As the saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive is divine,” to which I’d add: “To ignore” is even more human, and the results rarely divine. None of us would be human if we didn’t occasionally get so wedded to our wishes that we failed to notice – or outright ignored – the facts on the ground that make a laughingstock of our hopes. Only when the gap gets too wide to ignore does policy change.
This is where a lot of U.S. policy is heading these days in the Middle East. Mind the gaps – on Iran, Israel and Iraq. We’re talking about our choices in these countries with words that strike me as about 10 years out of date. Alas, we are not dealing anymore with your grandfather’s Israel, your father’s Iran or the Iraq your son or daughter went off to liberate.
Let’s start with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party pretty well trounced the Labor Party leader, Isaac Herzog, in the race to form Israel’s next government. Netanyahu clearly made an impressive 11th-hour surge since the pre-election polls of last week. It is hard to know what is more depressing: that Netanyahu went for the gutter in the last few days in order to salvage his campaign – renouncing his own commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians and race-baiting Israeli Jews to get out and vote because, he said, too many Israeli Arabs were going to the polls – or the fact that this seemed to work.
To be sure, Netanyahu could reverse himself tomorrow. As the Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea wrote: Netanyahu’s promises are like something “written on ice on a very hot day.” But the fact is a good half of Israel identifies with the paranoid, everyone-is-against-us, and religious-nationalist tropes Netanyahu deployed in this campaign. That, along with the fact that some 350,000 settlers are now living in the West Bank, makes it hard to see how a viable two-state solution is possible anymore no matter who would have won.
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It would be wrong, though, to put all of this on Netanyahu. The insane, worthless Gaza war that Hamas initiated last summer that brought rockets to the edge of Israel’s main international airport and the Palestinians’ spurning of two-state offers of previous Israeli prime ministers (Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert) built Netanyahu’s base as much as he did.
On Iran, there’s an assumption among critics of President Barack Obama’s approach to negotiating limits on Iran’s nuclear program that if Obama were ready to impose more sanctions then the Iranians would fold. It’s not only the history of the past 20 years that mocks that notion. It is a more simple fact: In the brutal Middle East, the only thing that gets anyone’s attention is the threat of regime-toppling force. Obama has no such leverage on Iran.
It was used up in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars that have left our military and country so exhausted that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big U.S. land army into the Middle East “should have his head examined.” Had those wars succeeded, the public today might feel differently. But they didn’t. Geopolitics is all about leverage, and we are negotiating with Iran without the leverage of a credible threat of force. The ayatollahs know it. Under those circumstances, I am sure the Obama team will try to get the best deal it can. But a really good deal isn’t on the menu.
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OK, so we learn to live with Iran on the edge of a bomb, but shouldn’t we at least bomb the Islamic State to smithereens and help destroy this head-chopping menace? Now I despise ISIS as much as anyone, but let me just toss out a different question: Should we be arming ISIS? Or let me ask that differently: Why are we, for the third time since 9/11, fighting a war on behalf of Iran?
In 2002, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in Afghanistan (the Taliban regime). In 2003, we destroyed Iran’s main Sunni foe in the Arab world (Saddam Hussein). But because we failed to erect a self-sustaining pluralistic order, which could have been a durable counterbalance to Iran, we created a vacuum in both Iraq and the wider Sunni Arab world. That is why Tehran’s proxies now indirectly dominate four Arab capitals: Beirut, Damascus, Sanaa and Baghdad.
ISIS, with all its awfulness, emerged as the homegrown Sunni Arab response to this crushing defeat of Sunni Arabism - mixing old pro-Saddam Baathists with medieval Sunni religious fanatics with a collection of ideologues, misfits and adventure-seekers from around the Sunni Muslim world. Obviously, I abhor ISIS and don’t want to see it spread or take over Iraq. I simply raise this question rhetorically because no one else is: Why is it in our interest to destroy the last Sunni bulwark to a total Iranian takeover of Iraq? Because the Shiite militias now leading the fight against ISIS will rule better? Really?
If it seems as though we have only bad choices in the Middle East today and nothing seems to work, there is a reason: Because past is prologue, and the past has carved so much scar tissue into that landscape that it’s hard to see anything healthy or beautiful growing out of it anytime soon. Sorry to be so grim.