The Region: Putting the impossible first

Why waste tremendous efforts on policies guaranteed to fail?

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Whether or not the Middle East is beyond redemption, it certainly seems to be beyond satire. The attempt to turn radicals into moderates, terrorism into resistance, serial political murderers into negotiating partners, and situations of total anarchy into great opportunities for diplomatic progress never ends. But here is one of my favorites in this genre, quoted from Newsweek, where it was published without any hint of irony: "'The Supreme Leader [of Iran, Sayyid Ali Khamenei] was deeply suspicious of the American government,' says a Khameini aide whose position does not allow him to be named. 'But [he] was repulsed by these terrorist acts [of September 11] and was truly sad about the loss of the civilian lives in America. For two weeks, worshipers at Friday prayers even stopped chanting 'Death to America.'" Two whole weeks! Is that holding out the hand of friendship, or what? At any rate, this reveals one of the main problems of the Middle East, at least as far as Western involvement is concerned. Far too much of the quality time of leaders, policymakers, and diplomats is spent on the impossible - or at least highly improbable. HERE ARE the four things which, aside from Iraq, take up the most time on the agenda of Western leaders regarding the Middle East. All of them are doomed to fail, which makes one wonder about this set of priorities and manner of thinking: Making friends with Iran while trying to persuade it, through relatively mild measures, to stop working on nuclear weapons. The fact is that Iran is not going to abandon its drive to get atomic bombs and the missiles to deliver them on target, certainly not unless subjected to the toughest possible diplomacy. Everyone should know this by now. Yet the pretense is that watered-down diplomatic wrist-slaps are going to make some difference. This doesn't mean that someone needs to attack Iran - though the threat of attack, even as a bluff, is a key pressure - but it does mean Teheran's leaders have to conclude that the cost of proceeding is too high and too dangerous. And that is a long way from happening yet. As for reconciling Iran, the nature of the regime - not just of the president, but of the whole ruling establishment - is just not going to make that possible. On the one hand, there is ideology. Iran's leaders believe what they say and have their own goals of regional hegemony. On the other hand, reinforcing this strategy is what the regime needs to do to survive, which requires having the US, the West and Israel as scapegoats for failures and justifications for repression. Making friends with Syria to get it to stop using terrorism to take over Lebanon, and terrorism against Iraq and Israel. As with Iran, however, the regime in Damascus is not just a blank slate or a government asking for the redress of reasonable grievances. Here, too, there is a whole set of other problems: the nature of the dictatorship as well as its ideology, ambitions and requirements for survival. Consider the tale of the night-vision goggles. US forces in Iraq discovered that Syria had given the terrorist insurgents there night-vision goggles. Israeli forces in Lebanon found that Syria had given Hizbullah night-vision goggles. European governments are now considering Syrian requests for even more night-vision goggles, supposedly to be used to block arms-smuggling to its own clients - smuggling which the Syrian government itself is doing. Here is what Dina Ezzat, a reporter from the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram who investigated the issue, concluded about what Israel would get if it gave the Golan Heights, and the West gave Lebanon, to Syria: Their first alleged reward would be "the stability of the regime" in Damascus. In other words, they would get the pleasure of having President Bashar Assad still in power. Second, Damascus would be willing to curtail "its facilitation of the arming of Hizbullah, while decreasing its assistance and accommodation of Palestinian and Iraqi militant resistance groups." Third, it would be willing to reduce "its intelligence cooperation with Iran." That's it. Not real peace, just a 20-percent reduction in covert war. Trying to moderate Hamas. Like Syria and Iran, Hamas does not want to be moderate. Unlike them, it hardly pretends otherwise. It continues to make clear its virulent anti-Semitism and goal of destroying Israel. To their credit, the Europeans are by and large holding the line. But again, a huge amount of time and energy is going into this dead-end effort at moderating Hamas. Suddenly, at the worst possible moment in history for success, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become the top priority for many governments. Fatah has collapsed; Hamas is extremist and believes time is on its side, and every Israeli concession has inspired escalation by the Palestinians and others. EVERY LESSON of the last 14 years has pointed at the intractability of the conflict. True, efforts can be justified by saying, "We have to try," or the belief that pretending to do so will make Arabs and Muslims happy. Yet now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pinning her reputation on making progress. Why tie your future to an inevitable failure? I could add two other points: thinking it possible to "solve" the internal situation in Iraq, and expecting that radical Islamists can be reconciled to Western interests. What do all these things have in common? Not looking at how the interests and ideas of extremists direct them; wishful thinking that concessions and empathy can resolve real conflicts, and so on. Now ask yourself this question: With so much effort going into guaranteed failures, is it surprising that there are so few successes? The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary University and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.