A reminder: The Middle East is not Nothern IrelandBefore George Mitchell became the United States' Special Envoy to the Middle East, his claim to fame was that he had brought an 'end' to sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
Last week, President Obumbler told Time Magazine's Joe Klein that the Middle East was 'harder' than he expected, and that he believed when he came into office that the Middle East could be resolved as Northern Ireland was 'resolved.' That belief was folly from the outset. Here's what I wrote about it on the day of Obama's inauguration and Mitchell's appointment.
Oh yes, Mitchell's main qualification for the position isn't his 'commission.' It's his role as a negotiator in 'resolving' the ethnic dispute in Northern Ireland earlier this decade. That plays into Quartet Middle East envoy Tony Blair's constant comparisons of the Middle East with Northern Ireland and former Italian foreign minister Massimo D'Alema's desire to see Hamas and Hezbullah metamorphose into from terror groups into political groups like the IRA and ETA. Apparently the Hopenchange administration hopes to turn Israel into Northern Ireland.Michael Totten, who knows a lot more than I do about several other countries in the Middle East, has a piece in Commentary in which he argues that Northern Ireland is a bad model for the Middle East, that conflict is the 'natural state' of affairs here, and that Obama should just leave us alone.
This prophetic article from 2004 shows how the British (and Tony Blair in particular) have been trying to bring Northern Ireland-type 'conflict resolution' to the Israeli-
Arab'Palestinian' conflict and why all Israelis had better pray that it not work here. Here's the bottom line with some comments about why it's so bad for Israel interspersed.The arguments for indulging insurgent, revolutionary movements are wonderfully flexible. In the first phase, the "oppressors" must indulge the "moderates." [That would be Fatah. CiJ] As time goes on, that changes to the "pragmatic hardliners," [Hamas. CiJ] who are the only faction that can deliver. There are vague echoes here of the mission of Alistair Crooke, the former MI6 officer who served in Northern Ireland and who has been seeking to bring Hamas into the fold as the only people who can "deliver" on a settlement. Judging by past form, future British and EU diplomatic efforts may focus increasingly upon influencing the less "ideological" element within Likud [That would be Kadima. This was written a year before Kadima broke off from the Likud. CiJ]. Many British officials see Hamas and Likud as mutually reinforcing "hardliners."This all sounds familiar, doesn't it? If it doesn't, I think I have pointed out enough striking similarities for you. Do we really want Israel dismembered?
A key theme in this mindset is that there can be no purely military defeat of insurgents [Is this why Israel was pressured not to finish the job in Gaza? CiJ]. If this is true, then one has to make a massive number of political concessions. Some of the more robust elements within the British system believe that the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force which was at the cutting edge of the struggle against terrorism, was stopping between 7 and 8, and in some cases even 9 out of 10 IRA operations during the latter years of the Troubles. Indeed, year by year we learn just how riddled the IRA was with British informers [Just like Israel has put an almost total stop to 'Palestinian' terror originating in Judea and Samaria since 2003. CiJ]. But notwithstanding that achievement, the British government decided to give disproportionate political concessions to ensure that the IRA never had "an excuse" to go back to armed struggle. In other words, they believe that the IRA, like the Palestinians, has a great number of very good excuses to go back "to war." That process, of depriving the insurgents of "excuses," inevitably comes at the expense of Unionists and the Israelis.
But what is the definition of victory in Northern Ireland? The British do not define "victory" as the military defeat of the IRA. Firstly, they do not believe it was possible, but even if it was possible, they do not believe in such a defeat as a matter of principle. Victory, as far as they see it in Northern Ireland, is to persuade Sinn Fein/IRA to accept the use of democratic methods. In other words, they have a methodological definition of victory, but have no particular end point of a settlement in mind (which reinforces instability by convincing Republicans that "one last heave," whether politically or militarily, will do the trick).
Indeed, one unique aspect of policy in Northern Ireland is that the British state is well-nigh unique in advertising, quite openly, that it does not really mind if it is dismembered - subject, of course, to the consent principle. All it wants is that the IRA and the Republican movement - in the main - abandon full-scale violence, and then all other roads are open. To ensure that abandonment of violence, the British will maintain the pace of concessions, at least for as long as the Unionists are prepared to tolerate them. And because the British have been working on the Unionist community for so long, they reckon that they have a very good chance of maintaining that grip on events.
Read the whole thing to understand what is apparently the Hopenchange administration's 'new approach.' And keep in mind that radical Islam is not the Irish Republican Army's ideology. The IRA didn't have suicide bombers.
Northern Ireland is in Western Europe — in the United Kingdom even. The two conflicts resemble each other in a couple of ways, but Ireland is nothing like Gaza. The people of Belfast are no less inheritors of the liberal Western tradition than residents of Dublin and London. No part of the world at the turn of the 21st century was more amendable to conflict resolution than Western Europe, and that included even the rough parts of Western Europe. The war there was barely even a war compared with the Middle East's wars. Slightly more than 100 people were killed on average each year in Northern Ireland during "the troubles" between 1969 and 2001, fewer than the number murdered in many American cities during peace time. Each year of the second intifada, by contrast, was 10 times as deadly. (Each year of the Lebanese civil war, meanwhile, was 100 times deadlier.)Read the whole thing.
Northern Ireland was a ways outside the Western mainstream, but it had that peaceful mainstream it could join. The entire Middle East is difficult and dysfunctional. There is no peaceful political mainstream. Ethnic and religious violence is normal — not just between Arabs and Israelis, but also between Arabs and Persians, Arabs and Kurds, Kurds and Turks, Kurds and Persians, Muslims and Christians, and Sunnis and Shias. The idea that peace is likely to break out there any time soon was memorably ridiculed in the Adam Sandler comedy You Don't Mess with the Zohan. "They've been fighting for 2,000 years," said the main character's mother. "It can't be much longer."
I've been critical of some of the president's Middle East policies, but it isn't his fault the Arab-Israeli conflict has now lasted 62 years instead of winding down in the 61st. It may not be as intractable as the one between Sunnis and Shias — that one has lasted for more than 1,000 years — but nobody can fix this right now. The Middle East doesn't need a diplomatic process; it needs a revolutionary transformation of its political culture, like what we saw in Western Europe after World War II and in Eastern Europe after the real Berlin Wall fell. Something similar may very well occur in the Middle East at some point, but it's not going to happen all of a sudden because Barack Obama or any other American president tweaks our foreign policy.
If the "peace process" is sure to fail right now — and it is — announcing it as a foreign-policy priority only sets Obama up as a weak leader who can't deliver the goods. His credibility suffers, and so does America's leverage. He ought to focus on conflict management and damage control, and try not to make anything worse.