Thursday, November 27, 2014

Organizing Middle East Peace

LONDON – In Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” one of the characters says, “You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization.”

The play is set during Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, which devastated Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century, ending only with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The war began as a religious struggle between Protestants and Catholics, but rapidly morphed into a long-running fight between rival countries and dynasties, principally between the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire on one side and Cardinal Richelieu’s France on the other.

Not surprisingly, some have compared today’s Sunni-Shia conflict, which is consuming swaths of Mesopotamia and Western Asia, to that war, which caused death on a massive scale, plagues, economic destruction, and social turmoil marked, for example, by a wave of witch hunting.

There had in fact been a peace settlement a half-century before the fighting broke out – an effort to organize peace. Emperor Charles V engineered the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which was based on an agreement that sovereign states could choose for themselves which version of Christianity to adopt. When that treaty fell apart, the killing started.

What was the “organized peace” that preceded the current bloody turmoil in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere? The answer depends on how far back one goes.

As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the Western powers launched a self-aggrandizing project to redraw the region’s map, installing regimes, creating dependencies, establishing spheres of influence, and securing access to increasingly important supplies of oil. Then came a persistent tendency to judge the behavior of states across the Maghreb and the Levant by whether or not they would make diplomatic (or other) trouble over Israel’s attitude toward Palestine and the latter’s claim to viable statehood. There have also been explicit interventions, from the covert removal of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, to the more recent military intervention in Iraq, which led to a quarter-million Iraqi deaths.

But Western countries have been reluctant to face up to the region’s underlying realities, set out in a 2002 report by the United Nations Development Program. The Arab scholars and policymakers who drafted the report drew attention to the connections between authoritarian government, economic weakness, high unemployment, and excessively confessional politics. The more dictatorial politics in the region became, the more young men – denied both jobs and freedom of expression – turned to extremist and violent Islamism, the perversion of a great faith.

So here we are today, with the obvious but inadequate answer to the question, “Well, what would you do about it?” being the Irish farmer’s reply to a traveler’s request for directions: “I wouldn’t start from here.”

Alas, that is no answer at all, though it may be a useful riposte to those – like former US Vice President Dick Cheney – who advocate a replay of the recent past. Denying reality, American and British neoconservatives apparently believe that recent events justify their view that their war of choice in Iraq would have been a great success had there only been more of it.

But the neocons are not entirely misguided. The United States, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rightly argued, for too long had pursued “stability at the expense of democracy”; as a result, it had “achieved neither.”

That is a powerful argument for not abandoning a long-term commitment to the sort of pluralist values embraced by – among others – the authors of the 2002 report. The West has been inconsistent in its application of these principles, has occasionally tried to impose them by force (with disastrous consequences), and has failed to use effectively the money and mechanisms devised to support them. Consider, for example, the miserable results of the European Union’s trade and cooperation agreements around the Mediterranean.

The West must use all of its diplomatic resources to broker an understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the main sponsors of, respectively, Shia and Sunni armed struggle. It is not remotely in either country’s interest to see their own region go up in flames. These two countries need to start repairing their relations, a prospect (recently set back) which seemed a real possibility back in May.

With American and Turkish help, Iraq should be steered in the direction of a federal state, which recognizes the aspirations of Kurds, Sunni, and Shia. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad remains in office but hardly in power. His army is probably winning, but the fighting continues. At the moment, the best outlook appears to be that described by the Roman historian Tacitus – “they make a desert, they call it peace.”

The time is long since past when outsiders could have considered an effective military intervention. But with UN Security Council support, the world’s humanitarian efforts should be more extensive and focused, so that greater relief can be brought to the almost 11 million Syrian refugees who need it.

Finally, we should not ignore the continuing toxicity of the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict, which continues to feed political extremism and raises serious questions about the West’s commitment to human rights.

Countries outside of the region face an additional task: the need to discourage young men from going to fight in Islam’s civil war. That is a problem for my own country, where it seems that we have not done a good job instilling in some communities an understanding and acceptance of the values that often brought these young men’s parents to the United Kingdom in the first place.

The agenda for real and lasting peace is long and complex. Plans need to be organized, and they will take years to implement. Unless we start now, the fires will spread – fanned by politics and religion – and it will not only be Nineveh that is consumed by them.

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    1. CommentedPhilip Palij


      I once heard the forces of the west, military and technological, arriving in Afghanistan described as men from the future landing amongst men living in a medieval past.

      For all the western, christian, liberal preaching about democracy as some sort of holy grail of enlightenment we find that in fact the greatest proponents of freedom and democracy, the USA, are in fact the biggest hypocrites and the biggest sponsors of death and destruction in the world today.

      Driven by the insatiable greed of giant corporations feeding their military industrial complex and lust for hegemonic power over the earth. the US and the west have constructed feudal pyramids of power and influence which they create and destroy according to need.

      In order to organise middle east peace we need to re vitalise a corrupt and decadent US system of government which is reverting to thinly veiled plutocracy and feudalism where power is shared amongst dynasties of the ' great families'.

      Once the US has reverted to a transparent open democracy free from the influence of wall street and the needs of the military-industrial complex. They can re-asses their energy dependencies, resource requirements and consequent support for the nasty pyramids of feudal power they have created and support.

      An example of the US government madness prevalent within the executive is the statement by John Kerry that America is not responsible for what is going on in Iraq.

      A stunning assertion - and an indication of the power fantasy the Obama adminstration operate in.

