At a conference I recently attended in Israel, one American recently arrived from Lebanon remarked that the "untold big story" in the Middle East was the confrontation between the Sunni and the Shi'a and the attempts by minority groups -- not just the Jews -- to survive in it. Maybe those minorities include not simply Allawites and Christians but democrats (small "d") as well. However that may be, the assertion that local conflicts are really regional conflicts is implicit in two recent news stories. The first is from the Jerusalem Post:
Palestinian Authority officials here on Sunday accused Iran and Syria of pushing the Palestinians toward civil war, pointing out that Hamas was acting on orders from Damascus and Teheran. The allegation came as the number of Palestinians killed in internecine fighting rose to 27. Seven more Palestinians were killed on Sunday in armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah gunmen in various locations in the Gaza Strip.
The second article is from the Washington Post, describing a pitched battle between the Iraqi Army, supported by US helicopters, and a large and presumably Sunni group preparing to attack Shi'ite pilgrims attending the Ashura.
Jan. 28 -- Iraqi soldiers supported by U.S. helicopters on Sunday clashed with a gathering of insurgents hiding out amid date palm orchards near the southern holy city of Najaf, according to Iraqi officials. For the past several weeks, Sunni insurgents, including Arab fighters from outside Iraq, have stockpiled weapons and dug trenches amid the orchards in apparent preparations to attack the thousands of Shiite Muslim travelers observing the religious holiday of Ashura, Iraqi officials said. ...
The 8th Iraqi Army division along with U.S. helicopters assisted in the operation, said Ahmed Duaibel, spokesman for the Najaf provincial government. In a news conference, Najaf Gov. Asa'ad Abu Gulal said that an American helicopter crashed during the operation and that at least three members of the Iraqi security forces have been killed. There were no initial reports on a death toll of the insurgents.
Following on recent events in Lebanon, these reports are indications that the problems in the region are wider than events confined to Iraq. This means that even if the US withdraws from Iraq, as has been suggested by critics of the administration, armed conflict is likely to continue. For any long-term settlement to take place, America must find ways of effectively opposing the tactics of infiltration and subversion that are being practiced not only by Iran and Syria, but probably by elements within Saudi Arabia as well. And since the US must remain in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, not only because of oil but because of its commitments to key allies like Israel, the question of how to effectively fight a networked insurgency really transcends the issue of what the appropriate troop levels should be in Iraq.
So far the US, like Israel, has been doing pretty well on the "kinetic" battlefield but is performing poorly in the areas of information and political warfare. America has yet to find a way to harness all the sources of its national power and adjust its rules of engagement to delivered a well-rounded result. The need to achieve that goal is an issue which has yet to achieve national center stage. None of the candidates vying for the Presidency in 2008 is talking about it. If the conflict between the Sunni and the Shi'a is the untold big story of the Middle East, the lack of serious debate over how to effectively face the upheaval in the Islamic world -- as opposed to withdrawing or "staying the course" in Iraq -- is the even bigger untold story of American politics.