Dreams Meet Reality (Extract)

Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A contrarian look at our turbulent region suggests that an important lesson of history is that nobody learns from the lessons of history Making sense of the chaos that seems to permanently mark the Middle East is a policymaker's nightmare. As a guide to the perplexed, let the voice of a successful practitioner of statecraft in the region be heard: "The important thing about a regime is not what it is called, but how it acts. There are corrupt republican regimes and sound monarchies, and vice versa….The quality of a regime should be judged by its deeds and the integrity of its rulers." The speaker, none other than King Faisal ibn Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, knew all about being belittled as a backward and hidebound ruler of a backward and hidebound land, an impression reinforced by his own implacable anti-Semitism. However, when judging him on his ability to advance his country's interests, he was one of a long and exceptionally able line of rulers. Throughout the history of the ruling dynasty, the Saudis have consistently faced down all the challenges, external and internal, they have faced. Most recently, the monarchy has used its control of the country's mosques to wage a successful religious war against al-Qaeda doctrines, and erected a fence on its borders (inspired by the example of Ariel Sharon, no less) to deal with troublesome infiltrators. These and other counterintuitive perspectives feature prominently in "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East," a sustained and lively assault on the myths that comfort and confound the political left and right as they impose their limited visions on a complex world. The Saudis, for example, get bad press from both sides as being reactionary and anti-democratic. This is true as far as it goes, but Martin Sieff, chief news analyst for UPI and a former Jerusalem Post staffer (and a longstanding friend of mine), says that the ideologues are prevented by their prejudices and their ignorance of the past from seeing the full picture. Sieff argues that the Saudi royal family has created a stable, pro-Western and prosperous country, avoiding most of the pitfalls that have ensnared states too reliant on oil revenues. Saudi Arabia's embrace of an austere form of Islam has had adverse consequences on its human rights record. This very conservative outlook, though, contrasts favorably with the messianic radicalism of an Ahmadinejad. Other illusions are swiftly and entertainingly shot down. No, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not the root cause of the problems of the Middle East. No, radical Islam is not an age-old problem: Nothing was heard from it during two world wars and several rounds of Arab-Israeli fighting for the simple reason that it did not exist as a significant political force in the Arab world. And no, more democracy is not what Iraq needs to create a functioning, stable state. The story of Iraq's modern descent into vicious faction fighting despite the very best of democratic intentions is well known. Sieff witheringly recounts how over-idealistic American plans to establish a fully functioning democracy on the ruins of Saddam's dictatorship were foiled by their underestimation of "the intransigent, unsophisticated, and anti-Western nature of the competing communities." American troops were not numerous enough to guarantee order and the provision of basic services. Helpless Iraqis therefore turned to violent neighborhood militias as their only source of protection. What is less well known, but succinctly told here, is the story of how the British tried to plant a constitutional monarchy in the newly minted country of Iraq after the First World War. They failed, despite ruling the country directly for fourteen years and remaining the real power in the land even after the country became nominally independent. Successive Iraqi governments rose and fell in a welter of coups and deadly inter-tribal rivalries. Their popular legitimacy was based on force and fear, not the vote. The Hashemites, installed by the British as monarchs despite lacking any prior connection with the place, failed to win popular trust or respect. In 1941, pro-Nazi Iraqi generals of the army the British themselves had created seized power and besieged the country's British held military airport. A rapidly-assembled force, including Jewish soldiers from the Yishuv that the British held in contempt, made a successful against-all-odds dash to relieve the garrison, and the rebellion collapsed. But stability in Iraq proved elusive: The monarchy was violently overthrown in1958. Sieff unearths other fascinating, forgotten details. The person responsible for finally crushing the 1936-39 "Arab Revolt" in British Mandatory Palestine was not Orde Wingate, important though he was in training a generation of war-winning Israeli commanders, but then-General Bernard Montgomery. The future Field Marshal, a senior commander of the British army in Palestine, took just a few months to put down the armed gangs then terrorizing the country. What lessons does all this have to offer American policy in the Middle East? The author does not go into detail, but suggests reliance on both Saudi Arabia and Israel as key allies in the region. American intervention in regional conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute should be based on Henry Kissinger's philosophy of seeking agreements that "try to ameliorate suffering and immediate grievances and provide security on both sides, while postponing the most difficult issues to a later date." Seeking full and final peace agreements too soon always backfires. Above all, urges Sieff, remember that "however backward they may superficially appear by Western standards, the societies of the Middle East have a strength, identity, and resilience of their own." Extract from an article in issue 3, May 26, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.