Countdown to World War III? Address to Limmud Conference 25 December 2006, University of Nottingham, England.

This conference attracts about 2,300 people from 30 countries for 5 days during Christmas week. For details, see

Conference Handbook Summary:
This summer’s Lebanon campaign jiggled pieces on the global Risk board. Who won and does the winner laugh last? Is the world less safe or are there new opportunities for peace? Navigate this minefield with pragmatic and informative insights from this three-time Limmud speaker’s many travels throughout the region and discussions with the various players. The session connects the dots and presents a timely and well- prepared perspective of the present and where things are headed.

Text of Address:
This is not the first time I have made the rounds in the Middle East and been told consistently that there is no hope for the future. I’ve heard that before; optimism has always been rare and always punished. The lack of leadership is nothing new; that generals screw up wars is also nothing new. So what’s new? Perhaps a nuclear Iran with an alliance among Syria and Lebanon. America being at a low point in this region in terms of the way people feel about it and its ability to have its say. The feeling among Israelis that they got their butts kicked and that they have something to prove. The combination of all of the above — all that is not new and all that is new — may be the tinderbox for a war that a good number of people in the region feel is inevitable, perhaps this summer. On the other hand, such inevitability might be the stimuli that forces everyone to look into the abyss and solve problems to avoid such a war.

The questions tonight are: What are the threats? What are the possibilities? What is to be done?

Let’s look at the variables and test them against the calculus of the region. This address represents a distillation of many conversations this month with all sorts of people as well as my own research and analysis. It is too confusing to quote any one particular source as each discussion is contradictory to the one preceding it. I’m going to assume you know the issues and instead move the pieces around on the world’s Risk Board and take some risks and tell you what are my assumptions behind the moves. Obviously there are other opinions based on other assumptions and in certain cases I have multiple opinions because the facts aren’t clear, but in this internet age we have much more facts with which to base our assumptions than we ever did before if you believe that the best intelligence is still of the stuff in the public domain.
I must admit that I have had a hard time figuring out what to say this year. The fact that so many of the governments today that count have no real policy means that it’s hard to make projections when you don’t even have an idea what the intentions of the parties are. Does anyone know what is the policy of Bush, or Olmert, Assad, Siniora or Abbas?  Can anyone tell me what Olmert wants to do beyond survive in power? You do know what the policies of Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad are and everyone else is reacting to them. King Abdullah of Jordan is pretty clear but he can’t do much. The new head of Saudi Arabia seems like a more dynamic and responsible chap but it’s never clear what they really stand for in Riyadh and that’s how they survive so well. It may work for a king who is the world’s swing oil producer but that doesn’t work for everyone.

Solving the Israel-Palestinian Conflict First: The Chicken or the Egg?

A central question in connecting the dots is: Does solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have anything to do with solving any of the other problems of the region such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Iran? On one level, making peace in Palestine is not going to prevent a civil war in Iraq. However, if you believe that the only way any of these problems can be solved is for a strong US to get involved in the diplomatic arena and that right now the status of US as a moral authority in the region is as low as it has ever been, then it may be argued that if the US can help solve the Palestinian problem it would gain the credibility it needed to go after other problems. If you are going to solve the problem of an emerging Shiite crescent, you need Sunni allies and the Sunnis are just not going to publicly align themselves with the US as a united front against Iran no matter how real the threat as long as it is so distasteful to do so because their publics see the US as part of the problem and not part of the solution. Privately yes, but publicly no. Even with secret meetings this past October between top officials of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. the public side counts.

