...For more than a half-century, [Middle East] politics revolved around Arab nationalism. Individual states sought to have influence, leadership, or just to survive. The Arab-Israeli conflict was an important issue in this framework, though not the sole or even the most significant one.
...Today, the centerpiece is a struggle between two blocs, one well-organized, the other weak and facing internal conflict. The former is the Tehran-led alliance of the HISH (Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizballah); the latter is just about everyone else, call it the coalition of the unwilling....
...while Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates don't want to be dominated by Iran or ruled by radical Islamists, they find it rather hard to work together or with their best potential allies.
The region now faces many overlapping problems:
- HISH's ambitions,
- Iranian nuclear drive,
- radical Islamism,
- terrorism, and
- the struggle for power in each country.
Oh yes, and there's the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely reduced from the Arab-Israeli conflict.
...There are powerful factors pushing Arab regimes and a portion of the populations toward indirect cooperation. Kuwaitis remember what Saddam Hussein did to them; Saudis fear Shia power; Iraqis are angry about foreign support for terrorism against them; Lebanese Christians, Druze, and Shia Muslims don't want to have Hizballah telling them what to do.
Yet on the Arab side there are also huge limitations to cooperation.
- Their adversaries are unrelenting. They will not make peace, moderate, or live up to any compromise deal they sign. These include not only the HISH but other Islamist elements which may be both revolutionary and anti-Iran, notably Muslim Brotherhoods and al-Qaeda.
- Working with the West and Israel could undermine the regimes at home.
- The Arab rulers simultaneously manipulate propaganda and believe their own statements.
- What is worst of all, however, is how the unrelenting are backed up by what we can call the inconvincible, that is a radicalized public opinion. There is no moderate silent majority. The rulers cannot go over the heads of a few extremists to appeal to a public preferring coexistence, peace, human rights, and stability. Even if the rulers helped create this radicalism of the masses, it isn't just a matter of easily reversible false concsioucness based on regime propaganda but is rooted in many other things as well.
In short, while the rulers have the advantage of guns and resources, the radical opposition has the asset of the regimes' incompetence, corruption, and a public opinion open to their arguments. To shake this combination will take many decades, at best.
But what about the West and Israel? They can also sell out the Arab side due to a strong temptation to deal with the radicals and not with the moderate--or perhaps I should say the less radical--forces.
By apologizing, conceding, refusing to defend themselves, or by negotiating, exaggerating the potential for moderation, and dropping sanctions, they can strengthen the extremists and undercut the regimes. When that happens, the regimes know they might better cut their own deal. So while there are arguable reasons to bargain with Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, or Syria, such a strategy splits the anti-HISH alliance and starts a race toward appeasement.
...The best one can hope for is the wisdom to build on coinciding interests and courage to stand up to unrelenting enemies.