Thursday, June 12, 2008

Link Think

There's an ultra-contrarian post up today on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard website.

Martin Kramer, an Olin Institute Senior Fellow at Harvard, argues that peace in the Middle East does not "run through" Jerusalem or "run through" Tehran or "run through" Baghdad. (Okay. But really, the only person who ever believed peace in the Middle East ran through Baghdad was Vice President Dick Cheney. Thanks for that magical analysis.)

Kramer's point being: "Linkage" is a red herring for political leaders and diplomats and negotiators who want peace in the Middle East. Kramer argues that "linkage"—the notion that resolving one central conflict (the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in this case) will bring peace to the entire region, like curing one malady that's responsible for a host of related maladies—is an inapplicable principle from the 1940s when diplomats brought peace to Europe. Kramer says "Linkage" theory doesn't apply to the contemporary Middle East as it did to Europe because there's no controlling theme or system in the Middle East.

He writes:

The concept of linkage requires another belief: that the Middle East is a system, like Europe, and that its conflicts are related to one another.

Europe in modern times became a complex, interlocking system in which an event in one corner could set off a chain reaction. In Europe, local conflicts could escalate very rapidly into European conflicts (and ultimately, given Europe’s world dominance, into global conflicts). And Europe had a core problem: the conflict between Germany and France. Resolving it was a precondition for bringing peace to the entire continent. Churchill put his finger on this in 1946: “The first step in the re-creation of the European Family,” he said, “must be a partnership between France and Germany.”

Linkage, I propose—and this is my original thesis—is a projection of this memory of Europe’s re-creation onto the Middle East. The pacification of Europe was the signal achievement of the United States and its allies in the middle of the 20th century. It then became the prism through which the United States and Europe came to view the Middle East. From NATO to the European Union, from the reconstruction of Germany to Benelux, Europe’s experience has provided the template for visions of the future Middle East.

It was this mindset that led analysts and diplomats, for about three decades after the creation of Israel, to interpret Israel’s conflict with its neighbors as “the Middle East conflict.” Like the conflict between France and Germany, the Arab-Israeli conflict was understood to be the prime cause of general instability throughout the region, as evidenced by repeated Arab-Israeli wars, in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.

The flaws in the analogy only began to appear after Egypt and Israel achieved peace in 1979. From that point onward, the Arab-Israeli conflict moved in fits and starts toward resolution. Yet other conflicts in the region intensified. Large-scale wars erupted—not between Israel and its neighbors, but in the Persian Gulf, where a revolution in Iran, and the belligerence of Iraq, exacted a horrendous toll and required repeated U.S. interventions.

By any objective reading, the reality should have been clear: the Middle East is not analogous to Europe, it has multiple sources of conflict, and even as one conflict moves to resolution, another may be inflamed. This is because the Middle East is not a single system of interlocking parts. It is made up of smaller systems and distinct pieces, that function independently of one another.

I'm not sure how Kramer's point applies practically. While he seems exacerbated by all the domino-effect emphasis that's put on securing peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he doesn't suggest an alternative approach (nor, obviously, does he suggest abandoning negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.)

And I would argue that there is a controlling theme in the Middle East (it's what this whole blog is premised on, damn it): The running stand off between secular and religious aspirations. I don't, however, have a theory about addressing that bigger conflict to bring peace to the Middle East.

Really, Kramer's post is worth reading for the list he provides at the end, his thematic breakdown of all the conflicts in the region. (His 7th category—"the nationalist-Islamist conflicts within states"—is what I'm talking about):

Clusters of Conflict

First, the Arab-Persian conflict (with its origins in earlier Ottoman-Persian conflict). This manifested itself in our time most destructively in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and it continues to inflame post-Saddam Iraq and other parts of the Arab/Persian Gulf (even the name of which is the subject of dispute). This is probably one of the oldest rivalries in the history of the world. It has been exacerbated by the bid of Iran, under the Shah and now under the Islamic regime, to restore lost imperial greatness and achieve hegemonic dominance over the Gulf and beyond.