The next obvious question many will ask is: Why does Israel have to be sacrificed to get the Arabs to solve problems which are much more of a threat to the Arabs than Israel ever will be? I agree with those who say that it is a false question for two reasons: Why is it a given that to solve the Palestinian problem it is going to involve a sellout of Israel any more or less than to solve the Lebanese problem will involve a sellout of Lebanon to Syria? Is the whole region a zero-sum game that solving any problem means winners and losers? The best solution to a problem involves win-win situations because otherwise you are never going to have solutions that stick. The second more important reason it is a false question is that you have to distinguish Palestine from Palestinians. Palestinians in my opinion are reasonable people you can deal with and everyone knows what is and isn’t possible in order for the Israelis and Palestinians of 2007 to coexist. Problem is that Palestinians don’t run Palestine. Educated Palestinians are leaving in droves because they don’t want to be there now; one friend from a very prominent family said he wouldn’t care if Israel reoccupied the place because at least then they had an economy. Palestine is run today by armed mafias funded by outside powers such as Syria and Iran. They along with Hizbullah in Lebanon are applying pressure to Israel from both ends and their intention is to veto any chance for any kind of development that would lead toward peace. Until their global issues are dealt with, some of which have nothing to do with Palestine, they will not allow anyone else in the region peace and quiet. This is why pulling out of Lebanon and Gaza unilaterally accomplished nothing. The Lebanese don’t want Hizbullah, and the Palestinians have seen their lives ruined by Hamas — the only saving grace for these groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah is that the incumbents were so corrupt that it didn’t matter if the economy was better or worse because the benefits never reached the people. The little they got were the scraps given to them by the rebels who clearly were prepared to sacrifice the future of Lebanon or Palestine for their own ends and used the people as willing pawns because they promised them dignity in this life, martyrdom in the next life and money for their basic needs and/or a roof over their head. You cannot simply buy into the Israeli line that Israel pulled out, the Palestinians were left alone to build a country and instead spent all its efforts at destroying Israel — it’s more complex than that.. Truth is the Israelis have been choking the Palestinians because the mafias inside Palestine have been threatening Israel and therefore the Palestinians have nothing to lose but it all misses the point — once you realize that Palestine is not the same as Palestinians, you realize you have to go outside to solve the problem. Part of the frustration of Palestinians is that they are caught in the middle of a problem they can’t solve and all that is left is for the Israelis and Palestinians to hate each other even more the worse it gets. Only the Israelis today have work for people to do and because of all the terror and hatred there are no jobs. Without jobs there is no hope and instead revenge and martyrdom become popular options to fill the void of desperate and bored people.

What this means is two things: Either you go over the heads of the guys with the guns and reach out to the masses or you deal with the guys behind the guys with the guns so that the underlying reasons for the guns go away. I think the first choice is utopian; the second choice is realistic. This means that if you want to solve something like the Palestinian issue, you have to deal with Syria because they are the most powerful veto. If you want to solve Iraq and Lebanon, you have to deal with Iran and Syria because again they are the veto. Saudi Arabia either is or will be stirring up trouble in Iraq but not if they don’t have to worry that Iran is using Iraq to threaten it. So again the road leads through Tehran. So the answer to my first question is — yes, the Palestinian issue has to be dealt with, it has to be dealt with by the US because no one else has the foothold to talk in a comprehensive regional manner, but you have to deal with Syria and Iran in a comprehensive manner to deal with Palestine among all other issues. You cannot solve any one issue without dealing with them all. It is the checks and balances of the regional powers against either Israel or America asserting its will in the region through American troops, support of governments not backed by the people or American arms in Israeli hands. The Israeli UN mission can complain that they can never get a resolution passed in favor of some positive Israeli thing without someone from the Arab side spitting on their party, and that is perfectly as it should be when you have enemies with unsettled business in your own personal life.

Iran: Is there a Military Option?

The Israelis will tell you that they are not as worried about Palestine or Syria as they are about Iran. They can’t solve the Iranian problem by themselves which everyone admits is a very tough problem to solve militarily. At most they can work with the US, but the US is not the greatest at getting dirty jobs done and the Israelis couldn’t even deal with the Hizbullah this summer less than 20 miles from their border for virtually a month with carte blanche from most of the Arab states and the rest of the world. If the Americans do go after Iran, the Israelis will be the target of the retaliation and this is also scary because they will not be dictating the pace of the conflict, something which had disastrous consequences when Hizbullah started up with Israel this summer and they found themselves overreacting after failing for 6 years to preempt a threat they knew existed but chose to ignore. Whether Bush sees himself as God’s agent who must deal with Iran before he leaves office or spent all his capital in Iraq and is simply too weak to go after Iran is a question only God can answer because the answer to the first question has no bearing on logic and will negate the second answer if as president he gives the order to strike.

After exhausting the alternatives, I have to agree with those who say that a military option against Iran is not the best strategic choice. An analyst I admire such as Uri Lubrani feels that it just won’t work and military action would just unite the Iranians against the outside threat.  After Iraqis failed to greet the Americans with rice and roses this view needs more consideration. The better hope is to support a change of government and to realize that the Iranian government is not as monolithic, radical or as strong or popular as it appears and to remember that Ahmadinejad is not in charge of Iran so killing him would probably just result in a more reasonable face in front of a government with the same policy, which would be even more dangerous. Also, people tell me that Iran is a sideshow; Pakistan is the problem. Pakistan is a basket case waiting to fall; they have a proven record of selling nuclear technology and weaponry to anyone who will pay. North Korea is a problem because Pakistan couldn’t keep a lid on the technology. The Taliban in Afghanistan and 9/11 came about because of Pakistani support and even today Musharraf is still supporting them in Afghanistan and Karzai in Afghanistan is so weak and corrupt that he has had no choice but to sell out to them as well because the rest of the world isn’t backing him up. Recent intelligence says that North Korean and Pakistani experts are setting up shop inside Saudi Arabia to ensure that the Saudis don’t have to count on the American umbrella when Iran goes nuclear.

