Things Fall Apart

What we are seeing in the Middle East, highlighted by the ascension of Hamas in Gaza and a looming civil war among Palestinians, is the virtually complete unraveling of the American enterprise and the country’s influence in the region. Wherever the hand of George W. Bush has meddled the result has been destabilization, chaos, confusion, blowback and backfiring, leading more and more of the players in the region to distrust and even hate America. Wherever there have been prospects for relatively peaceful resolution of disputes, those prospects have been subverted.

It’s not that many of the Middle East players didn’t have negative feelings about the United States before the decider came into office, to be sure. But the Bushlet has managed to convert allies into neutrals, neutrals into doubters, doubters into foes, mildly hostile parties into actively hostile, and enemies into sworn and even fanatical enemies.

This reverse Midas touch has led Ted Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute to call the U.S. in the Middle East an "eagle in the china shop," flapping around and flailing its wings in a confined space that renders it confused and panicky, overturning the furniture and breaking all the crockery, turning objects of great value into worthless rubble.

How shall we count the ways?

There are losers all around the Middle East, in the virtually complete takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, but the residents of that unhappy territory will suffer the most. A little more than a month ago, before the fierce fighting of the last few weeks broke out, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch told Congress that "the GDP in the West Bank and Gaza has dropped 40 percent in the past seven years, over 60 percent of Palestinians live below the poverty line, meaning they survive on less than $2.40 per day, and 50 percent of Palestinians rely on food assistance to feed their families.

All those figures were worse for the Gaza Strip than for the West Bank, and Gaza is now run by people whose interest in economic development is less than negligible, focused as they are on war and the ephemeral rewards of power, and financed as they are by Syria and Iran. They were delivered at the same hearing where Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the designated American security coordinator in Israeli-Palestinian matters, sought to justify American intervention on the side of Fatah. As Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment put it in his most recent paper, "He explained that the United States sought to back the legal presidential security forces – who were working to meet Palestinian obligations under the Road Map – against the forces of disorder. The statement may have made sense according to some logic followed in the U.S. capital, but it was utterly disconnected from realities in the region."

The virtual civil war between Fatah, the Palestinian faction headed by the president of the largely mythical Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, which won the Palestinian parliamentary elections 16 months ago, makes whatever fragile hope remained for a viable Palestinian entity – let alone a state – pretty much a dead letter. As chaos reigns, all Palestinians will suffer.

Israel has to be worried at the prospect of a jihadist state, however small, on its border – the outcome many claim to fear in Iraq. It is faced with two options, neither pleasant: living with a Hamas-run Gaza and hoping the inevitable terrorist strikes toward Israel are infrequent enough to tolerate, or reinvading Gaza and trying to control 1.5 million angry Palestinians with the Israeli military. With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert increasingly unpopular and the prospect of conflict with Lebanon renewing itself this summer, Israel is hardly in a strong position to decide about anything.

Saudi Arabia, which tried to broker a coalition between Fatah and Hamas in March, may be the next biggest loser. Its efforts to leverage its oil wealth into a position as stabilizer of the volatile Middle East seems to have failed, at least in the short run.

It is worth noting that Saudi Arabia’s decision to take a more activist role in trying to settle some of the more dangerous conflicts in the region rather than its traditional behind-closed-doors modus operandi, came largely because it came to the conclusion that the United States, its traditional de facto ally and partner, was screwing things up so badly that the Kingdom had little choice but to operate more openly.

Egypt and Jordan are more worried than ever to have such open conflict on their borders. And Egypt is responding as most repressive regimes do, by cracking down on presumed dissidents.

Finally, the United States has lost whatever slim chance it once had of serving as a stabilizing influence in any of the conflicts in the Middle East, and the last shred of respect it once commanded in the region. Its undisguised efforts to shore up Fatah with training and aid simply backfired, creating a rallying cry for Hamas and driving more Palestinians toward Hamas than attracting them to the supposedly moderate Fatah.

