The Corner

As We Drift towards Disaster…

..this FT article (link requires subscription) by Mamoun Fandy (International Institute of Strategic Studies) is well worth reading in its entirety, but here are some critical points:

“The crux of the problem in Lebanon is that a political movement became bigger than the state – not far behind a state takeover in the manner of the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2001. The same syndrome – a perceived lack of legitimacy of governments that are being challenged by armed political movements – can be seen in many Arab and Muslim states. The challenge today is therefore not just to achieve a ceasefire and a sustainable solution in Lebanon, but to secure a more comprehensive framework for peace in the Middle East that prevents the “Lebanon syndrome” from spreading throughout the region. Otherwise, there will be many Lebanons. Across the Muslim world, a civil war is raging between Islamic groups such as Hizbollah and modern states; between fundamentalists and moderates. The movements’ strategy to undermine ruling elites has been to confront the outside world, especially America and Israel. Their message is that movements can do what states failed to do, and can restore the honour that governments have squandered. They can confront America as al-Qaeda did on September 11 2001. They can confront Israel in the same way that Hamas and Islamic Jihad do on a daily basis in Gaza. They can challenge Israeli military power as Hizbollah does in Lebanon. By taking action against the US and Israel, these movements gain popularity in the “Arab street”. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is capitalising on popular anger about the war in Lebanon. Like Hizbollah, it has a militia, although it is underground. In Jordan, Islamists are contesting the power of the king and criticising him on the basis of his supposed inability to stand up to Israel and the US…If fundamentalist groups continue to gain the upper hand in the Middle East, tribal and religious passions will become the main drivers of political life. The US and the rest of the world should take into account the concerns of moderate states and moderate elements within Muslim societies – or else Washington’s desire to create a “new” Middle East may bring to the fore a very old one. To avoid this, the US and Europe have no option but to tip the balance in favour of moderate governments. One way would be to convene an international conference similar to the one in Madrid in 1991 after the first Gulf war to address the root of the problem, namely to solve the issue of Palestine and get the world behind the idea of the two-state solution. Only then can the world deny the Islamists their ultimate rallying cry, take the Middle East from the hands of the Islamist movements and put it back in the world of nation states.”

Now, I share much of the skepticism around here about just how ‘moderate’ many supposedly moderate Arab governments really are, and I’d also agree that it’s the domestic failures (political, economic, you name it) of those selfsame moderate governments that have given the Islamists so much of their opportunity. It’s also true that Middle East peace processes come with more than their fair share of hypocrisy and double talk, but what in diplomacy does not? The US has to work with what it’s got, and what the US has got are those ‘moderates’. They need a hand, and Fandy’s proposal seems reasonable.

Hat-tip: the Belgravia Dispatch, which is currently a must-read. I don’t agree with all that Greg there has to say, but with his focus firmly on the wider struggle with Islamic extremism, he makes the point that has to be made:  ”it is manifestly clear …that every passing day the Israeli-Lebanese conflict rages on will continue to cause tremendous harm to our national interest.” Very true.

He aso has this to say:  “we don’t believe in direct, high-level diplomacy (whether quiet or otherwise) with our foes anymore. It’s deemed weak-kneed, a quaint pre-9/11 notion, or such. But avoiding these difficult dialogues, particularly in the midst of the increasing carnage in Israel and Lebanon, strikes me as very bad policy.” There’s perhaps a touch of hyperbole about his view of what the administration “believes”, but his drift is right. And that’s wrong. It was Churchill, not (please note) Chamberlain, who famously once said, “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” It’s also worth adding that sometimes a little jaw-jaw can help win a war-war…

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