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The Mideast Crack-Up: A Roundtable Discussion of the New Arab Map

Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map

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A Syrian boy walks on the rubble of destroyed buildings in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on April 10, 2013. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Nathan Thrall: The United States has undoubtedly contributed, often inadvertently and sometimes through inaction, to the strengthening of Middle Eastern quasi-states. It is the primary supporter, economic and political, of the collection of West Bank municipalities known as the Palestinian Authority, and it justifies its support for this non-state entity by purveying the notion that the Palestinian Authority is merely a transitional body that will soon sign a peace accord and become an independent state. The U.S.’s shifting and contradictory positions on Palestinian elections—at first favoring Hamas participation in democratic elections and then laying siege to its government while arming its domestic enemies—paved the way for Hamas to make short work of American-supported, Fatah-dominated security forces and take over Gaza. The two Gulf Wars against Iraq led directly to the increased autonomy now enjoyed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. And U.S. wariness of involvement in the Syrian crisis has deprived the weak and fragmented opposition of desperately sought resources as it suffers defeats and reversals at the hands of an unrestrained regime enjoying the firm support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.

Amos Harel: The Middle East’s fragmentation had been accelerating since the so-called “Arab Spring,” which probably has something to do with United States’ gradual withdrawal from the region. But the first signs of a smaller trend could have been identified decades earlier—in Lebanon, for instance, where every ethnic group has kept an armed militia since the 1970s. This is too big to blame on the United States alone. However, when American neo-conservative thinkers talked of “constructive chaos” in the Middle East at the time of the second Iraq war, perhaps they might have gotten much more than they wished for. Nations in the region will probably be struggling for years trying to figure out some constructive element in all this mess.

Lee Smith: Alongside the forces determined to preserve the regional status quo, there are powerful players whose actions and policies are working against it—Iran and the United States. The former actively seeks to undo the order of the state system, while the latter has done so unintentionally.

The founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, devised a very simple formula: Islam may come in many shapes, colors, and forms, but finally being a Muslim means resistance against the West. Here Khomeini targeted not only the United States, Israel, and the European powers but also Middle Eastern states like Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia that accommodated the West or had allied with it. Conveniently, that also put Iran at the head of the Muslim world.

Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech played into the Islamic Republic’s worldview. American policymakers are ill-suited to cope with billions of people in terms of their religious beliefs. Instead, they treat with the diplomats, political and military officials of discrete entities known as states. By addressing the “Muslim world,” Obama effectively erased state borders.

American policymakers have put themselves at a disadvantage in the region by promoting ideas whose consequences are dangerous to U.S. interests. And it’s not just Obama. After all, it was the Bush Administration that was most concerned that Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah endangered what it perceived, not incorrectly, as a friendly government, then administered by the pro-democracy March 14 movement. It’s true that Lebanon and Hezbollah are two separate things, but that doesn’t mean Hezbollah is some sort of complicated hybrid that needs to be understood in light of a totally new paradigm. It’s not a non-state actor; it’s an armed wing of the Islamic Republic that has occupied Lebanon, with local proxies, for 30 years. There is plenty of historical precedence for this problem, and the solution to it is found by addressing the problem at its source—the power that stands behind the proxy. It was also under the Bush Administration that the U.S. military devised a counterinsurgency doctrine that downplayed the role of states in facilitating and supporting terrorism. Because COIN focuses on earning the trust of local populations, or the terminus of an insurgency, the United States rarely attacked the problem at its source—states.

Q: Which of the mini-states mentioned above—Hamastan, the PA, Hezbollahland, Alawite Syria, and Kurdistan—do you expect to see in something like their current form five years from now, and which do you expect to disappear?

Amos Harel: Most mini-states you’ve mentioned could end up becoming long-term entities. Although talk of Palestinian reconciliation has resumed this week, it is hard to envision a union between Hamastan in Gaza and Fatahland in the West Bank, considering both the ideological and physical separation. The Kurds seem to be doing rather well on their own. The fates of Hezbollah and the Alawites are harder to predict, since these depend on the outcome of the war in Syria and perhaps on the level of active international involvement there.

Robert Worth: In some places, I would not be at all surprised to see new entities emerge. The Kurds, fueled by their passionate desire for a homeland and the convenient turmoil all around them, may succeed in forging one. The Palestinian territories are an open question, one that could ultimately involve the borders of Jordan or Egypt, though in relatively minor ways. Elsewhere, there are strong movements toward more localized or “federal” governing structures (the United Arab Emirates is sometimes cited as a model), and these may well bear fruit. But I doubt they will alter boundaries in fundamental ways.