Iran is a country that is large on the map and it is surrounded by many unstable countries. It is just not practical that you can stop them. Had the Shah remained in power, it would be a no-brainer that it would be a nuclear power today. When the government was friendly, the Israelis got along just fine with the Iranians (who are Persians and not Arabs) and there is a sizable Iranian-born contingent among the Israeli government. People don’t think the Iranians are crazy. Perhaps what is crazy is that the US wouldn’t deal with Iran these last 25 years just like it wouldn’t deal with Cuba these last 45 years and isn’t dealing with virtually any country it doesn’t like. The result appears to be that a US embargo was a guarantee of survival; the only country I can think of that changed due to all the embargos was South Africa which was a faulty democracy but yet a democracy in the first place.

The other exception is Libya, but I accept the analysis that Libya changed not because it buckled but because enough incentives were put in front of it that it saw the benefit of change. Solving the problems of Syria and Iran require thinking along these lines — isolation won’t work in a multipolar world of unreliable allies with their own self-interests. Therefore, what will persuade is a basket of incentives plus an all-around arrangement that deals with the mutual interests of all sides to various conflicts. I wouldn’t take it as a given that Russia and China won’t be helpful; intelligence suggests that Russia has been much more equivocal with Iran as a supplier than it appears and China has to decide if it wants a nuclear Japan that cannot tolerate a nuclear North Korea.

So let’s look at the problems themselves, what it might take to solve the problems of the region, decide if these solutions are workable, then decide if war is inevitable even if it might not work and everyone says they don’t want it.

Threat Roundup: The Israel Flashpoints

Israel faces the threat of a 3 front war this summer from Hizbullah in Lebanon, Syria allowing Hizbullah to attack from the Golan and Hamas breaking the ceasefire in Gaza using all the anti-tank missiles it is now smuggling in from Egypt. This would be on the basis of Hizbullah deciding that it needs a war with Israel to again distract the Lebanese from its designs, Syria having received lots of weapons this year from Iran and feeling that it will not get the Israelis to the table on the Golan without forcing the issue to the table through war, and the Iranian and Syrian funded Hamas using the south to keep the Israelis off balance while they fight on 3 fronts. Israeli generals are preparing for this and saying this kind of war is inevitable unless they go into Gaza now to clean it up. But then you get other Israeli officials who climb down from this estimate and say the Syrians are not preparing for war and are putting out secret feelers for talks. Others think that Olmert was brilliant in arranging ceasefires for wars that were unwinnable and that the Israelis don’t need to prove anything because the true result of the Lebanon war this summer was that in every encounter Hizbullah got its ass kicked, had no interest in finding itself in a war with Israel in the first place and isn’t going to be looking for it any time soon; that Syria would be suicidal to take on the Israelis because losing means Assad loses his job since he’s the boss; and that the Israelis control Gaza enough that they don’t need any big wars there to keep it under its heel. Even if you believe that Hizbullah dragged Lebanon into a war, it’s fair to say that it did so without prior intent — Nasrallah admitted as much. Iran lost big by having Israelis determine that it could live with all those rocket attacks and that the reality was less scary than the threat. The one threat I can’t dismiss is the history on the Arab side of standing up to Israel, getting its butt kicked, claiming the status of hero and then asking for concessions at the ceasefire table. Assad just might think he could pull this off since Nasrallah just did it and if he can’t get the Israelis to talk to him about the Golan this winter, it just might be a good bet for him to have a war with Israel this summer and pull an Israeli Golan withdrawal out of defeat. 

But consider that the Israelis might have shut down the Lebanon war in 15 minutes had it bombed Damascus, the source of its Lebanon problem, but didn’t. Some generals today agree that it was a mistake to leave Syria out of it. Even if they had knocked off 100% of Hizbullah in Lebanon, Iran and Syria were ready to send in more troops or to absorb the retreating ones. But the political and military echelons deliberately stayed away from Syria, even though it wasn’t interested in talking to Syria particularly because the US was against it and Cheney and Rumsfeld might even have been happy had Israel gone after Syria. I think that the Israeli military wants to deal with Syria on the Golan, that the politicians have stayed away from it because they didn’t see any public constituency that felt this was beneficial and the US has been hostile to any talks with Syria. Based on this calculus, it is thus clear to me that the Syrians were kept out of the war with an eye toward the future, and that Baker’s recommendations to talk to Syria should be taken seriously because I consistently receive indications that the Syrians would like to deal with Israel. I think there is a window of opportunity to deal with Syria particularly as the generals go around hyping the inevitability of war with it, perhaps because Assad feels he can’t lose even if he loses a war which will just be a costly pain in the ass for everyone involved.

