied from external sources. How and if this force will be applied will cause us much anxiety and conflict in the coming years.

Turning points are decisive events or developments that change realities. We reached one such turning point in the American Civil War when we discovered that the new Minié-ball rifle had a range four times that of the old smoothbore musket and everything we knew about winning tactical battles no longer applied. Another turning point occurred in early 1943 when Adolf Hitler allowed the huge German 6th Army to be destroyed at Stalingrad. From that moment on, the death of the Nazi state was certain.

The turning point in the Middle East is composed of a number of factors. They have existed for a long time, but have only recently impressed themselves on the people of the West. Here are the most important: 1) we cannot stop the guerrilla insurgency in Iraq because the Shiites and the Sunnis are locked in a conflict that only they can solve, 2) the Palestinians are unwilling to end their violence against Israel; 3) Iran is defiantly trying to build an atomic bomb; 4) Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls for the destruction of Israel and his denial that the Holocaust ever happened reflect the thinking, not of a madman, but of a vast number of Muslims; 5) a long and sordid practice of killing foreigners in the Middle East, going back at least to the Assassins of 1094, has been revived, showing that Westerners cannot live safely in the region and no Western development programs can succeed there.

We held out great hopes that the Iraqi election on December 15, 2005, would result in a free and democratic government. But Sunnis and some secular Shiites threatened violent reaction when they did not generate many votes. This surprised us in the West, conditioned as we are to accepting the judgment of the people in free and peaceful elections. But it was no surprise to the people of the Middle East. Their tradition is quite the opposite—to win control by force and then to crush all opposition. We still hope a democratic process will catch on in Iraq, but the odds are long for it succeeding.

Just in the first week of 2006, for example, suicide bombers killed over 200 people in Iraq, while eleven American soldiers and marines died from roadside bombs or small-arms fire.

We cannot stop killings of American troops, because they result mostly from sneak attacks or ambushes, classic hallmarks of guerrilla warfare. The assailants vanish into the population and can rarely be found. Such a war is unwinnable. The situation has led to a massive reevaluation of the American presence in Iraq. In November 2005, Representative John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, a Vietnam combat veteran who voted for the Iraq war, said American forces had united a disparate array of insurgents in an endless cycle of violence, and that American troops should be pulled out entirely within six months. Although President Bush and conservatives reacted strongly to Murtha’s proposal, a consensus is building to train Iraqi army and police forces as quickly as possible, and then to get out. The hope for building a new democratic nation in Iraq as a model for the entire Middle East is fading.

Fear for democracy has been growing because the murders of innocent people by suicide bombers are increasing the danger of an all-out civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head a the most influential group in the governing Shiite coalition and an ally of Iran, blamed Sunni political parties for the early 2006 killings and the United States for impeding efforts to chase terrorists. His complaint about Americans is based on the decision of U.S. authorities to rein in Iraqi security forces under Shiite command that have tortured and assassinated Sunni Arabs, possibly in the thousands. Americans are assigning advisers to police commando units to prevent them from committing more such atrocities.

This sequence of revenge could easily have been predicted. The guerrilla attacks by Sunnis on Shiites generated counterattacks by Shiites. These return blows caused even more hard feelings by Sunnis, and resulted in accelerating violence, with no end in sight. The resulting disorder is leading to a vast internal movement within Iraq. Families are leaving towns where Sunnis and Shiites had previously lived together and are relocating in safer, one-sect enclaves. While this may reduce sectarian violence, it increases the danger that the country will split into three separate entities, all feuding over Iraq’s oil wealth—a Kurdish state in the north, a Shiite state in the south, and a small Sunni state in between.

The massive stroke suffered in early January by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has thrown the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict into chaos. The Arab terrorist group Hamas is gaining so much support that there is little hope the Palestinian Authority can come to a secure peace agreement with Israel.

Iran seems to be oblivious to the mounting international anxiety over its plans to build an atomic bomb. Israel is already saber-rattling, scarcely veiling a threat to bomb the Iranian nuclear sites, as it did the Iraqi factory building an A-bomb in 1981. This possibility has become all the more acute since Ahmadinejad has been making outrageous comments denying the Holocaust and saying Israel should be taken out of the Middle East and reconstituted somewhere in Europe or America.

Because of widespread kidnaping, hopes have been dashed that well-intentioned European and American governments and non-governmental institutions will be able to send experts and volunteers to build modern infrastructures and competitive economic enterprises in the Middle East. Hundreds of foreigners have been seized and many killed in Iraq. In the Arab state of Yemen, a German diplomat and his family as well as five Italian travelers were recently seized by tribesmen seeking to gain freedom for some of their relatives held by the Yemeni government. After intense negotiations the Germans and Italians were released, but the concessions the governments were obliged to grant have not been made public.

In summary, we have entered into a period of great uncertainty and much disputation. The optimistic prospects that the Bush administration outlined after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 have been laid by. Still, the primary goals we had then have not changed: we must prevent Iran from building an atomic bomb, and we must combat terrorism wherever it emerges.

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