Second, the Shiite-Sunni conflict, which goes back in various forms for fourteen centuries, and which the struggle for Iraq has greatly inflamed, both within that country and beyond. There is some overlap here with Arab-Persian conflict, but the Shiite-Sunni conflict also divides Arabs against each other, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries. The ruthless violence between the sects in Iraq suggested the savage potential of this sectarianism, which has some potential to spread to other places in the Middle East where Shiites and Sunnis contest power and privilege.

Third, the Kurdish awakening, which involves a large national group experiencing a political revival in the territory of several existing states. Over the past two decades, violent conflict generated by Kurdish aspirations has torn at the fabric of Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish groups have used terrorism, and states have used scorched-earth repression and chemical weapons against Kurds. Now that Iraqi Kurds have established a de facto state in northern Iraq, there is every prospect that the Kurdish awakening will generate more conflict, and that it will spill over borders, possibly involving Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

Fourth, the inter-Arab conflict among Arab states over primacy, influence, and borders—the result of disputes created by the post-Ottoman partition of the Arab lands by Britain and France. In some places, these disputes are exacerbated by the inequities in nature’s apportioning of oil resources. The most destructive example of such a conflict in our times was Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait—the attempted erasure of one Arab state by another. Other examples include Nasser’s invasion of Yemen and Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.

Fifth, conflicts over the political aspirations of compact Christian groups with strong historic ties to the West. Foreign Christian minorities were turned out of the region decades ago, but the Maronites of Lebanon and the Greeks of Cyprus have held their ground. In the 1970s, wars were launched to deprive them of their political standing, leading in Cyprus to de facto partition between Greek and Turkish areas, and in Lebanon to a quasi-cantonization. These conflicts have defied all attempts at final resolution.

Sixth, conflicts that arise from the quest of Arab states to preserve or restore parts of their pre-colonial African empires. The most significant conflicts in this category are the long-running war in Sudan, which has descended into genocide in Darfur, and the festering contest over Western Sahara.

Seventh, the nationalist-Islamist conflicts within states, which are the result of failed modernization and the disappointed expectations of independence. The costliest of these conflicts in our time were the Iranian revolution in the 1970s (Islamists prevailed), the Islamist uprising in Syria in the 1980s (nationalists won), and the civil war that ravaged Algeria for much of the 1990s (nationalists triumphed). Smaller-scale conflict has occurred in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and is now afflicting the Palestinian territories.

Eighth, numerous conflicts, centered in the Persian Gulf, generated by the addiction of the industrialized West to the vast oil resources of the region, and the need of the United States to maintain its hegemony over the world’s single largest reservoir of energy. The United States essentially keeps the Gulf as an American lake, using aggressive diplomacy, arms sales to clients, and its own massive force to keep oil flowing at reasonable prices. This has put the United States in direct conflict with regional opponents—Islamic Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, and a non-state actor, Al-Qaeda—who have seen its dominance as disguised imperialism. In particular, U.S.-Iranian conflict for regional hegemony has escalated over the last thirty years, and is now being exacerbated by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and pursuit of regional power status.

Ninth, there is conflict involving Israel, on three planes: Arab-Israeli (that is, Israel versus Arab states), Palestinian-Israeli, and Iranian-Israeli. The Arab-Israeli conflict produced a series of four inter-state wars in each of the four decades beginning in 1948. But since Egypt’s peace with Israel, three decades ago, there have been no general Arab-Israeli wars, and Israel has negotiated formal or de facto agreements or understandings with neighboring states. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict periodically erupts and subsides (most dramatically in two intifadas), and continues to defy resolution, but hasn’t led to a regional conflagration. The brewing Iranian-Israeli conflict isn’t about the Palestinians; it is an extension of the contest between the U.S. and Iran for regional dominance. So far, this conflict has manifested itself in short but sharp contests between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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