In a sense, I have been more struck by the emergence of hyper-local identities—cities and towns—than of regions with the potential to secede. In Libya, for instance, the city of Misurata (in the west) has shown as much or more autonomy than eastern Libya. In Yemen, the city of Taiz (which was never part of the south, where secessionism is now in full flower) has reclaimed a large measure of local identity and some autonomy. This emergence is in many places a return to form: Under the Ottoman Empire, imperial control in the Arab territories was mostly nominal (a garrison, a few exemplary punishments every year), and many cities viewed themselves as culturally if not politically autonomous. Aleppo, for instance, had its own consulates and diplomatic relations with the West starting in the 15th century, and most of its citizens had a very limited sense of connection to the Sublime Porte or to the borderless region known on maps as Syria.

David Goldman: Kurdistan is by far the most viable of the new entities; the Kurds in northern Iraq have shown themselves adept at self-rule. If any stateless people in the world deserves to have a state, it surely is the Kurds. Alawite Syria will cling to its position in the northeast of the country with Russian and possibly Iranian support because the Alawites have nowhere to go and will fight to the death to retain an enclave. Hezbollahland is an extension of Iran, and its future depends entirely on that of its master. If the United States and its allies cripple Iran’s capacity to project influence, Hezbollah will collapse; if not, it will struggle on. The Hamas government in Gaza also depends on Iran for arms and on Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt for economic support. It seems unlikely that Hamas’ international sponsors will abandon it entirely.

Edward Luttwak: Fragmentation of hollowed-out states into real communities is the future.

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Poupic says:

Once Saddam was out was the time to break up this giant danger to all of it’s neighbors called Iraq. Iraq is a state created for the benefit of Britain only and the expense of the nations, religions, ethnic groups it chopped and diced and forced into Iraq. There is no Iraq neighbor that would not have breathed a sigh of relief if Iraq had been broken down then instead of attempting a nation building on the same horrible foundation. This of course appllies to Syria and Lebanon too, like it or not.

julis123 says:

I could have told you what Robert Worth’s answers would be before I read them. He simply parrots the NYT party line which has proven itself wrong in most cases in the middle east. You’d think that they might learn from their mistakes.

Beatrix17 says:

Worth is kind of worthless. Palestine was the name the Romans gave Israel. The UN created two states: One for the Palestinian Jews and one for the Palestinian Arabs. The Jews called their land Israel; the Arabs went to war, eventually losing their land to Jordan and Israel. When Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza from Jordan and Egypt, she eventually offered these areas to her former teammates, the Palestinian Arabs, who’ve found every excuse under the sun to reject them. They want Israel. (Why make the effort to start a new nation, when they can take over an established one)?

Is this what Worth thinks is disruptive?

Arabs called Israel a “colonizer” because some of her original inhabitants were European survivors of the Holocaust. But have you seen the Arabs rioting against their leaders? Look at the dark blonds, the red heads, the clearly European faces in the crowd. You can’t tell me there wasn’t some hanky panky between the Mideastern people and their European colonizers.

The Kurds have faced a lot of the same impediments that Israel has faced, and I’ve read that the Kurds are believers in democracy. Hopefully, the Israelis and the Kurds will be friends

nicydunegev says:

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The USA State Department continues its support of the wrong policies. From Loy Henderson in 1947 to John F. Kerry in 2013 there has been remarkably little sense in State when it comes to the Middle East. Even the remarkably able George Shultz made the error of recognizing Arafat. The past 3 Secretaries,M. Albright, C.Rice, and H. Clinton, have been enormously ineffective,

Rick S says:

What’s “new under the sun” are WMD such as biowarfare,etc. Small groups can now cause enormous damage to the US economy. We will miss the old dictators someday.

AreaMan says:

The British Colonies in North America went through a similar phase. Internecine fighting and a tremendous Civil War. The borders were drawn by foreign imperialists. Eventually, however, the original 13 colonies evolved into a much admired system.

AreaMan says:

If Israel’s public assistance to one of the statelets is so damaging, perhaps Israel should consider assistance to Iran.

Jacob Arnon says:

Worth’s blaming Israel for the Mid East crack up would be funny if it weren’t so serious. He didn’t just blame Israeli actions, but he blamed the very existence of Israel. This is the kind of language antisemites have always: Jews weren’t guilty for what they did but their very presence caused evil to occur.

Shame on the other participants for not calling on him to explain his bigoted views.

In any case Worth’s easy answers left out the real culprits for disrupting the middle East. These sometime go by the name of “modernism” and sometimes by the names of capitalism and communism, tough Germany under Hitler also had a role in it.

The Arabs world was an arena in which various world powers competed for influence and for oil. The Soviets thought they could score an easy victory by first attacking the Imperialist powers and then by taking their side in their wars against Israel.

But The German Nazi State beat them to it by trying to play the same game: they first attacked colonial Great Britain and then broadcasting anti-Jewish propaganda into the area.