Syria of course is not as interested in the Golan as it is in Lebanon and the Israelis have never really cared if Syria runs the place. Till now that meant selling out the Christians but we now have an interesting situation where a prominent Christian faction led by Aoun came back from exile, sold his Christian brothers out and aligned himself with Hizbullah. The percentage of Christians in Lebanon ain’t what it used to be and it isn’t helping them that instead of sticking together one faction read the writing on the wall and sought protection from the foreign power with the might to make right. Moslem regimes have shown no history of being accommodating to minority rights in a way that minorities felt was respectful, and the old formulas in Lebanon will be hard to impose as Christians leave the country or align with the Moslems. If you want to let Lebanon be Lebanon, it may be that to do so means the Christians will have to take care of themselves and either fight it out and get their rights in their country or leave if they don’t like the result. Moslems outside Lebanon think that Hizbullah is hijacking a country and the Lebanon experiment has been a real loser for the overall Islamic revolution. I don’t think the Lebanese Moslems really want to be ruled by Iran or Syria but it should be understood that there is a historical relationship between Iran the Shiites of Lebanon that did not begin yesterday and the Syrians have interests in that country. Right now, Lebanon is so important to Syria because Syria is a basket case and Lebanon is its lifeline. To my mind, that means that if you loosen the rope on Syria, it needs Lebanon less and if Syria itself moves toward a more market economy it will see the benefits to having Lebanon also have a free economy that is not perverted by the dysfunctions set upon it by Syrian ten-percenters who have to control its economy and politics to survive in Syria. Right now in Syria you have to work 4 months to buy a refrigerator and there is no economy. The Lebanese are very entrepreneurial and want to do business and it can be a great country if left to be free without disruption — it would be an easy country for Israel to make peace with especially since there is no real history of problems between the natives of the countries — the problems were with outsiders taking hold of Lebanon, be they Palestinian imports from Jordan a generation ago or Hizbullah operatives from Iran today. Lebanon will never have an economy that booms without peace with Israel because any investor will have to worry about the contingent liability that looms if war breaks out of the clear blue sky like it did this past summer. Investors were burned this year; not again until the problem is solved in a global sense, and since the Saudis are the biggest investors it means they want the Lebanese problem to be solved and they understand that peace with Israel is part of the solution.

Look at it another way. We could spend an hour trying to analyze who won the last round between Israel and Lebanon and if the campaign was run well or poorly. But it doesn’t matter. The question tonight is whether what did happen this past summer set the stage for a future war. Step back for a minute and figure what would have happened had Israel invaded and gone all the way to Nasrallah’s house or to the Iranian embassy where he was staying. The problem still came from Syria and Iran. The Lebanese were pawns. In the same sense, the Israelis stomped all over the place, messed up the country and said we don’t care what happens in Lebanon as long as you don’t step over the line and bother us. If you do, there will be no Lebanon. To that extent, the objective of the war was very clear and it was executed perfectly. There is a ceasefire, the Lebanese army is in the south and Nasrallah apologized for starting a war with Israel and presumably won’t do it again. Even though he is an agent of Syria and Iran, it just wasn’t in their plans to start a war with Israel but Israel let it be known that the war will come to Lebanon if they use Lebanon as a proxy against Israel and yes, it does matter to Syria and Iran to have the Israelis stomping all over Lebanon not least because Iran had to pay the bill and its own citizens want that money spent at home.

So that means I think that you can deal with Syria and solve Lebanon, the Golan and Gaza. If you neutralize Syria, it is expected that they would withdraw support for the irritants to Israel that emanate from Syria. Presumably, you would not have them giving Khaled Mashaal 50 million dollars to veto the prisoner swap between Hamas and the Israelis in Gaza that would have prevented or cut to size the conflict in Gaza (if you believe the charge made by the Israeli UN ambassador). Since Syria is one important source of instability to Iraq with its open border, we should expect a stop to the flow of jihadis entering the battlefield that way.

The Iraqi and Iranian Domestic Theaters: Do We Care?

Now let’s look at Iraq and Iran. Iraq is actually pretty easy for me to deal with. Before the Americans invaded, my friend in Bahrain said “You’ll see; they’ll invade; make a big mess; pull out after a few years; then there will be a big civil war for years and nobody will be held accountable.” He reminded me of that conversation this month. Do you know those Iraqi Airways jets are still on the taxiway at the Amman, Jordan airport even now? I thought I’d never see them again but now we know better, right? Just gives you an idea how nothing really got implemented to rebuild Iraq.

Here’s a trip down memory lane with a quote from my 2001 Limmud Speech before the war:For this reason, what Arabs, particularly in the Gulf, fear more than anything is that the Americans will attack Iraq, declare victory, pull out before they actually win, and leave the region in chaos. They accuse the Americans of doing the bare minimum in Afghanistan. If so, the Americans will have absolutely no credibility left in this region. So if the Americans start this war, the Americans have to win and can’t afford to lose. 

