Innocents abroad

Mark Twain could return to describe the United States efforts in the Middle East.
Democracy in Iraq, a remaking of Afghanistan, the establishment of a peaceful Palestine alongside Israel are only three of Washington''s efforts that have not gone well, despite considerable investment of high ranking officials'' time, money, and the blood spilled by Americans, allies, and local residents.
In recent comments Barack Obama has mentioned signs of democracy in Egypt, but few who know the players would bet substantial resources that the elements of democratic infrastructure (i.e., free expression, continued political competition, moderate corruption, and decent public services) will result from the recent election.
The Libyan government said to be created after the street corner killing of Muammar Qaddifi seems to be unravelling into the prediction of regional and tribal animosities. The Assad regime has been at least as bloody as Qaddifi''s in putting down domestic protest, and its slaughter of civilians continues. The American president has said that there will be no intervention. He has spoken forcefully against an Iranian nuclear weapon, but has left himself sufficient wiggle room to use when the need arises.
The Middle East is a collection of regimes looking out for themselves. American policymakers imagined that solving the Palestinian issue would have a positive impact on the whole region. In this, they seemed to take seriously the lipservice paid by the leaders of other Muslim regimes to Palestine. However, understanding the words in Arabic, and noticing that there is a common language and religion does not mean that the region is an integrated whole, or that its people mean what they say.
Expectations of a wave of democracy or some other enlightenment emerging from Arab spring have not occurred.
What has happened is that the Palestinian cause has dropped off the world''s agenda. Perhaps because other Muslims are too busy; perhaps because the Palestinians overreached themselves with demands of the Israelis, their own inflexibility in response to Israeli gestures, and their failure to mobilize sufficient support to achieve statehood via the United Nations. The lip service of Muslim countries for the sake of Palestine appears in the gap between donations promised ($540 million in 2011) and received ($340 million).
Palestinian dithering with respect to an alliance between Fatah and Hamas also weakened their cause, with Hamas widely viewed as terrorist. Syria''s problems have impacted by leading Hamas to abandon its headquarters in Damascus, and to debate whether to realign with Islamists in Egypt, their financial patrons in Teheran, and/or one of the principalities of the Persian Gulf. Most important, perhaps, is that the Israelis have concentrated their political energies on Iran, and have brought Washington and other capitals along with them.
Aspirations for Afghanistan are not faring any better. The New York Times has published yet another article on chronic corruption that reaches to the top of what serves as the Afghan government, and befuddles ranking Americans charged with de-corrupting the country.
"Despite years of urging and oversight by American advisers, Mr. Karzai’s government has yet to prosecute a high-level corruption case. And now many American officials say that they have little expectation that . . . Washington will try to do much about it, especially after violent anti-American protests in recent weeks have sowed fresh doubts in the Obama administration over the viability of the mission in Afghanistan.
. . . the United States is leaving behind a problem it underwrote over the past decade with tens of billions of dollars of aid and logistical support: a narrow business and political elite defined by its corruption, and despised by most Afghans for it.

The Americans and Afghans blame each other for the problem’s seeming intractability . . . What is clear is that the pervasive graft has badly undercut the American war strategy, which hinged on building the Karzai administration into a credible alternative to the Taliban.

My own travels in Afghanistan, before the country became a prime issue for the United States, led me to be sceptical in the extreme when the Bush administration went beyond punishing Taliban for 9-11, and sought to remake the country. The country--assuming we can call it that--is backward in the extreme, beyond the capacity of American money or personnel to make much of a dent.
One English-speaking villager asked me how long it took to get to America by bus. It can''t be done, was my answer. Why? The ocean. What''s that? He was polite enough to say that he understood, but then he told me that when the bus gets to the river, it goes onto a raft and is pushed to the other side. Why can''t that happen when it gets to the ocean?
A few years later I visited Uzbekistan. There I saw carts pulled by oxen or camels. In Afghanistan, I saw the same kind of carts pulled by men.
The United States'' problems in Afghanistan reflect not only its collection of tribal, family, ethnic and linguistic entities never effectively ruled from the center, but the clumsiness of American personnel. The burning of Korans is only the most recent blunder of troops inadequately trained and controlled. There have also been bombings of wedding parties, and who knows how many other civilians killed, or turned anti-American in the mayhem. All armies have such problems, but they are especially severe due to the limitations of military commanders and the politicians who direct them in knowing the culture, practices, personalities, and taboos.
The Middle East is highly varied, and generally not responsive to the stimuli that may work in western democracies with functioning national economies. Outsiders meddle at their peril.
Israelis have their own scars from clumsy efforts trying to manipulate Palestine or Lebanon. Scepticism about the fine words dealing with peace and two states reflect those scars, and show themselves in the government''s hesitance to make extensive gestures without reasonable responses from the Palestinian leadership. Currently the issue of Iran is the highest priority, and it would be a mistake to expect anything more than polite platitudes about Palestine. There is coordination in a number of fields, including security, between Israelis and Palestinians, along with occasional incursions into Palestinian areas to deal with problems not solved by cooperation. That''s likely to be the reality for some time to come.
Among the fascinations of the Middle East is the resilience of Israelis. The Prime Minister used the symbolism of Purim to heighten emotions at AIPAC. Then three of four days later, depending on whether their city had walls, Israelis donned customes, marched, partied, and drank, some of them until they could no longer tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. This was yet another example of viewing doomsday as normal.