The Roots of Middle Eastern Conflicts

Posted: November 3, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Israel, Palestinians, Politics, The World-Wide World

Lee Smith challenges the theory of “linkage,” which states that the key to resolving conflict in the Middle East is resolving the Palestinian-Israeli peace process (I’ve posted on this issue once before).  I’ve noted Smith’s ideas about the Middle East a couple other times on this blog.  He usually tries to challenge the dominant paradigm by which we look at the Middle East.  He believes that the biggest factor in the conflicts is not the Arab-Israeli issue but rather competition between different tribes and countries in the Arab world, what he calls an “Arab civil war.”  In addition, he believes that Middle Eastern states are generally weak and fight each other through terrorist groups rather than conventional war.

Smith believes that linkage theory has taken on a life of its own:

As the origins of any myth fade into the past, the myth, paradoxically, becomes more and more powerful, sometimes even taking on the appearance of truth. Two generations removed from the American policymakers who turned linkage to the advantage of U.S. regional interests, a dangerous stage begins in the history of a myth invented by one Arab tribe to gain the support of the British in their battle with another Arab tribe and that Washington turned around to make itself the power center of the Middle East….

Indeed, the American position in the Middle East is founded on the idea that Arab regimes are incapable of defending themselves against anyone. Washington made sure these regimes can’t defeat Israel; the United States protected the Saudis from the Soviets and then from Saddam, when the American presence in the desert made the Saudis vulnerable to their own domestic opposition in the form of Osama Bin Laden. What the Saudis want now is to be protected against the Islamic Republic of Iran, but they can’t say that publicly any more than they can explain that the myth of linkage was always more about intra-Arab politics than it was about the fate of the Palestinians.Nor apparently can the Americans admit that linkage was just a strategic instrument that leveraged the Arab narrative to the advantage of the United States. The further U.S. policymaking gets from the origins of the myth, the more magical and enticing it has become. The myth of linkage has grown to such legendary proportions at this point that it is the extent of the current White House’s Middle East policy. We have no other strategy to stop the Iranian nuclear program but linkage. Movement on the peace process, the Obama Administration believes, will get the Arab regimes to help us with Iran. The problem is that the Arabs will not help us with Iran. They want us to deal with Iran ourselves, but if we keep forcing the issue of linkage they have no choice but to go along with the ruse that everything is linked to the Arab-Israeli crisis. After all, it’s their narrative, and they can’t disown it now.

In reality, the reason the Obama Administration, Gates, and Petraeus are pushing linkage into overdrive is that there is no Iran strategy, and nothing—not even linkage—is going to stop the Iranians. They are telling the Arabs that they are going to do what they can about the Palestinian question, because they are not going to do anything about Iran. That’s the Arabs’ consolation prize for being an American ally. What a cruel joke fate has played at the expense of Arabs, who have been talking out of both sides of their mouth about the Palestinians and linkage for almost a century, a myth that came to link the fate of the Americans to that of the Arabs, and theirs to ours. Since we have no other policy than a magic trick, the Arabs have no choice but to pretend to believe it’s real.

Smith also gives an interesting interpretation of the history of linkage, going back to the British presence in the region after World War I and continuing through the present.  I think that Smith perhaps underestimates the importance of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, but I think that he’s right about the rivalries between the different factions and countries of the Arab world.

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