Thursday, February 01, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Issandr El Amrani parses the ashes left over from the "birth pangs" in the Middle East, and takes note of the shadowy outline of a Phoenix amidst the smolder:

Having made a mess of Iraq, continuing to refuse to play a constructive and even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and having gotten bored with democracy promotion, the Bush administration now appears to be fanning the flames of sectarian strife region-wide. Since September 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials have made trips to the Middle East to rally the support of what Rice has described as the “moderate mainstream” Arab states against Iran. This group has now been formalized as the “GCC + 2,” meaning the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) as well as Egypt and Jordan.

I suggest that this new coalition be renamed to something less technocratic: the Sunni Arab-Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs, or SADDAM. I have to confess I was inspired by historical precedent. In the 1980s, some of you may remember, there was another Saddam who proved rather useful against Iran. Saddam invaded Iran without provocation, sparking an eight-year-long war that was one of the 20th century’s deadliest. Along the way, the U.S. and the Arab states listed above provided much in funding, weapons and turning a blind eye when Saddam got carried away and used chemical weapons against Kurds (it did not raise that much of a fuss when he used them against Iranians, either).

While I appreciate Issandr's wit, I think he would have to concede that any new SADDAM would be a kinder gentler SADDAM. Just look at how the Shiite power structure in Iraq has taken the lessons of Saddam's cruelty to heart - as evidenced by the care and attention that the Shiite leadership is paying to the victims of the recent battle in Najaf that bore witness to the slaughter of many innocent women and children:

The governor of Najaf, Assad Sultan Abu Galal, had planned to bury the dead in a mass grave, but the Shiite religious authority instead ordered individual graves, Diabel said, "so as not to repeat the mistake" of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who buried the victims of his atrocities in mass graves. The dead were buried at Wadi al Salaam, the Valley of Peace, but reporters weren't allowed in to witness.

It's the little things, you see, like individual graves for the victims of atrocities. Makes the heart swell with pride. Henley has more on the recent fighting in Najaf here and here for those interested in labyrinths, conundrums and other such intrigue. The entire affair is beginning to resemble a Beatles lyric in that the farther along the narrative travels, the less we really know.

Elsewhere, in Neo-SADDAM news, David Ignatius is captivated by the possible resurrection of SADDAM as envisioned by Condoleezza Rice:

What's America's strategy in the Middle East? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week sketched a new framework based on what she calls the "realignment" of states that want to contain Iran and its radical Muslim proxies.

Rice said the new approach reflects growing Arab concern about Iran's attempt to project power through its proxies: "After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other side were the targets of this extremism -- the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians -- and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan."

The Bush administration's thinking about realignment helps explain why it has resisted engaging Syria and Iran, as recommended by the Baker-Hamilton report. As Rice put it, "You have a 'pan' movement, across the region. The war in Lebanon crystallized it for everyone. You can't just leave it there. . . . If you concentrate on engaging Syria and Iran, you may lose the chance to do the realignment." [emphasis mine throughout]

Yeah, you don't want to lose that "chance." Once in a lifetime, really. What Bush might call, a "historic opportunity to change the world." And we all know how well that's turned out. Greg Djerejian does a fine job of summing up the merits of this new strategy of regional realignment through Pan-SADDAM:

The Secretary of State, some day at least, is going to have to graduate beyond evangelically-tinged provost talk about "clarifying moments" and the like and grapple with the world as it is, not as her airy aspirational vistas would have it. Indeed, the narrative she sketches out is simply laughable in its gross over-simplifications. After least a good 40% of Lebanese, well over 50% of Palestinians, and a plurality of Shi'a Iraqis too (back of the envelope number-crunching, but you get my point, I think), [would not] agree with her simplistic description that they are "targets" of Iran. And Cairo, Riyadh and Amman want to "resist"? Is Condi going to cheerlead the 'resistance' of Sunni autocrats to growing Shi'a influence in the region? Is this what America's Middle East policy has become? This is farcical stuff, in its blundering amateurism.

One also must wonder how well Pan-SADDAM will play out in Baghdad, where we happen to be spending trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives to facilitate the emergence of a regime that would most likely fall on the other side of the Pan-SADDAM fault line.

After pointing out that Rice's strategy is plagued by inherent contradictions such as the one mentioned above, Ignatius offers praise nonetheless - even if fainter than intended:

But as with any strategy, Rice's realignment idea has the virtue of offering a basis for discussion and careful thinking about a region perched on the edge of a volcano.

Sure, a real conversation starter. And ender. In the sense that after "careful thinking" one should offer the sternest counsel against pouring coal into the volcano's furnace. Djerejian provides a valuable excerpt from Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman's book, Ethical Realism:

On is suggested....that the United States should not worry about civil war in Iraq or regional war in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shi'a. On the contrary, these people say, we should encourage this, just as we encouraged the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. The reasoning is that such a conflict would probably last decades, would hopelessly split the Muslim world, and would tie down both Sunni and Shi'a extremists and prevent them from attacking Western targets.

To this a number of replies are possible. From a realist perspective, we can rightly say such a conflict would probably lead to radical increases in oil prices and instability in oil markets, with severe effects on the world economy; that it might indeed lead to a Shi'a revolt in the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, knocking the very bottom out of world oil supplies, that al-Qaeda is bound to benefit from such chaos in terms of recruitment; and that far from preventing anti-Western terrorism, it would probably encourage it, as Western states would inevitably be drawn in and would then be attacked by the other side. And if the past is anything to go by, the violent radicalization of huge numbers of Sunnis and Shia would inevitably sooner or later take an anti-Western form.

All of this is true, but none of it is our most important reason for opposing this kind of thinking. The chief reason we oppose it is that it is morally foul. If after everything American leaders have said about freedom, morality and peace the United States were to adopt such a strategy, it would damn itself in the eyes of the world.

Does anyone want to really want to wager so much on the notion that George Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice would have the foresight, skill and agility to manage such a crisis? The question answers itself doesn't it.

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