Obama’s Dangerous Deception In The Middle East

Martin Peretz has a powerful article in The New Republic on why Obama’s Middle East policies are in utter tatters. Peretz observes the rise of a new fundamentalism in Turkey, one of the most important countries in the region and once a strong U.S. ally. But thanks to President Erdogan, Turkey appears to be moving away from the U.S. and the West and towards becoming a hegemonic Islamic state.

The reason why President Obama appears to be so blind to Turkey’s new ambitions is that Obama is making the same mistake that many others have made in assessing the Middle East: thinking that the Israel/Palestine situation actually matters. Israel is the excuse given in the Middle East (and throughout the Muslim world) for a whole host of sins, as though the mere existence of Israel gave reason for Syria to murder its own people, Saudi Arabia to embrace the 14th Century, or Iran to destabilize its neighbors. But ultimately the Palestinian issue is a sideshow, a distraction from larger concerns. What is sad is that the West consistently plays into the Israel delusion, and Obama has embraced that delusion with full force. As Peretz puts it:

This conundrum of a non-negotiated state for the Palestinians appeals to the ardent déclarateurs. It ignores the fact that free and responsible politics has never been a habit in the Arab world. Read me right: never. There is nothing in Palestinian history to have made the Arabs of Palestine an exception to this stubborn commonplace now being played out again in virtually every country in the region. A commitment is never a commitment. A border is never a border. A peace is never long-lasting. Turkey has now added its serious mischief to the scenario. Erdogan himself will now unravel Cairo’s peace with Jerusalem, as Erdogan has already locked the PA into phantom international politics.

Poor Barack Obama. His adoring view of Erdogan has stimulated the Turkish regime to be a force not for stability in Cairo or reason in Ramallah. What’s more, Obama’s Palestinian initiatives have all collapsed. But the most striking collapse of his Arab politics has been in Syria where he posited that there were sensible and dependable men with whom Israel could make peace. Of course, that would entail giving up the Golan Heights (which are not the Great Plains) to Dr. Assad. The administration courted the family tyranny and its epigones. Responsible, reasonable, reserved. Two smart-assed Jewish boys were dispatched to play computer games with the Damascus elite. They were also enthused by the possibilities. I know that none of these people pulled the triggers on any of the thousands who are now dead. They just encouraged the clan to think they will get away with murder forever.

In the last few years, the Middle East has been at a crossroads. The democratic revolutions throughout North Africa could have spread into a full-on wave of democratization across the region. But that was not going to happen without the support of the West in picking the side of democracy. Instead, we have sat on the sidelines, content to let things play out as they may. The problem with that is that democracy in a delicate flower, and it can all too easily be crushed in the treads of a tank. Right now, Libya could easily become another enclave for al-Qaead, Egypt is a de facto military dictatorship, and the Syrian regime feels free to kill without fear of anything other than a few choice words.

Meanwhile, President Obama is playing the same old fool’s game of trying to negotiate a settlement between the most democratic state in the region and a loose-knit confederation of cast-offs who would like to see nothing more than the destruction of their democratic neighbor. There will be no solution to the Israel/Palestine problem until the Palestinians truly recognize the right of Israel to exist. Only then can the conditions for a lasting piece and Palestinian statehood exist. President Barack Obama is not going to talk them into that, no matter how much he thinks of his oratorical skills.

While the world occupies itself with the prospect of the UN recognizing a Palestinian state, the Middle East becomes increasingly dangerous after years of hope. Turkey’s sudden turn towards becoming a regional Islamic hegemon, Syria’s continued brutalization of its own people, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons are all more important than playing into the Palestinian mythos. Until the U.S. and other world powers stop playing into the idea that Palestine is the be-all-end-all of Middle Eastern affairs, the Middle East will not change for the better. What is sad is that Peretz is right—Obama thoroughly misunderstands the Middle East, and it will cost us in the long run.

The End Of The Westphalian Model?

Ed Morrissey makes an interesting argument that the declaration of Kosovar independence signals a major shift in the international order. He argues:

The breakup of Serbia calls into question whether the concept of Westphalian sovereignty remains extant. Shall Burgundy go back to the Burgundians, if they so desire? Will Wales and Cornwall exit from Great Britain? Can Texas declare its independence? More pragmatically, are we seeing a return to the micronationalism that generated numerous wars on the European continent over the centuries before Westphalia?

This occurs in the shadow of the struggles in Africa and the Middle East over nationalism, sovereignty, and statehood. Just as we want to solidify the boundaries between nations in these regions to produce more stability, we seem to be supporting the breakdown of the exact same system in Europe. The end of the Age of Empire has left civilization struggling for a new model of political stability for almost a century — and the struggle continues today in Kosovo.

In 1647, after decades of brutal warfare during the Thirty Years War, the kings of Europe entered into the The Treaty of Westphalia, a document that essentially created the modern concept of the nation-state and settled long-running disputes over the religious and political makeup of Europe.

The Westphalian model shaped what we call “realism” today. States were sovereign entities that could apply their own laws to their people. They were equal to other states, and the principle of non-intervention between states was upheld as a goal (if not in practice). This model still exists today, although the trends towards globalization have started to diminish the concept of absolute sovereignty.

Putting aside the issue of Kosovo itself away for the moment, Mr. Morrissey’s question is a strong one. In Europe, there has been a trend towards regional devolution. Scotland has its own Parliament. Wales has recently been granted its own National Assembly. Belgium may yet split between its Flemish and French territories. It seems like everywhere in Europe, instead of the integration that the European Union was supposed to have brought, the seeds of division keep growing.

The Brussels Journal has a fascinating piece looking at the idea that the nation-state may be obsolete. Yet the problem is no one knows what should replace it: how can one have democracy without a demos? The paradox of European integration is that it’s empowering disparate interest groups to move away from each other rather than harmonizing them.

Ultimately, the Peace of Westphalia worked because it was the right compromise, and the European Union’s rash attempts to remake Europe in a new image—even if beneficial in some respects—is far too audacious for the good of Europe.

The crisis in Kosovo demonstrates that when you try to play games with national borders, the results are not always pretty. The breakup of Yugoslavia into ethnic enclaves has only partially reduced tensions. Serbia has longstanding historical claims on that region, and instead of successfully arbitrating those claims, the United Nations has spend over a decade without making much headway. Meanwhile, radical Saudi clerics have been steading radicalizing the Muslim majority in Kosovo, human traffickers have turned the region into a major center of the slave trade and smugglers of everything from arms to drugs are profiting from the chaos.

The Westphalian system may have its flaws, but the idea that some vague supranational system can supplant it has even deeper problems. We currently live in a world where another bloody European war seems impossible—the decimation of Europe in two world wars has had profound and lasting consequences. At the same time, the root causes of the last great European wars have not gone away. Those who would seek to redraw Europe’s borders should consider whether creating ethic states will lead Europe into the future or only open ancient wounds.