Thursday, January 25, 2007

Not Always Our Fault

Michael Young, in a subscription-only article at the Wall Street Journal, argues that the region, not simply Iraq, has been transformed not only by events around the Tigris -- but in Lebanon and in Palestine as well. The "genie" of Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation, fueled by Iran's new assertiveness, is stalking the region. And unfortunately only solution to this threat is the very one recent events appear to have discredited: the spread of democracy and accountable government in the region.


A primarily sectarian Arab counter-reaction to expanding Iranian power would be a disaster. It might halt Iran and its comrades in the short term, but Arab regimes could soon become sorcerers' apprentices, swallowed by the forces they unleash. Iran, wrongly believing that popular anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment would overcome Sunni suspicions of their true intentions, should realize what a Sunni backlash would mean for their security. Once opened, the floodgates of Sunni-Shiite antagonism could become a Leviathan, sweeping away the fragile reality on the ground: Even in societies where Sunnis and Shiites now peacefully coexist, sectarian discord would become the norm.

Then there is the United States. Whatever one thinks of the war in Iraq, it will soon become obvious that it was easier for the Americans to enter the country than to leave it. If a departure leads to metastasizing sectarian hostility throughout the Middle East, then the U.S. will have to seriously rethink its strategy. Whatever else happens, the one assured winner of such a fracas would be the Islamists. Only democracy could prepare Arab states to withstand Iran without recourse to sectarianism. But the Bush administration seems to have abandoned that inventive undertaking for the region.

A chain of sectarian wars is not inevitable. But the only way to avoid it is for all sides to understand the existential red lines of the other sides. Iran's overconfidence is no easier for the region to stomach than was America's. For the first time in decades, the nationalism, tribalism or regime-sponsored Islamism of the Sunni Arab states seem incapable of steeling them against a resurgent Iran, but also its allies, striving to fill the vacuum of fading Arab power. Only these regimes' Sunni identity, an offended Sunni identity at that, might do so. The problem is that what shields them will likely lead the Middle East into further disarray.

There is the unfortunate tendency to regard America as responsible for everything in the world. Michael Young performs the invaluable service of pointing out that the actions and decisions of others matter too. Iran's assertive behavior, beginning with the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, not to mention its meddling in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq have poured as much gasoline into the campfire as anything else. Michael Young argues that the illegitimacy and fragility of many Sunni states drives aggressive and paranoid behavior to compensate for weakness at home. And the mixture is lethal.

The less sophisticated version of the West's own paranoia -- the idea that whatever bad thing happens it has somehow deserved -- of which the "we caused 9/11" is a prime example, has the sad effect of sometimes misdirecting analysis. Perhaps not everything is "our fault". The sad truth is that terrorism and the networked insurgency probably would have emerged from the Middle Eastern pressure cooker whatever America did. The concoction of backward, illegitimate regimes, fantasy ideology, abundant oil money, a conflict with Israel, sectarian rivalry. Who would not have imagined such a stew to be incapable of producing terrorism? No one, possibly, except those wedded to the idea that the US is the sole actor in the world. Maybe the basic problem with the idea of "bringing democracy to the Middle East" is that it puts the onus on someone else. It sets up the problem such that America cannot guarantee the outcome. It creates a process whose ultimate product no American President can honestly promise to deliver. Not everything is America's fault; and not everything is in America's power to answer.

The previous post, Play It As It Lays, argues that however much the Democrats may wish it, there is no going back to the status quo ante in the Middle East. Whether American, Iranian or Sunni actions have caused it, the region is a changed place. And because maybe the institutions the US has built over the last four years may be part of the solution as much as contributors to the problem, pure unadulterated obstructionism is probably a recipe for disaster. 

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