A View of the Middle East—From the Other Side!!
the Charleston (WV) Gazette
the Meridian Star March 25, 2007
the Jackson Clarion-Ledger April 1, 2007
I'm writing with my feet planted squarely in the Middle East—not the middle eastern part of the U.S., but the real Middle East. I'm here trying to promote university research and economic development back home, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to dabble in the business of my former life—international security and diplomacy.
During my Air Force career, I did better with 2,000-pound bombs than with diplomacy, but I spent a lot time working with senior diplomats from a variety Middle Eastern nations. So when I had the chance to hook up again on this trip with some politicians, senior military officers, corporate executives, and academics, I thought it might be of interest to report back to the USA. Here's how things look from the other side of the lens, through the eyes of the people to whom the Middle East is home.
First, everybody I talked to—our friends, in most cases—recognized that the Iraq debate sucks the oxygen out of the air in Washington, and they wish it didn't. They understand why this happens, given that we are losing our sons and daughters at an alarming rate and spending a substantial portion of our nation treasure in the process. But most think we are still there because we continue to mistakenly believe that we can stop the violence in Iraq. Most are happy that Saddam is gone, but they also believe we don't understand the culture that has dominated Iraq for centuries.
One very bright individual who routinely talks to Washington commented that since the 1,200 tribes in Iraq have been fighting for 2,500 years, we shouldn't expect to get them to stop in less than another 2,500 years. Ugh! I hope that's not right, but his point is well taken.
Most of the people I talked with also think we missed an opportunity during the first year of the war to establish something like a democratic process—maybe not like ours, but still democratic—and turn the execution (bad choice of words) of that process over to the Iraqi government.
Unfortunately, the community of nations in this part of the world is so accustomed to chaos and turmoil that they accept the current circumstance in Iraq and will not intercede as we would want them to do. As long as we stay there, controlling the boundary conditions on the chaos and turmoil, they will be content to let us do it. Only when the chaos and turmoil appears to be spilling over into their economic or security domain will they put boots on the ground and contribute substantial funds to help stabilize Iraq. Why should they put Arab on Arab when an alternative exists?
All agree that Iraq is a problem, but most see conditions in Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the long term and most dangerous situations. There is a broad consensus that Iran is scary. Most fear the extremism that exists there and the potential results—including nuclear war—unless Iran is brought into the union of productive nations in the region. Nobody wants war with Iran, and interestingly enough, nobody believes Iran wants war either.
Since I have done some war planning in the Middle East, I can assure you that if you think fighting in Iraq is tough, Iran would present a much harder challenge. It's about four times the size of Iraq and would not be so easy to roll over. And if you think the zealots in Iraq are tough, you haven't seen the ones in Iran. By the way, we don't have the forces to invade Iran even if we wanted to. We're out of juice for that kind of operation.
The consensus is that the only solutions for the threats posed by Iran are to impose tough—really tough—sanctions, while simultaneously reaching out to the Iranian people with a dose of truth. Sanctions can work only if the rest of the world—not just the U.S. and Britain—really mean it. History would say that our friends in Europe, along with Russia and China, will stick until the first big business deal arrives, and then many will bail out. Sanctions don't work unless everybody is in the pack. There does seem to be slowly growing discontent among a slowly growing number of people in Iran who recognize that they live in a global environment and can't flourish with the current stand-alone approach. They want cars, country music, opportunity and equality.
The Israeli-Palestinian clash may be just as hard to solve. Again, nobody wants war, but nobody can figure out how to bring peace. What's clear is that the U.S. is seen as one-sided, always favoring Israel. It's not hard to figure why—both our countries are in a war against terrorism. We've always had and will continue to have a special relationship with Israel. We depend on each other. But we are not seen as a fair broker in any peace process, and somehow we have to change that image. We may never have a special relationship with the Palestinian Authority, but we have to have some kind of relationship.
Where does the U.S. go from here? My recommendation is to follow the advice of the community that lives here in the Middle East. Press hard for sanctions against Iran if it continues to support terrorism and the development of nuclear weapons, and bombard the Iranian people with the truth. Make an open and concerted effort to establish a working relationship with the Palestinian Authority. Clearly, they have to renounce violence, recognize Israel as a nation state, and be committed to a political solution—but we have to show somehow that we are balanced in our approach to peace.
As the leader of the free world, we have to be watchful for opportunities to reach out, and not be trapped by past failures.