Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Signs of moderation?

The pressure cooker that is the Middle East looks to be bleeding off some of the head of anti-Western steam it’s built up over the past 20 years (or 100 years, depending on your historical perspective).

A moderate, US-backed coalition took the parliamentary elections in Lebanon, where a year or two ago it looked like Hezbollah was building strength.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under threat from moderate challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi in what could be a watershed election.

The Pakistani army has roused itself and rolled back the Taliban in the Swat Valley.
All of these gains are modest and reversible. Most analysts think Ahmadinejad will still win and that Iran will continue its nuclear program regardless. Lebanon is always fragile and the Pakistani Taliban are nothing if not resilient.

But things are looking better than they have for some time. Obama’s speech in in Cairo was a good one and well received. It seems possible to get off on a different foot with Middle East diplomacy. As always with Obama, it remains to be seen if soaring rhetoric can be matched by real action on the ground.

So much will depend upon what happens in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If real progress can be made there, if Muslim populations that are sick of living in fear of extremists among them say, “Enough!” if Iraq can remain stable and Afghanistan become at least a semi-functional state — perhaps we’ll be looking at a new era of relative peace, stability and prosperity in this volatile region.

That’s a lot of ifs, but there’s reason enough to be cautiously optimistic.

Jim Cornelius, Editor


  1. "There’s reason enough to be cautiously optimistic" ... Hmm, how about we give a year or two (or 20) and see. I tend to believe you are a bit too hopeful in your evaluation.

  2. I'm usually accused of being a pessimist, so "too hopeful" is new to me.

    It's always the safe bet to look on the dark side when it comes to the Middle East, where defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory at every turn.

    But events in Iran seem to point toward a change there. Its people don't want endless isolation and conflict. And Netanyahu for the first time accepted the idea of some kind of Palestinian state.

    These seem to be flickers of light in the darkness. Maybe they'll catch.

    As you say, time will tell.

    Jim Cornelius, Editor

  3. I am not sure I understand the "change" you are talking about in Iran ? Its fairly clear that while the elections were obviously flawed Ahmadinejad won handily. If you think for a minute that Mousavi would be a better individual for us to deal with you have not read any of his positions. The reality or lack there of in Iran rests with the clerics and its been that way since the Shah was over thrown. Any change there would have to be monumental. Regarding Netanyahu, what you fail to mention is that his refusal to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, his continued building of new settlements combined with his demand that international guarantees must be in place that the "new nation" of Palestine not have an army makes the gesture purely political. Maybe my words "too hopeful" were chosen incorrectly. Its likely I should have said there's "no chance in hell".

  4. In Lebanon it is HAMAS who, as well as in the Gaza Strip, run any form of working government.

    In Iraq we are pulling out of the cities and into desert "forts", leaving the cities to the factions (and IMHO the elected Iraqi government is simply one of these factions) - a 21st Century version of the old "peace with honor" claptrap of the American war in Vietnam.

    In Afghanistan we are pouring in more troops to do...more of nothing. A very small percentage of overall forces are actually conducting combat operations - with U.S. and Coalition Special Operations Forces doing the truly "heavy lifting". The rest are locked down in their Forward Operating Bases, venturing out only during the daytime, and hobbled by U.S. policy and doctrine as well as the feckless formal government of the country.

    In Pakistan we don't care about the Taliban, al Queda, the Pakistani government or the country's people. We care about its nukes, period.

    Now for the negative side of the picture...

  5. Anonymous #4 - And your point is ?

  6. This is what I mean by change:

    CNN: As you've seen the situation in Iran develop over the last week, what are your thoughts?

    Fareed Zakaria: One of the first things that strikes me is we are watching the fall of Islamic theocracy.

    CNN: Do you mean you think the regime will fall?

    Zakaria: No, I don't mean the Iranian regime will fall soon. It may -- I certainly hope it will -- but repressive regimes can stick around for a long time. I mean that this is the end of the ideology that lay at the basis of the Iranian regime.

    The regime's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, laid out his special interpretation of political Islam in a series of lectures in 1970. In this interpretation of Shia Islam, Islamic jurists had divinely ordained powers to rule as guardians of the society, supreme arbiters not only on matters of morality but politics as well. When Khomeini established the Islamic Republic of Iran, this idea was at its heart. Last week, that ideology suffered a fatal wound.

    CNN: How so?

    Zakaria: When the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a "divine assessment," he was indicating it was divinely sanctioned. But no one bought it. He was forced to accept the need for an inquiry into the election. The Guardian Council, Iran's supreme constitutional body, met with the candidates and promised to investigate and perhaps recount some votes. Khamenei has subsequently hardened his position but that is now irrelevant. Something very important has been laid bare in Iran today --- legitimacy does not flow from divine authority but from popular support.