If there is a New Middle East on the horizon, it does not look anything like that which Barack Obama envisioned in his Nobel-winning Cairo speech of 2009.
Beyond the lives of three boys and whatever develops between Israel and the Palestinians as a result, the bigger noise in the world concerns the undoing of two countries that were cobbled together after World War I.
Neither Syria nor Iraq ever were nations, or countries united under anything like humane regimes. Their mixture of antagonistic ethnic and religious communities may have required regimes like those of Saddam Hussein or the Assads to keep the lid on the ever present potential of sectarian violence.
An award for the most foolish act of public policy in my lifetime should go to George W. Bush for his effort to rid the world of Saddam and destroy his regime, at least partly for the goals of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq.
What we see now in Iraq resembles what exists in Syria. The details are not exactly alike. The Syrian regime with considerable material and political help from Russia is managing to hold off total defeat. However, it has lost control of considerable territory. The picture is far from clear, but a great swath of eastern Syria may be--or fall--under the control of Islamic fanatics linked to those who may gain control over much of what had been Iraq.
The people affected are beyond those millions of Iraqis and Syrians already dead or suffering. Iraqi insurgents have declared Kuwait to be an appropriate target, and that--together with what has already been seized by rebels or Kurds in Iraq--spells oil and uncertainties for much of the world's economies.
No surprise that western powers--and most prominently those in charge of the US White House and State Department--are sweating while pondering and doubting the possibilities.
It all makes "Islamic radicalism" to be more than a fringe movement capable of local damage, which should be spoken of only in whispers in order to maintain a correct posture toward all religions.
Obama and Kerry have talked about the use of force, pretty much like they did before caving in to the Syrians and Russians on chemical weapons. The Commander-in-Chief ordered a few hundred troops to defend the personnel of the American embassy in Baghdad, advisers to help the Iraqi military, and an aircraft carrier toward the Persian Gulf, but he has also spoken of putting severe limits on the US intervention. Military personnel have spoken about limited targets worthy of air attack.
Obama has also said that the Iraqi Prime Minister al-Malaki had failed in his task to remake Iraq into a functioning country. The American President seemed to be lecturing an errant politician in an American state or some other western democracy.
“Only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis,”
Colonialism is dead; the US military is still reeling from GWBush's foolishness in Iraq and Afghanistan; and neither Obama nor Kerry seem inclined to be forceful about anything.
A recent cartoon in Ha'aretz shows worried looking Obama and Kerry watching a clip on Iraqi insurgents, and saying, "Where is Saddam when you need him?"
The British and French have done some things on their own and have cooperated with American involvements here and there, but have expressed suspicions about the current American leadership. Germany and Japan have great potential, but are still tying themselves due to gross misbehavior in the 1930s and 1940s. Japan is more worried about China than Islam.
Iran and the United States are talking about cooperating to save the Iraqi regime. That can't help but worry Saudi Arabia and Egypt, until recently key players in American aspirations for Middle Eastern hegemony, and both worried about Iran's ambitions.
No other government counts for much, except for Russia and China, whose leaderships may see opportunities rather than problems in what is happening.
Saudi Arabia has a record of using its wealth to buy off potential adversaries, including those now taking over neighboring Iraq who it initially financed to fight against Assad and his Iranian allies in Syria. For decades, Saudi Arabia delighted US military industries with enormous orders for equipment, which it has never used except against some minor troubles from Yemen.
Turkey has played on all sides of everything. It's leadership claims Islamic legitimacy. It may worry about much of Iraq's oil falling into the hands of Kurds who have restive cousins in Turkey, as well as the ascendance of any Middle Eastern regime that might become more powerful than its own.
Israel is worried about Jordan, until now a source of stability on its eastern border and usually reasonable about things Palestinian. However, Jordan also has long open borders with Syria and Iraq, and has enough restive Syrian refugees to threaten its already delicate demographic balance.
The Israel-Palestinian front has turned interesting with Mahmoud Abbas' sharp anti-kidnapping remarks and commitment to security cooperation with Israel at an Islamic conference. Abbas, in turn, was damned by Palestinian opponents for being a traitor to the national cause. Abbas also joined Muslim critics of Netanyahu, and asked western powers to restrain Israel's overreaction, racism, and persecution of innocent Palestinians.
What we are seeing in the continued sweeps of IDF and other security forces throughout the West Bank is a muted Palestinian-Israeli alliance against Hamas and other extremists, along with considerable skepticism and ambivalence among the Palestinians, and an uptick in resistance to the Israelis.
Optimists may see the working out of pragmatic accommodations between Israelis and Palestinians, with both accepting what may escape the thinking of John Kerry, i.e., two people can live alongside one another without solving problems dealing with statehood, refugees, or borders.
It's not an occasion to predict anything more complex than my next meal.
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