Jeffrey Goldberg: The Middle East, Where Happiness Goes to Die

Friday, 19 Jul 2013 07:01 PM

 

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OK, here's today's geopolitical challenge: Go find one scrap of positive news out of the Middle East. Just one. Good luck.

Yes, I've heard the reports that Secretary of State John Kerry may manage to restart peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis, but since I give those talks a near-zero chance of succeeding, I don't count this as positive news, especially because failed peace talks have often led to increased violence in the past.

I put this challenge to a couple of my regular Egyptian interlocutors — people on the non-misogynistic, anti-anti-Semitic, non-Christian-hating, pro-modernity side of the political ledger, which is to say, people who are provisionally happy with the recent turn of events in Cairo.

They just saw their enemy, the hapless Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, removed from office by millions of demonstrators (and quite a few tanks), and they cast this coup — and yes, it was a coup, though a popular one — as an unalloyed victory for freedom and progress.

The Middle East only has four things in abundance: oil, sand, hummus and totalitarian leadership cults, and it's never a bad thing to see the fascists on the run.

Except: They're probably coming back. Even my liberal friends in Egypt admit that the Muslim Brotherhood has a wide base of support, and some of the stalwarts look to fulfill the promise of the group's motto: "Jihad is our way, and death for the sake of Allah is our highest aspiration."

Many Egyptian soldiers, too, would like to help the brothers reach their celestial goal. My friends couldn't quite convince me that the coup was unalloyed good news.

It's hard to imagine a happy short- or medium-term outcome for Egypt. The army will continue to make and break governments, the liberals will continue to be disorganized and the brotherhood will find someone cleverer than Morsi to serve as its public face.

Things are so bad in Egypt that even William J. Burns, the deputy secretary of state who visited Cairo earlier this week, issued what was for him — the most soft-spoken and decorous of U.S. diplomats — an apocalyptic warning: "It is hard to picture how Egypt will be able to emerge from this crisis unless its people come together to find a nonviolent and inclusive path forward."

Burns is a Middle East expert (he is, among other things, a former ambassador to Jordan). He knows that "inclusive paths" aren't a prominent feature of regional politics.

Neither, of course, is nonviolence. There have been many violent incidents over the past week or two that I could cite, but here is maybe the most consequential: The fight, last weekend, between rebels of the Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant for control over a key checkpoint in Aleppo.

It was only a matter of time before different members of the fractious coalition — if that is even the word anymore — of forces arrayed against the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, began to kill each other. The rebellion is now being driven in large measure by al-Qaida sympathizers and affiliates, not by the more moderate Free Syrians.

The rebels haven't been effective in battling Assad, his Iranian sponsors and his Hezbollah foot soldiers. Don't expect this to change. I've been critical of President Barack Obama for not providing the rebels with adequate weapons fast enough, but this weekend's news makes the administration's hesitancy more understandable.

And finally — I could go on, but I'm trying to keep these posts digestible — there was this Twitter message (of all things) from the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a few days ago: "The will to win and the ability to break the opponent and instill in him a fear of death at the decisive moment — this is how battles are won."

There are at least four ways to interpret this statement. The first is that it's a brush-back pitch aimed at Assad, who has suffered through several mysterious explosions recently that the world thinks were caused by the Israelis.

The second is that Netanyahu has decided to forgo striking Iran's nuclear facilities, and instead plans to wage war against the ayatollahs via social media. The third is that he's telling the Israeli public, and the Obama administration, that he's ready to strike, should Iran cross the red line on uranium-enrichment he described last fall. And the fourth is that he's upset that the concurrent chaos in Egypt and Syria is drawing attention away from the matter he thinks is most urgent: a nuclear Iran.

In addition to taking to Twitter (which is really an undignified way to start a preventive war against a near-nuclear regime that has threatened the annihilation of your country), Netanyahu told Bob Schieffer on CBS News's "Face the Nation" that he "won't wait until it's too late" to act, adding, "We have our eyes fixed on Iran. They have to know that we're serious."

This last statement suggests that his Twitter message was directed as much at Obama as it was the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Netanyahu is worried that the White House has lost focus, and he is even more worried that the newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rohani, who has been touted as a "moderate," will convince the West that there is no cause to worry.

Rohani isn't in charge of the nuclear portfolio — that is the preserve of the supreme leader — nor has he expressed a pronounced desire to see Iran move off the path of nuclearization.

It's hard to blame the Obama administration for putting some distance between the U.S. and the Syrian rebellion. It's somewhat easier to blame the administration for creating conditions in Egypt that have led both the Islamists and liberals to share a profound mistrust of the U.S.

It will be much easier still to blame the administration if, in a fit of fatalism or inattention, it allows Iran to cross the nuclear threshold.

Because if it does, well, then the Middle East will be an exponentially unhappier place, as hard as that is to imagine at the moment.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror" and winner of the National Magazine Award for reporting. He has covered the Middle East as a national correspondent for the Atlantic and as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Read more reports from Jeffrey Goldberg — Click Here Now.


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