Amazing how it is exactly what happened and is going to happen. The question is whether or not this matters to the rest of us. Iran and Iraq fought a war for 8 years and nobody else cared. I’ve always expected a 5 years civil war in Iraq between the Sunni and Shiite while the Kurds sit around in the north and make lots of money from oil and border smuggling. The Kurds also get along with the Shiites, who are the stronger power. The Sunnis don’t have a lot of oil in their region and, in the absence of figuring out how to become like the Emirates in a region of the country without beaches, have every reason to fight. If the Iranians want to spend their money backing the Shiites, it’s a drain for them. The Americans realize they have nothing to offer here and will eventually leave. It’s a pity that people should say that leaving Saddam in place would have been preferred, but I believe this is Yugoslavia all over again — for 5 years they will fight to exhaustion and then work it out among each other. The Shiites of Iraq are not interested in being a province of Iran and they learned a generation ago when they started a rebellion and wound up with the short end of the stick in Iraq. The Sunnis started it up this time and they are the minority and will similarly wind up suing for peace when they have no choice. So on this matter I think there will be a war but it will be localized and there is no way to prevent it because the Americans squandered the window of opportunity when it went into Iraq without a plan and did not realize that the Iraqis would not act like civilized nation builders and take foreign aid for anything but lining their pockets. Right now Al Qaida in Iraq is a problem but take away the foreign targets and the Iraqis will get tired of them killing each other.

Returning to Iran, as I have said the best hope for change is domestic and not military from outside. Interestingly, the Israelis are negotiating for the payment of Iranian oil before the revolution that they didn’t pay for afterward. Turns out they owe millions of dollars to the Iranians. If this is being negotiated, lots of other things are probably on the table. Taking care of Syria might deny Iran the logistics of getting a foothold in Lebanon, Gaza and Syria, but as I said there is a close affinity of Shiites in Lebanon to Iran and Iran wants to keep the world’s attention to its concerns. Therefore, a settlement with Iran will affect the ground in Lebanon. Iran, though an oil producer, is a net importer because it doesn’t have good production facilities. The price of oil matters; if the Saudis continue to ramp up their production they could drive down the price and drive the Iranians and Shiite Iraqis to desperation because they need the revenues to subsidize the imported fuel and the necessities that the population relies upon. From the Saudi perspective, this would be more effective than fighting the war in Iraq via the Sunni jihadis who always seem to later pop up where they least want them.

Right now, there is more deal flow going on in the Gulf than ever before. It’s not just the appearance of business; it’s real business. A decade ago the Israelis were running and jumping at 10pm on their cellphones working on deals. They still are, but now the Arabs are not all sitting at home without telephones playing backgammon. They are on cellphones and blackberries, flying from one country to another within the GCC region closing deals with European, American and especially Chinese companies. The trend today is toward more Saudi investment in China today than in America. What this means is that in the countries around Iraq and Iran this is all a matter for CNN; they really don’t want to know about Iraq and Iran and so far have been able to ignore it and it’s a good bet that because the Iranians get a lot out of Dubai too, which seems to be the crossroads of the world today for networking, they won’t spoil the party. Meanwhile, there is talk of countries in the region starting nuclear programs. Is this meaningful beyond a threat to Iran to come to the table and deal with the rest of the world before everyone around it also goes nuclear?

My guess is that the Americans realize they will have virtually no credibility in the region if Iran goes nuclear and the countries all think that the American umbrella is not real because if the Americans couldn’t attack Iran to prevent its nuclearization, it won’t attack it when a nuclear threat exists. But then when you consider that America is not in a position to really attack, the imperative for dealing this out rises to the top. If James Baker’s realists have their say, they will deal this out. If on the other hand Bush sees himself as God’s messenger and thinks it is his destiny to wipe out Iran’s nuclear capability, all bets are off. If Olmert and the people around him think they have to do this in the absence of the US and that they can, I will be very surprised and in no position to have any idea what happens next. Putting Avigdor Lieberman in government is the Israeli way of telling Iran we have our crazies too and you better think twice; he has no power but those who know him say he is considered smarter than you think and capable of devising clever strategies. The Iranians might blink and decide they need a less vocal president or both sides will determine that this good-cop bad-cop routine serves their domestic audiences well.  The Israelis use Lieberman to sideline Netanyahu and the Iranian president keeps the conservatives at bay in ways such as holding a Holocaust denial conference 3 days before local elections; when he gets interviewed for an hour everyone talks about nuclear weapons and the Holocaust and nobody asks him about the lousy economy and corruption which he’s done nothing to fix — and that’s exactly the way he likes it. As I said before, you want scary — look at Pakistan; Iran is probably not the biggest threat even though that’s where the loudest dog barks. Nobody is talking about what to do about Pakistan and I am not qualified to tell you if we should let Musharraf fall and what would be the consequences, but it is probably the most important question we should be asking these days.

