Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Witches Brew in the Middle East

Harvard University Professor Niall Ferguson today keenly puts his arms around the vast witches brew of bloody conflict and competing interests in the Middle East, forecasting that we are likely on the precipice of another world conflict, if not Armagedon:

Divide and rule was an old maxim of Britain's Empire. In the Middle East today, there's certainly no shortage of division. But who is ruling as a result? Any lingering hopes of a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians evaporated last week as the Islamist extremists of Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the more secular Fatah party, now finds himself president of the West Bank only. The next Middle Eastern peace plan will have to be a three-state solution: Israel, Hamastan and Fatahland.

Did I say three? I meant four. Because no peace could last long if it didn't somehow end the threat to Israel posed by Hezbollahstan - the strip of Lebanon controlled by the Iranian-backed terrorists whom Israel failed to obliterate last summer.

Meanwhile, even as hooded Hamas gunmen and Fatah forces traded bullets in Gaza, and even as another anti-Syrian politician was blown to pieces by a car-bomb in Lebanon, Sunni militants in Iraq destroyed the twin minarets of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, finishing a job they began last year, when they demolished the shrine's golden dome. Nothing could be better calculated to intensify the sectarian conflict that has been tearing the country apart for 16 months, pushing it another step closer to bloody partition.

And don't forget Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous republic in northern Iraq which is set to be the third state in Iraq's three-state (dis)solution. Or maybe not. In recent weeks the Turkish army has been massing troops on the Turkish-Iraqi border, threatening to launch raids against bases allegedly being operated by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Terrorism by the PKK has been a thorn in Ankara's side for more than 20 years. But this is also a renewed attempt by the secularists in the Turkish army to put pressure on the moderate Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Only the other day, the generals threatened to stage a coup if one of Erdogan's colleagues was elected president.

As I said, there's no shortage of division in the Middle East. But who gets to rule is less clear.

For some time I have been warning that the next great global conflict will begin in the Middle East, just as the two world wars had their origins in eastern Europe. The lethal combination of ethnic disintegration, economic volatility and an empire in decline (in this case, the United States) makes an upward spiral of violence hard to avoid. Add to that the demographic pressures due to high Muslim birth-rates, the money generated by vast deposits of oil and natural gas, and the risk that the most revolutionary power in the region will soon possess nuclear weapons, and you have a recipe for Armageddon.

What can the rest of the world do to defuse the Middle Eastern timebomb? According to that compulsive contrarian Edward Luttwak, a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the answer is: ignore it. In a recent article, Luttwak dismisses the entire region as "the middle of nowhere", arguing that overblown prophesies of doom are, after oil, the Middle East's biggest export.

Luttwak's argument is twofold. First, we exaggerate the importance of violence in the Middle East. As he puts it, "the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000". Iran is no more of a threat to the west than Saddam Hussein's Iraq was. "Most Middle Eastern populations," he writes, "can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces". And Iranian-sponsored terrorism is an overrated counter-threat to the possibility of American air strikes. Iran is in any case so ethnically divided that it will probably break up sooner or later.

At the same time, Luttwak insists, we exaggerate the economic importance of the Middle East. It is an under-achieving region where "almost nothing is created in science or the arts". It boasts the second-lowest adult literacy rate in the world (after sub-Saharan Africa). Excluding Israel, its per capita production of patents is even worse than Africa's. Practically the only thing the Middle East exports is oil, but global dependence on that is declining.

Hence, since neither a hard line nor a soft line will cure the Middle East's inhabitants of their propensity for low-level violence, and since the region is economically stagnant and increasingly irrelevant, the only rational policy must be one of benign neglect. "Backward societies", concludes Luttwak, "must be left alone, as the French now wisely leave Corsica to its own devices, as the Italians quietly learned to do in Sicily."

Of all the commentaries I have read in the past six months, this stands out as the silliest.

. . . Today, the Middle East is in many ways just as explosive as eastern Europe a century ago; perhaps even more so. Does Luttwak seriously believe that the disintegration of Iraq (or for that matter Iran, which he envisages) can be compared with the trivial disorders of Corsica and Sicily? Violence in Iraq is currently claiming the lives of around 3,000 people a month. Since 1998, according to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, Middle Eastern terrorism has killed 24,289 people and wounded nearly double that number - more than half of all the worldwide casualties due to terrorism. Is this Luttwak's idea of an acceptable level of violence? And would he like to estimate how many people may die in the next 10 years, as Iraq falls apart and the Israel-Iran showdown reaches its climax?

What's more, it is ludicrous to claim that the Middle East is economically irrelevant. True, the west is less dependent on oil from the region than in the Seventies, but has no one pointed out to Luttwak the recent and future trajectory of global oil supply and demand? The oil fields of the rest of the world are likely to be exhausted much sooner than the oil fields of the Middle East, which today account for 62 per cent of proved reserves, compared with 54 per cent in 1980. Meanwhile, Asia's economic boom is causing an unprecedented increase in demand. If Middle Eastern oil is so unimportant, why were crude futures up to $67 a barrel last week?

Far from benign neglect, what is desperately needed in the Middle East today is a more effective policy of diplomatic intervention - to establish some kind of rule amid the division. My worry is that, with two US aircraft carrier strike groups off the Iranian coast, and an admiral newly appointed as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, precisely the wrong kind of intervention may be about to happen.
Read the entire story here. While I find Mr. Ferguson's analysis, as usual, spot on, I find his conclusion unrealistic. Diplomacy has not and will not work in the Middle East. I think, in fact, the Armagedon of which Mr. Ferguson warns is inevitable unless we succeed in breaking the cycle and bring stability to Iraq. The only thing that will achieve that end is the use of force. It is the one single tool of diplomacy that has ever proven effective in the Middle East.

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