Further to what I blogged here (and here) yesterday about the ever-shifting dynamics within the Middle East, Rob Malley and Peter Harling have an elegant op-ed in the WaPo today that picks up on many of the same themes.
Malley and Harling are both M.E. analysts for the International Crisis Group– Malley being in charge of their M.E. division and Harling their analyst for Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq.
They start off with this:
- Much as he would like to disentangle himself from his Middle East inheritance, President Obama is having a rough time doing so. The obvious legacy is an unwanted war in Iraq and a bankrupt Israeli-Arab peace process. But equally constraining is a popular way of conceiving of the region — divided, schematically, between militants beholden to Iran and moderates sympathetic to the United States. While there is some truth to this construct, it assumes a relatively static landscape and clear fault lines in a region that is highly fluid and home to growing fragmentation. By disregarding subtle shifts that have occurred and awaiting tectonic transformations that won’t, this mind-set risks missing realistic opportunities to help reshape the Middle East.
So far, so– generally– good. But I think they’re too kind to the Obama-ites (and their predecessors) by saying “there is some truth to this construct.”
Where, really, is there any “truth” in it?
The main problem with the way Malley and Harling describe the “bipolar” frame that just about all of official Washington applies to its analysis of the Middle East is that they do not mention the role of Israel and its entire, unquestioning cheering section inside the U.S., who between them are the main ideological enforcers of this frame. “Moderates”, within this frame, is nearly always code for “does not challenge Israel on anything, whether through inclination or by being in thrall to the power of U.S. Congress’s purse”, while “militants” is code for “is sometimes willing to criticize Israeli policies.”
Really, the way these issues are discussed, and largely “understood” (or more accurately, mis-understood) among members of the Washington power elite is that, for Middle Eastern governments or other actors to be thought of as “pro-American” (i.e. “moderate”) they must not openly challenge Israel on anything. Therefore, when an actor, such as, for example, the Turkish or Saudi government, starts to criticize an Israeli policy they are immediately vilifed within the Washington DC Beltway as being irredeemably “anti-Israeli” and very often “anti-Semitic” to boot… But either way, no longer “moderate”.
And that is the extent of what passes for “analysis” in nearly all of Washington.
Malley and Harling are right to note that the strictly bipolar “moderates versus militants” frame is no longer useful. But they fail to spell out:
- 1. That actually, though they seem to ascribe it to Pres. G.W. Bush, it goes back a lot longer that– back, at least, through the Clinton presidency (during part of which, Rob Malley worked in the White House.)
2. That this frame never has been useful, either analytically or as a guide to wise policy. The “fluidity” and political dynamism they describe as being “new” within the M.E. regional system has always been there. Use of the bipolar frame has always been an obstacle to sound understanding and sound policy.
3. That you can’t truly understand the way the bipolar frame “works”, politically, unless you make clear that, when applied at the regional level (as opposed to, for example, within Iraq), it really is all about Israel; and it has almost nothing to do with whether the actors in question are “pro-American” in the content of their policies, or not. Once again, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are key examples. Turkey, for goodness sake, is a member of NATO and has troops risking their lives alongside the U.S. troops in Afghanistan (unlike many other NATO members; and completely unlike Israel!) So how come Turkey nowadays gets labeled by many in DC as problematic and “possibly anti-American”? Answer: It is all about Israel. Malley and Harling fail to make that clear.
I think I also disagree to some extent with their description of the way they see the “relevant” competition in the region today.
This, they say,
- is not between a pro-Iranian and a pro-American axis but between two homegrown visions. One, backed by Iran, emphasizes resistance to Israel and the West, speaks to the region’s thirst for dignity and prioritizes military cooperation. The other, symbolized by Turkey, highlights diplomacy, stresses engagement with all parties and values economic integration. Both outlooks are championed by non-Arab emerging regional powers and resonate with an Arab street as incensed by Israel as it is weary of its own leaders.
The first thing I note here is that the regional visions promulgated by the governments of Turkey and Iran are not as diametrically opposed as Malley and Harling make them out to be. Turkey certainly “speaks to the region’s thirst for dignity”, just as much as Iran does; and Iran “values economic integration”, and “highlights diplomacy” just as much as Turkey does– though many of its attempts to act on these precepts have, of course, been intentionally stymied by the U.S.
Also, Turkey and Iran have excellent working relations with each other. So if there is some “competition” between the visions promulgated by these two governments– as I believe there is– still, this “competition” is very far from being the kind of manichean, “with us or against us” form of competition that too many Americans lazily think is the only kind of competition there is.
In fact, there seem to me to be to be only two significant respects in which the policies of the two governments differ: (1) the way that each of them tries to push forward its explicitly Islamist agenda in domestic affairs– “softly” in the case of Turkey’s AK Party, and “harshly”, in the case of Tehran; and (2) the way that each of them chooses to deal with Israel– again, “softly” vs. “harshly.”
Now I recognize that, for citizens of a majority-Muslim country in the region like Syria, Jordan, or Iraq, the domestic agendas pursued by Ankara and Tehran provide two very different models of modernization, and that having those two different models is valuable and important. But note that, in international affairs, it is really only regarding Israel that these two governments have deep differences… So there, once again, if there is “competition”, it is all about Israel.
I wish Malley and Harling had spelled that out, too.
Look, I have huge respect for both Rob Malley and Peter Harling, both of whom I am proud to think of as my friends. But I don’t think they do the American public whom, presumably, they were hoping to address in this op-ed much good if they pussy-foot around the big Israeli elephant in the “room” of Middle Eastern regional dynamics, and of U.S. policy within the region, in the way they have in this article.
Yes, they’re quite right to argue that the “moderates vs. militants” frame used in Washington is analytically empty of content, inaccurate, and useless… and diplomatically counter-productive, as well. But if they want to provide a frame that is more useful, both analytically and as a guide to policy, then they need to clearly identify the highly politicized source of the vacuity of the “moderates vs. militants” frame that is currently in use in Washington; and by identifying that source spell out that Israel itself (along with its many acolytes in Washington) is a major player that has a strong effect on the politics of the region.
A more useful “frame”, it seems to me, would therefore be one that places the ruling elite of Israel (of all parties) and their allies in Washington at one pole of the region’s dynamics, and the government of Iran at the other, and then arrays the region’s many other actors in the multi-dimensional space between them– that is, not simply on a unidimensional straight line. This frame should also make explicit the fact that many of the other actors in the region, including Turkey, some European powers, other P-5 member states, and Saudi Arabia, also have varying amounts of power to attract other actors towards them, as well…
Bottom line: the region is not now (and never has been) simply “bipolar”, but is multi-dimensional. And though there are two largely competing “super-poles” of influence within it, these are not “Iran and the United States”, and not “Iran and Turkey”, but rather, “Israel and Iran”. (And note that under both the Malley/Harling schema and mine, the U.S. administration gets reduced to the role of something of a secondary actor.)