Avoiding World War III in the Middle East

So was this past summer’s war the beginning of a countdown to World War III? Shortly afterward I thought it was and wrote an article saying so. After a few months and talking around to people, I’m not so sure that World War III would come from here any more than from Pakistan which may be the more likely correct answer and which is the answer intelligence estimates have given for almost a decade. The Syrians and Israelis both want to talk to each other and the Americans are coming around to being supportive of this rather than blocking agents, although my gut tells me that Bush may well ignore the Baker Report in spite of its logic. The Lebanese and Iraqis may be headed toward civil war but that is not a problem for Israel, the Gulf or anyone else. Go to Amman, Jordan and you’ll see everyone sitting around in 5 star hotels and nice shopping malls waiting out whatever is going on in the countries around them. The Jordanians can’t build the hotels fast enough and real estate doubled in the past year. Every time Lebanon flops, the Jordanians just do more business. The one country that has a decent peace with Israel and gets along with the US is the one that somewhat works. Egypt has an aging Pharoah in charge and a cold peace and it works somewhat but not really because they’ve never reformed the economy consistently. At some point, the Israelis and Egyptians will build a proper border to stop the smuggling. 

The pressure points are Syria who could start a war if they feel ignored and pushed to the wall. The Iranians are hellbent on getting the bomb and the question is not as much how to stop them but how to get them to be less threatening. I think the Iranians would push their president to the side if they saw benefits to change. Otherwise, they have nothing to lose by having him stand up for their pride as long as they are going to be treated like outcasts anyway. To deal with Iran you have to make sure that they feel that Iraq is not going to be a problem for them, that you are not going to threaten the stability of the government from the outside, and that they will have access to foreign investment and things they want to acquire. Syria is pretty much in the same category; they want to know that things inside Syria will improve to the point that they don’t have to rely on Lebanon as much as a lifeline. This is where the US and Europe can be helpful and where Russia and China might be more supportive if they can get on the same page. Saudi Arabia can put money behind the deal and they want to be constructive and get the region moving because the best insurance for the kingdom’s survival is economic development. Ultimately, the best insurance policy for the entire region is economic development. The Lebanese didn’t want a war with Israel and neither will the Palestinians once they have an economy that truly benefits them as opposed to an economy in Palestine that doesn’t benefit them. Freeing Marwan Barghouti and having him pair up with Abbas would make good chemistry for providing leadership in Palestine once you have a situation where Hamas doesn’t need to push itself around and Fatah needs a shot in the arm to fill the void it has created through its failures thus far. The Islamists really wanted a government in Palestine to work as a showcase for the rest of the Middle East; it was their best chance as only Israel would allow it. But the other Arab countries were so threatened by it that they insisted Israel choke it off and they themselves boycotted it too and it is not helping that the people running the Hamas government are so caught up in their rhetoric that on the ground they seem to be more interested in ideology than in dealing with real problems such as sewage and utilities.  So the reality is that a reformed Fatah is the way out of this mess in Palestine. The Israelis probably don’t care; they’re fine with a long-term truce with a Hamas-led government because they feel they have them in check; Hamas can rant about destroying Israel but they don’t like it when the Israelis assassinate their leaders. Coming back to the Saudis, you now see that Olmert is embracing the Saudi peace plan put forth in 2001; there is a Sulha element of religious reconciliation in that plan and it would be wise to play up those elements because a peace that will stick must be something that has emotional appeal to the Arab soul and only the Saudis can deliver that via the Sulha aspect of that plan. This is what was missing from the peace with Jordan and Egypt and what the Saudis can bring to the table as the guardians of Mecca. Hamas in Palestine can offer that carrot better than the secular Fatahniks. I think you have to be willing to deal with Fatah or Hamas partially in order to keep both of those factions honest in dealing with you; as I have said, deal with their sponsors and you will find that they themselves become more reasonable. I think that most Israelis in the know agree with this assessment.