Israel could conceivably do a few things to ameliorate the situation, such as turning over the $562 million in tax money it has withheld from the Palestinian Authority since Hamas won a parliamentary majority in January 2006 and freezing settlement on the West Bank. The United States is virtually helpless; anything it does is likely to backfire. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have an interest in convincing Iran and Syria to end subsidies to Hamas and persuading the Palestinian factions at least to negotiate a cease-fire. Whether they can do so is questionable.

IRAQ WORSENS

The latest quarterly report from the Pentagon on the war in Iraq confirms the general impression most of us get from daily news reports. After a brief period following the U.S. "surge" – or perhaps we should call it an escalation – in troop strength, when violence declined, "the aggregate level of violence in Iraq remained relatively unchanged during this reporting period." Since violence did decrease for a while, that means the trend is upward.

Specifically, attacks on civilians and Iraqi and American troops increased about 2 percent over the previous quarter, averaging 1,000 a week from January through May, the highest level since the war began. Suicide attacks almost doubled, from 26 in January to 58 in April.

The report did say that even though it is on the upswing now, violence in Baghdad and in Anbar province, where the U.S. troops are concentrated, did decline somewhat from the previous quarter. But that was trumped by increasing violence in outlying provinces, suggesting that some of the insurgent fighters simply moved on to different cities when the Americans moved in.

The 230 American deaths in April and May was the highest two-month total since the war began.

Republican and administration spokespeople are downplaying the report, saying the evaluation that counts will come in September. Unfortunately, the current trend doesn’t suggest things will be much better, although that could change in a summer offensive.

Both supporters and critics of the war say that in an insurgency-style sectarian guerrilla war like Iraq, the purely military aspects of the conflict are less important than the political side. The Iraqi government was able to respond fairly promptly to a new bombing at the Askiriya or "golden dome" mosque in Samarra – the same Shi’ite mosque whose bombing in February 2006 seems to have been the catalyst for the current round of sectarian violence – with a curfew in Baghdad and the arrest of some of the mosque guards suspected of being involved in the bombing. But most of the benchmarks the U.S. government says the Iraqi government was supposed to meet by now have not been met.

By now U.S. officials had hoped the Iraqi government would have enacted an oil revenue-sharing law, made significant progress toward revising the new constitution, and reversed the draconian de-Baathification policy so low- to mid-level officials from the former regime can move into jobs for which it has been difficult to find qualified people. The de-Baathification reversal was supposed to convince Sunnis they would have a place in the Shi’ite-dominated government and decrease support for insurgency.

Unfortunately, none of these benchmarks has been accomplished. The oil agreement, scheduled for March, might get done by September. A committee on the constitution was formed in October with a four-month deadline but has made virtually no progress. The de-Baathification reversal was stymied by Ahmed Chalabi, the former Pentagon protégé whose only position of influence now is as head of the de-Baathification commission.

It is remotely possible all these negative trends will turn around, but if they have not done so by September it will be time – long past time, actually – to start developing a serious withdrawal plan. The U.S. military was not designed to police a foreign country while its political and religious factions fight it out. Ultimately the Iraqis must take full responsibility for their own country. Even if that means a period of even more intense bloodshed for a while, it is not a task Americans can perform for them.

Two more items that may deserve further explication in future columns are worth a brief mention. There’s a danger that in the one part of Iraq where things had been going fairly well, northern Kurdistan, cross-border attacks from the PKK, which wants independence for Kurds in Turkey, may prompt a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq – indeed, a few low-level incursions may have already occurred. Thus two putative U.S. friends, Turkey and Kurdistan, could find themselves in conflict.

Furthermore, Lebanon, which had suffered under virtual Syrian occupation but was at least relatively stable, is becoming increasingly less stable and could be on the verge of civil war. It is not entirely coincidental that this has followed on the U.S. taking a more active role in Lebanese affairs.

Benign neglect, anyone?

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).