      Organising middle east peace? Lets start with psychiatrists for the Obama administration team. Then start by replacing the members of a corrupt congress who are going along with death squad politics and bombing and subversion in their name. Then perhaps remove the need to send carrier task groups round the world to threaten abuse and intimidate all into submission to their hegemony.

      Then the men from the future should leave countries and nation states to develop at their own pace within their traditions and cultural beliefs.

      Feudalism dressed in red white and blue, death squads, drones, hypocrisy and plausible denial do not a foreign policy make.

      Organizing Middle East Peace? Start with organising true democracy and the rule of law in the USA.

    2. CommentedGary Tucker

      Perhaps a federal state is the solution in Iraq. But with a major twist. Perhaps Kurdish Iraq and Sunni Iraq should join in federation with the Kingdom of Jordan and Shia Iraq should go it alone.

      As it stands now there is no potential alliances that match the direct and timely forces that the Kurds, Sunnis and Jordanians could bring to the fight. This could literally begin in days, not weeks or months like virtually all other scenarios put forth recently. Alone the Jordanian Air Force has some 70+ F 16 jets. And more jets, helicopters and fighting forces. Against the few jets sent to Iraq by Russia and the offered Shia fighters from Iran the Jordanian option looks better still.

      It can also not be denied that a Greater Jordan has a much greater chance of post fighting peace and prosperity than does a projected Federal Iraq. The same is true of a smaller but much focused Shia Iraq.

      A Greater Jordan, or even the promise of such a state< poses new and vital choices to be considered by Syrians, Palestinians and Lebanese.

      Less one forgets the Hashemites ruled Iraq from 1921 to 1958. They still have close ties with most major Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq.

      Amman is also the HQ of the Royal Aal al-Bayt institute for Islamic Studies. Thus the Jordanians have long standing ties to all the major Muslim sects worldwide.

      While Palestinian Jordanian relations have not been the type one would wish, the potential for common cause to be found between Palestinians and Greater Jordanians materialize. One of the best factors would be a Jordan much improved economically and with new prospects and options.

      One can begin to contemplate all of the various options that would open up for the entire region, based entirely on altering the boundaries, and thus the path forward, in Iraq and Jordan.

    3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Lord Patten is right about Bertolt Brecht's anti-war play - "Mother Courage" - offering a useful message to mankind. Wars are timeless and know no boundaries. Many are senseless too!
      Brecht's idea that life is lived like war was relevant to the turmoil of today. While a war rages somewhere and many die, others like Mother Courage, are determined to survive, whatever the cost, with few profiting from it. Sometimes people believe that a war is over, only to learn that the same war carries on years later. The two World Wars were examples.
      Protracted wars do come to an end one day. Peace can be fragile and it takes years from all sides to make things work. Catholics and Protestants fought a decades-long war in the first half of the 17th century in Europe. The Thirty years War ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which introduced a key factor in international relations: respect for national sovereignty of a country. Patten sees parallel between this war and the thousand-year old Sunni-Shia conflict in Islam.
      Despite the ancient Sunni-Shia schism, members of the two sects have been able to conduct interfaith dialogue for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices. Iran and Saudi Arabia had had good relations in the past. The current sectarian conflict has been fomented by fundamentalists on both sides.
      The "bloody turmoil in Iraq, Syria" and "the unresolved Israel-Palestine conflict" are all consequences of myopic policies shaped by selfish and reckless rulers and politicians. Sunnis and Shiites fight for theological and political supremacy in the Middle East, with Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as battlefields of their proxy wars. In the Palestinian conflict Israel insists that Hamas pose an existential threat to its security, while Palestinians are struggling for unity and striving for statehood. The peace-talks had been shelved, because Israeli and Palestinian leaders lack the will to make painful concessions.
      The Middle East needs institutions that promote cross-border relations and forge cultural and economic ties. It took centuries of uprisings and wars for Europe to achieve today's stability. The Arab Spring had kickstarted a movement that seems to have lost its bearings temporarily! The protesters and reformers ought to understand that the path to freedom is tortuous.

    4. CommentedMartin Edwin Andersen

      Another urgent need is to resurrect the forever-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. ... The way forward is to focus on both peoples' incontrovertible indigeneity. Please see the essay: "Common Lands, Common Ground: The indigenous agenda, Israel, Palestine and breaking the post-Oslo Peace Accords logjam."

    5. CommentedGunnar Eriksson

      I feel you are a bit unfair to Mr. Cheney, as his concern is only continued rent seeking from war for his business circle.
      The interest of the region and the United States should be assumed to be an externality of no interest

    6. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree that there is a great need for the reorganization of the Middle East.

      But I truly believe that this reorganization should be done by those living there fully understanding their own reality.

      I think the best the "usual Western allies, brokers" can do is to remove themselves from the equation after decades of meddling, active chaos creating and destruction.

      Finally they need to understand that 'exporting" the modern Western style "liberal democracy" might not be the solution to other cultures, nations, traditions. (Not to mention that it does not even seem to work for the very countries trying to export it.)

      We have evolved into an interconnected and inter-dependent human system where "brokers", special envoys, "more important nations" are not only obsolete but outright harmful, getting in the way of true, equal, mutual negotiations and decision making.

      The nations directly involved in the crisis, conflicts have to organize their own peace conference, starting talking to each other trying to find common, mutual points above their differences and above their mutual hatred. Without external interference.

      It is going to be a hard, gradual road, especially as we have no historical experience, precedence for it.
      But we have no other options.
      Today there are no local, not even "two state" solutions.
      Unless the whole region is connecting together, trying to find a mutually acceptable settlement, accepting that they can only survive together in mutual cooperation, there will never be peace.