by Curt Jones
One night in olden times, two learned healers were exchanging boasts in a coffeehouse in Baghdad. Said Ahmad, “Just yesterday I saved a dog that was foaming at the mouth.” “Animals!” snorted Salim. “I save my skills for humans. If I had had the time, I could have saved the dog, and taught him to say thank you.” Some days later, Salim was summoned to the palace. The sultan gave him a long hard look, then said, “I hear you can teach dogs to talk.”
You don’t say no to a sultan. “Yes, sire,” Salim stammered, “but it’s a long hard process.”
“We have time, inshallah,” declared the sultan. “Here is my suluki, the smartest animal in the city. Be back one year from today with an articulate dog.”
On the appointed day, Salim prostrated himself before the sultan. “Bad news, sire. That dog turned out to be a habitual liar.”
“Liar! What kind of lies?”
“Well, as he was learning to speak, he began to tell wild stories about where you used to take him on evening walks.”
The sultan was outraged. “That’s high treason!”
“Exactly, Sire,” Ahmad replied. “The miscreant has been executed.”
That ancient folktale is told nowadays as a parable. The sultan represents all the governments, local and foreign, that have despoiled the East. The fiction about teaching animals to speak is a metaphor for the fraudulent Arab-Israeli peace process. The unfortunate dog is Palestine.
For the past sixty years, the Middle East has been afflicted by two related conflicts. One is a power struggle to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Safavid (Iranian) Empire in the 1700’s and the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in the 1800’s. The issue is hegemony. The outcome will be decided by the Middle Easterners. Western powers have meddled in it, but as foreigners they have no final voice.
A simultaneous conflict arises from the effort of a Western-sponsored colony—Israel —to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. The issue is more crucial than hegemony; it is land. To succeed, the Israelis have to accomplish two miracles: eliminate the opposition of the Arabs they dispossessed of Palestine; and win regional acceptance of the new state.
For reasons of domestic politics, the United States has made Israel’s cause its own. Their alliance has evolved into a diarchy; their two foreign policies have become essentially identical. Washington has arbitrarily locked its relationship with the Middle East to the future of Israel.
The future of Israel hangs on whether it can become a viable participant in the Middle East power struggle. The region contains nineteen recognized states. None of the nineteen has achieved pluralistic government—the hallmark of modernism. All are massively handicapped by the communalist syndrome. Ethnic loyalty to tribe, sect, or language group overrides national loyalty.
By separating ethnicity from nationalism, and church from state, the United States has made itself the ranking world power, and the paradigm of advanced governance— but not sufficiently advanced to apply the pluralistic principle to its foreign policy. Instead, in the Middle East it has espoused the Zionist state of Israel. As the quintessential example of communalism—what Jimmy Carter calls apartheid —Israel fits right into the Middle Eastern mosaic, but it also excludes itself as a candidate for regional hegemony. Thanks to American support, it is the preeminent military power in the region, but standing armies are only part of the power equation. In a struggle for hegemony over 300 million non-Jews, the community of six million Jews is not a viable contestant. The Israeli-American diarchy has won eight conventional wars —1948, 1956, 1967, 1970, 1973, 1982, 1991, and 2003—but it has lost two guerrilla wars in Lebanon, it can be expected to lose the guerrilla war in Iraq, and it has found no way to deal with the Arabs in Occupied Palestine.
Instead, the Israeli-American alliance has made matters worse. Israeli Palestine is permanently at war. Arab Palestine is a charnel house. The Lebanese government is tottering. Iraq, invaded in large part as a favor to Israel, is engulfed in civil war. Right now, the war is being fought underground, by abduction and assassination. As the American presence diminishes, communalist militias threaten to plunge the country into pitched battle— and ultimate partition into at least three autonomous segments. In the three northern provinces, the Kurds already use the term “Kurdish Regional Government.” They may acquire a fourth province, the one that contains Kirkuk whose oil fields are a critical source of income. The four central provinces may fall under control of the Sunnis, who already dominate Al Anbar. The other ten provinces, including some or all of Baghdad, are falling to the Shiites—provided they manage to suppress their parochial Shiite feuds.
In this jumble of unknowns, the biggest unknown of all is the intentions of the neighboring states. If the Iraqi Shiites get their act together, Iran would have no apparent reason to intervene. Turkey has threatened to take military action if the Iraqi Kurds proclaim independence or occupy Kirkuk. Kuwait, the product of British imperialism, would already be part of Iraq but for British rescue in 1961 and American rescue in 1991.
The adjoining Arab states can’t match Iranian or Turkish military power, and their political systems are more primitive. In Damascus, a precarious Shiite regime faces a Sunni majority in Syria and a separatist opposition in Lebanon. In Amman, the Hashemite monarchy and its Beduin army are trying to govern a population with a Palestinian majority. In Saudi Arabia, the heirs of Ibn Saud face sedition in the kingdom his forceful personality created.
These four states, plus Egypt, are seething with discontent over stagnant economy, unemployment, corrupt administration, despotic government, and humiliating servility to Western exploitation—starting with the confiscation of Palestine, exacerbated by a gratuitous American military presence, culminating in the illegal invasion of Iraq. Shiite genocide against the Arab Sunnis in Iraq intensifies anti-Americanism, fuels Sunni Islamism, and steps up sedition against the “moderate” regimes—which in current Washington’s lexicon means the ones that collaborate with us.
How can Israel and America, separately or together, suppress these challenges? Their foreign policies differ in one respect: In the eyes of the Iraqi Kurds, America has betrayed them three times, whereas Israel has been their loyal ally for forty years. Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan would presumably result in American betrayal number four, given Washington’s reluctance to oppose action by a member of NATO. Israel is free of this inhibition, but defending the Kurds would risk losing Israel’s valuable alliance with Turkey.
The United States and Israel have an unwritten understanding: They try to avoid joint military action. Domestic politics requires Washington to side with Israel against all comers. National interest requires Washington to pretend neutrality between Israel and its rivals—notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Trying to straddle the Arab-Israeli divide has demanded extremes of hypocrisy from all parties to the charade. Our contortions wouldn’t even be feasible if the Middle East wasn’t so pathologically fragmented.
The greatest contortion of all is the assumption that this conglomeration of nineteen shaky states provides a solid basis for a peaceful future.
Washington has embraced this assumption because fragmentation serves Western opportunism and Zionist security. It disregards history’s basic lesson that regional disunity breeds chaos. The impoverished masses in the Middle East crave modernization. Modernization requires unification. Every frontier diverts funds from economic development to astronomical defense budgets and expensive, unrealistic construction projects.
Amalgamation is usually a bloody process, as we Americans know from our own experience. We should also know that every region has to decide its own future. The unification of the Middle East is a job for Middle Easterners—not for Americans, even if our intentions are honorable, which might be hard to prove. As Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “It’s a colonial war; we’ll lose.”
The massive American military presence in the region serves no American interest. It obstructs the natural evolution of the region. No one can challenge Israel’s right to defend itself—provided that it can accomplish the wrenching transition from a Western colony to a Middle Eastern state, one in which citizenship is geographic instead of communal. How could anyone possibly build a future on a society where people splash in swimming pools across the road from penniless farmers whose wells are running dry? Or on a policy which tries to starve out those who resist discrimination?
The security of the Jewish community in Israel does not depend on American bases in Iraq or Jewish repression in Palestine. It calls for a policy that looks beyond the self-serving devices of sitting governments, and liberates Israel from the conceptual prison of Zionism.
Curt Jones, a member of this journal’s board of directors, had a thirty-year career as a diplomat, most of it stationed in the Middle East.