Mindorenyo

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Middle East Musings

I just finished reading a book about Hezbollah -- "A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel", by Thanassis Cambanis. It's a fascinating account of Hezbollah's rise, the 2006 war with Israel, and the subsequent ascension of Hezbollah to dominance of Lebanon and leadership of an anti-western "axis of resistance" throughout the Arab & Islamic worlds. With Bill & Misty traversing the region, Joe Chahine reminding me of the intense Dearborn connection, and ongoing uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Oman, and Bahrain, it's highly relevant. While extremely sympathetic, the book is an ultimately damning (perhaps excessively so) account of the principled, dedicated, and fanatical leaders (and followers) of the Shia axis of resistance.

The anti-western axis of resistance includes Hezbollah and their patrons in Iran and Syria, along with Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq. Though a Shia movement, there are many Sunni sympathizers including Hamas. Opposed to the axis of resistance are the forces of accommodation led by Saudi Arabia. The accommodationist Sunni Arabs have been weakened by the recent revolutions including, especially, the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are a third loosely-affiliated group on the fringe of current developments.

It remains to be seen what will happen as a result of the Egyptian revolution and the ongoing conflicts in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen. There are two clear sides struggling for preeminence -- the Shia led axis of resistance and the Sunni led axis of accommodation. While the Iranian led axis of resistance is on the offensive with the fall of Mubarak, it is doubtful that the Saudis, with their enormous wealth, can be toppled. It is more likely that leadership of moderates will pass to more democratic regimes in Egypt, Qatar, and Jordan.

While openness will provide an opening for anti-western factions in the Sunni lands, it is likely that the economic might of the capitalist west will predominate. Sunni self-interest lies not in futile resistance, but rather in independent pursuit of modern technology and human rights. The best case scenario is that the axis of resistance is slowly marginalized as more liberal movements succeed. With prudent behavior by the western powers, the axis of resistance will crack when one of its members decides the west isn't so bad after all, and strikes a deal to open up and reap the rewards of modernity and liberalism. Iran is the most likely prospect in this regard, and its change of heart would likely spell the end of the axis of resistance.

Worst case scenarios include the following possibilities:

  • A crushing of the axis of resistance by the overwhelming firepower of Israel and its U.S. ally. This might be similar to the crushing of Jewish resistance in the 132 CE revolt of Bar Kochba. As described in Wikipedia, "The Bar Kokhba revolt (132–136 CE) against the Roman Empire was the third major rebellion by the Jews of Judaea Province and the last of the Jewish-Roman Wars. Simon bar Kokhba, the commander of the revolt, was acclaimed as a Messiah, a heroic figure who could restore Israel...580,000 Jews were killed, and 50 fortified towns and 985 villages razed...Hadrian attempted to root out Judaism, which he saw as the cause of continuous rebellions...Modern historians have come to view the Bar-Kokhba Revolt as being of decisive historic importance. The massive destruction and loss of life occasioned by the revolt has led some scholars to date the beginning of the Jewish diaspora from this date...The disastrous end of the revolt also occasioned major changes in Jewish religious thought. Messianism was abstracted and spiritualized, and rabbinical political thought became deeply cautious and conservative."
  • Another worst case scenario would be more of the same as we have experienced in recent years. Israel, with the backing of America, would continue to confiscate Palestinian land and mistreat Arabs in the region. The power and prestige of the axis of resistance would continue to grow as a result. Eventually, the axis of resistance could obtain weapons of mass destruction.

The middle case, which I would like to think of as the most likely case, is that the Saudis will be unable to continue their leadership position in the Islamic world. While western power will ensue that the oil fields are protected from radicals, the Saudi royalty will realize that their best prospects lie in relinquishing absolute power and retiring as wealthy international citizens (see Aga Khan). In combination with a more liberal Egypt and increasingly liberal regimes in Jordan, UAE, Libya, and perhaps Syria and Iran, the balance of power will tilt in favor of regimes that more legitimately represent their citizens.

Israel, faced with the prospect of an increasingly powerful, balanced, and coherent Arab periphery, will eventually make peace. Israel will retain deterrent military power, but move beyond the siege mentality and become a more mature and independent middle eastern democracy.

I admit that I'm engaged in wishful thinking here. My middle case sounds suspiciously like my best case. May it be so...

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