Dangerous disintegration in Mideast

May 30, 2007|By Trudy Rubin | Trudy Rubin,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- I'm heading to the Middle East next week at a time of two sobering anniversaries. Taken together, they reveal much about the dangerous state of the Middle East.

May 20 was the first anniversary of Iraq's first fully elected and constitutional government, led by Nouri al-Maliki. A year ago, President Bush declared, "This broadly representative unity government offers a new opportunity for progress in Iraq." Today, the al-Maliki government is virtually nonexistent, and Iraq is in chaos.

June 5 and 6 will be the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War. That was a conflict precipitated by Egypt in which a victorious Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. After decades of inconclusive peace talks and a military withdrawal from Gaza, Israel still effectively controls these territories. An elected Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse, and near-anarchy reigns in Gaza.

Iraq and Gaza represent a frightening trend toward disintegration in the region, especially in places where elections have replaced Arab autocrats. On my trip to Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Syria, I plan to examine whether we should expect more chaos in the future, or whether there's any way to enhance stability in the Middle East.

I'm not very optimistic. In the wake of the Iraq war and the breakdown of any Israeli-Palestinian peace process, my Mideast contacts say the regional chaos will only get worse.

I was in Baghdad last year when the al-Maliki government took office. It was clear from the get-go that this was a government in name only. The constitutional system the United States helped set up creates a weak prime minister with little power. Even worse, the system parcels out Cabinet posts to sectarian parties according to vote share. Mr. al-Maliki, whose party is small, has very little control over many ministries. Congress and the White House can demand benchmarks, but Mr. al-Maliki can't deliver. Moreover, he is a sectarian Shiite leader reluctant to fight for real power-sharing with Iraqi Sunnis.

"We have hitched our wagon to a weak horse, going in a direction we don't want to go," said a senior U.S. military officer with Iraq experience.

Iraq has become the prime example of the fallacy of White House dreams of social engineering. Many of the Middle East's authoritarian regimes - such as Egypt and Syria - are fragile and dependent on the military and secret police to keep power. But knocking off a dictator in a state where no civic institutions have been allowed to grow won't create a democratic nirvana - especially when religious parties are the strongest political forces.

I'm returning to Baghdad to see whether there is the slightest chance Iraq's political leaders can come together to stop the sectarian killing. And if not, to see where Iraqis - and U.S. military commanders and diplomats - see the situation heading over the next couple of years.

The tragic situation on the West Bank and in Gaza also reflects a total U.S. misunderstanding of the region. The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a man unable to embrace the role of statesman, offered the White House the last, best chance to encourage a two-state solution. It passed up the chance. Mr. Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Palestinian Authority were weak, but Mr. Abbas was committed to two states, side by side. Had Gaza been returned to him via peace talks, his Fatah party would have been strengthened and Hamas undermined. Instead, the United States backed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. This bolstered Hamas' argument that its violent tactics had driven out the Israelis.

The undercutting of Mr. Abbas led to the predictable disintegration of the Palestinian Authority. Even as President Bush was telling Americans that Gaza would morph into a model democracy, its impoverished society was collapsing. Its people, desperate for services, voted in a Hamas government.

A trip to Israel on the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War must focus on the future of the West Bank and Gaza.

The man who endorsed the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, understood that if Israel kept these areas, the Arab population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean would one day outnumber Israeli Jews.

This demographic reality still confronts Israel. I want to hear whether Israelis and Palestinians have any new ideas about how to create two states - or whether this concept is no longer valid. The answer to this question is crucial for the entire Middle East and for U.S. interests in the region. If the two-state solution is dead, Palestinian society will fragment further under Israeli control. That, in turn, will inspire Palestinian Islamists to strike out with greater ferocity at Israel and beyond.

It is this fragmentation of Mideast societies and states that creates breeding grounds for small and violent Islamist groups - the most frightening trend in the region. Such groups are far more difficult to deal with than rulers of states. When Israel fought the Six-Day War, it fought regimes with recognized leaders with whom it could negotiate a truce or a peace. The U.S. overthrew an Iraqi regime led by one man whose name was known.

I am heading for a region where splinter groups can hold off armies and have no desire to negotiate. The most urgent question in today's Middle East is how to counter that trend - and whether diplomacy can succeed where military might cannot.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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