The Russians and Chinese just want to do business — they are avoiding foreign entanglements and making lots of money doing so. The US would be smarter to think about business development and get out of its foreign armed entanglements. There are now American troops in 195 countries around the world, which boggles the mind. These involvements are making the world more dangerous; Al Qaida wasn’t in Iraq before we went into Iraq and now it’s prime training ground for export of jihad. In 2001 Blair said we had no choice but to go into Iraq because we didn’t know if there were WMD and we couldn’t afford to find out too late…Bush said he knew for sure they had it. I told Arabs in a pre-war visit that I agreed with Blair; today Blair is seen in the Arab world as having made a mistake but Bush is seen as having hyped a war, lost his credibility and left real problems unsolved that are even more dangerous. Bush giving Israel carte blanche the last 6 years did not improve the security position of Israel viz. the Palestinians and contributed to the loss of overall US leverage in the region. The Israeli generals are preparing for a war they didn’t expect a year ago; the Palestinians have never been more agitated with nothing to lose and building a wall doesn’t keep rockets out and anti-tank missiles being smuggled in will beat back tanks when they come to restore order to territory. The whole Middle East doesn’t want to know of Bush’s New Middle East; they just see chaos and disorder, nothing like democracy or nationbuilding. 

It’s not a liberal statement to say that the US strategy failed, that change is necessary and that if there will be World War III in the region it will be because the US doesn’t change but that the US can be the most important contributor to peace if it wants to be and that the majority of the Arab world would welcome its involvement if it comes with a new approach to the region. The Europeans don’t have the power or the will to really deal seriously with this stuff and their commitment to NATO is a joke — the French talked the talk in Lebanon but didn’t wanna walk the walk. A Portugese driver said to me in Lisbon — Who cares what the Iranians do? They’re not going to nuke Portugal. The challenge is for the US to employ soft power; it has money, moral authority if it changes its policies, and the military means to use as a last resort if the cause is real, tightly defined, for the good of the masses instead of some perceived geostrategic objective, and an implementation and exit strategy are prepared in advance — all of which didn’t exist in Iraq for the US or Lebanon in Israel which is why both campaigns failed. Consider this: The New York Times wrote this month that 1,000 people work in the American embassy in Baghdad. 33 have some ability to speak Arabic and only 6 are fluent. Do you need to know anything else to know why the US doesn’t know its ass from its elbow in Iraq or anywhere in the Middle East?

I’m reading the Woodward book called State of Denial and it raises my anxiety level to see how little the generals and administration officials knew about what they were doing when they planned the invasion of Iraq and what came after it. It is beyond criminal how ignorant they were, let alone all the infighting that got in the way. Just this week I read that the new speaker of the House of Representatives appointed a foreign policy ignoramus as the new head of the house committee on intelligence. She didn’t like the one who had seniority; the number 2 in line had too much corruption taint and the third was in congress 10 years but had no idea if Al Qaida was a Sunni or Shiite organization and had no idea what Hizbullah was. There are so many people in high places in the US that are heads of intelligence programs that really don’t know anything and you and I are paying the price for this because at the end of the day people like Nancy Pelosi cares more about people kissing her ass than in whether America is safe.

Elements of A More Dynamic US Policy and more Constructive Type of Engagement

I’ve always maintained that preventative maintenance is cheaper than repairing things that break. The Iraq war is costing $2 billion a week; it may be chump change against our GNP but it would have been much cheaper to invest in schools and jobs, programs to study and work in America, training in forming political parties and understanding democratic processes and the various things that need to be in place for democracy to work and empower people to take their future into their own hands. You can’t create democracies by saying we’ll have elections without having all the parts in place. Otherwise, some goons with guns hijack the elections and then you have no more elections. You can’t say you support democracy and then be found to be giving millions of dollars secretly to one side of the campaign and then boycott the winner who inevitably wins as a result of the backlash. America has a real hypocrisy problem — people feel that America doesn’t really support democracy and that it instead supports corruption by giving financial support to those who support America and are willing to sell the rest of the country out just to maintain that cushion of support. If America wants to support democracy abroad, it has to support real democracy on the same level as it expects at home. This is not the same as saying that it has to be democracy American style. What my Arab friends are saying is it has to be “We trust you to make your decision and we’re not going to interfere with it; we want to give you the tools to empower you to do it yourself and we will not support people who abuse the democratic process to impose autocracy in a given state, even if that state is friendly to the US, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.” Tough thing to do when America itself is corrupt and/or when you need friends in a region that is rather hostile, but OK, you get the point. Over the long term though, think about it… Egypt is ripe for a revolution in the next decade and what comes of it will not be friendly to the US as long as the US appears to support a man trying to become a Pharoah or put in his son who so far is a sphynx; Saudi Arabia is changing but will have to change more in order not to suffer the same fate; Pakistan is not changing and is potentially the most dangerous place in the world. Ignore the fact that Musharraf is talking peace this month with Kashmir; it’s an offer he knows the Indians will refuse. The book on Karzai and Musharraf is that they are both corrupt, despised in their own countries and seen as tools of the Americans. These scenarios are just not sustainable over the long term. The deterioration in America’s standing in Turkey over the last few years is palpable and a warning sign that public opinion counts although this has more to do with American support for the Kurds than anything else and will lead to an interesting dilemma this year whether or not to sell out the Kurds in exchange for regaining the confidence of the Turks or preventing a Turkish invasion of the Kurdish area in Iraq.