After WW2 the Soviets followed suit with similar techniques and messages.

The US by promising protection from Soviet threats for exchange for oil also helped change the culture of the mid-East.

It could be argued the it was oil which played a larger role in destabilizing the region than any one country or combination of countries.

The number of causes destabilizing were varied and to blame it on Israel as Robert Worth did is a real stretch.

Beatrix17 says:

Because the original Zionists were so left wing, the Soviets expected Israel to back them. In fact, the Russians helped to vote Israel into existence. They were shocked to discover that the Jews preferred America and they made Israel pay for this by backing their enemies. If a Mid-Eastern nation wasn’t an enemy of Israel, Russia made sure they became enemies.. A lot of the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the Mid-East today is Communist in origin.

Jacob Arnon says:

Yes, a lot of antisemitism is of Soviet origin, and a lot is of German Nazi origin. In addition a lot is due to traditional Muslims and Christians who have lived there for hundreds of years. (Think of the Damascus blood libel of mid 19th C.)

There is no shortage of paternity claims for antisemitism.

As for why Stalin backed Israel there have been many theories. Whatever the truth is I doubt that a cynic like Stalin put much trust in people’s ideological beliefs.

I would guess that Stalin voted for a Jewish State because it gave the Russians a chance to play the part of the Arabs’ best friend and protector.

In other words, had the Jewish State been voted down there would be no need for Russian help and the Russian knew it.

Beatrix17 says:

It’s extremely doubtful that Stalin had any idea that tiny Israel was going to be a central force in Mideast politics. (People born after the war have no idea how unimportant Israel and Jews used to be). Stalin simply thought the left leaning Jews were a sure thing, and Russia could utilize their brains and abilities with no effort. Only after the Israelis favored America, did he see anti-Israeli propaganda as a way of unifying the diverse Muslim nations he was dealing with and of assuring their loyalty.

The economically hybrid Chinese are thinking of using Israel, too, but this is a new century and the Chinese are finding different ways of achieving their goals. They want to get the best from both sides without alienating either side. They know Obama has failed in the Mideast and they’re trying to consolidate their power while Obama is still in office because things may never be this easy for them again.

Iran was stated in this four page report on the break up of the mid-east, and as a major architect, introducing a new Caliphate. Outside of the Middle East, the West including the US is under pressure from strict Islam. Khomeini, is still running Iran from a back seat. He has been a major instigator of middle east unrest, together with new Wahhabi Koran. Iran finds Israel wanting, in this concept. Israel is a well run, affluent democracy. Unlike the rest of the Middle East! Saudi and Iran will be unlikely allies. A power struggle between Saudi Royals and Khomeini. At the original rise of Islam and Mohammed, the wealth of the merchant classes brought about major wars between the nomadic desert tribes. Again extreme inequality exists in the area. Is the Wahhabi Koran adopted only by Saudia Is Khomeini reading off the original Koran?

Islamic populations outside of the Middle East are huge, not referred to in the report….. currently being enlisted and armed? In the report reference has been made briefly, Israel and Jordan, become allies. Is this feasible? Could it be advantageous to Israel, is it worth brokering repatriation of Jordanian Palestinians? This still leaves the fanatical element of Islamic males under 30 looking for a fight! Israel at all costs must try to retrieve the Sinai Peninsular, secure the Golan Heights and remove the Gaza Strip and Fatah regions. Incur new standards of treason within the Nation of Israel for those flouting Israeli law. In conclusion the Middle East is in for a major shake up if not war, largely between Sunni’s and Shiites, Israel must defend herself to the maximum and has to win.

CrossWinds says:

…..Revelation 12:17……..17 And the dragon (Satan) was angry at the woman (Israel) and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus……..

……..Revelation 12:12………

Therefore rejoice, O heavens, and you who dwell in them! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and the sea! For the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, because he knows that he has a short time.”

jzsnake says:

I too was surprised that no one called Worth on that.

Papa493 says:

Goldman: “the United States allowed the Shia government in Baghdad to drift toward the Iranian sphere of influence”

What did you think would happen when we removed Iran’s #1 enemy in the region?

Might I suggest the real problems world wide, but especially the Arab Islamic parts of the world, might be linked directly and or indirectly to Ted Turner and his worldwide cable TV. He brought the “good LIfe” we are living into the homes of the “bad lives” most are living. He helped speed up the awareness and understanding in the Arab and Islamic world of just how they have been ignored in the Economic Globalization of China and India buy the Western countries. More importantly how no Arab or Islamic country has benefited in the development process of investment since the fall of the Ottoman Empire; Maybe all the way back to the 900′s. Why was the very rich Bin Laden so upset with his own Saudi Government? What did he say about it?


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The Mideast Crack-Up: A Roundtable Discussion of the New Arab Map

Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map