The American war on terror has not resulted in half a dozen convictions since 9/11, Guantanimo served no useful purpose except to make the whole world feel that the US lost its moral authority by keeping people locked up without due cause and being afraid of its own justice system to discover the truth, and the whole thing has become a cover for the American government to harass its own citizens and create a climate of fear and call anyone that opposes administration policies unAmerican to the point that many feel this is being cynically manipulated to promote the Republican party, except that the backlash finally kicked in this November with people electing Democrats. Right now America has a center for counter-terrorism that is tracking a database of 400,000 people it considers potential terrorists — which in essence means it is tracking nobody. We all laugh nowadays when we remember how the government tracked communists in the 1950’s and the whole exercise degenerated into a witchhunt against political enemies of those in power. We are already ridiculing this current effort: When you declare baby food at the airport and the government confiscates baby yogurt and baby butt rash cream because they are liquid-based without considering who is bringing it aboard (and then frustrated moms go back, put it in their handbag and walk through again anyway), it just makes you feel that your government is composed of morons who are fixated on enforcing irrational regulations that have them looking at things as opposed to people and not making you one bit safer anyway because anyone determined to get passed the security barrier can and will do it, from a persistent mother to a terrorist. So basically, if you want to have a war against terror you won’t win it by raising barriers at home from security walls to ridiculous visa policies and pat-down checks at airports, you have to go and make it less attractive for people to want to attack you in the first place. (I used to think the Europeans were more practical at this than the Americans but I just flew home through Heathrow and they were even more ridiculous than when we left Kennedy in terms of their harassing my wife and 1 year old kid. The whole security apparatus has gone mad on both sides of the pond. Leaving Kennedy they were both patted down and searched; leaving Heathrow they took away the baby food and butt rash creams.)

So, to summarize the main points:

War is not inevitable. If the US gets its act together and engages Syria and Iran, it can solve many problems in the region. Israel can piggyback on this involvement and solve its problems as well. The rest of the world can kick in money and support. Sometimes the inevitability of war forces everyone to stare into the abyss and realize that the alternatives are better. We may be at such a time in our history in this region. Even though certain domestic problems may not be solvable and there may be certain localized wars that cannot be prevented, regional threats can be dealt with and there are opportunities with willing partners to actively search for solutions to the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

It may be in a certain ironic way that the conflict between Jews and Arabs is easier to solve than conflicts among Arabs. It may be the reason why there is so much talk about dealing with this conflict first — it is almost as if the Arab world is saying We think we can finally solve this problem; if we can solve it, how can we not then solve our own problems? There is in my opinion the basis for hope; perhaps Olmert is more a statesman than the savvy politico I currently hold him as and whatever he is he is the only alternative on the scene; even those who think Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are qualified alternatives don’t like to think about it because nobody likes them. Bush can work with people he doesn’t agree with when he wants to but if he wants to continue in his ways the next president, probably Democratic if Bush doesn’t improve the climate, will probably chart a more creative foreign policy. But in its own crazy way, the logic of the region tells me that there are opportunities at this moment if the US in particular can be dynamic enough to exploit them. The US and its policies of the last 6 years is a leading cause for the increased destabilization of the world but yet remains the most important actor that can solve problems if it chooses to go that route. The rest of the world does want the US to be involved if it can go the latter route and may in fact choose to  wait patiently if it believes it must wait 2 years to give it another chance because the alternatives are scary, even to those countries considered pariahs in the world.

Some of the Questions and Answers:

Q. If the US were isolationist, what would be the impact?
A. The US won’t be isolationist under this president and the Democrats will not change much. The US can reduce its involvement but it is simply too involved in the rest of the world to get out of it.

Q. What about Middle East peace if the Arabs are so irrational in their hatred and the media is so schizophrenic and emotional about Israel? Can Arab pride deal with Israel?
A. The media is not what it used to be; they deal a lot with Israel and quite pragmatically. Arabs know more about Israel than vice versa. Most Arabs today may not like Jews or Israel but they have come to live with its inevitability. And that’s what counts.

Q. Who will enable the Palestinian economy?
A. Arab states are interested; if for no other reason than they will want to have influence there. If it is a free economy, it will be a successful place.

Q. Any possibility of solving the Iraqi situation using US troops?
A. No, I can’t see a way to solve their problems with our troops without being sucked into just more problems over there. The present idea of putting more in to stabilize the place and then pulling them out is flavor of the month, probably backed by military contractors who don’t want to see the US pull out and then leave them without profitable contracts.

Click here for notes on other Limmud speakers of interest.

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