Two key processes currently taking place in the Middle East Israel’s disengagement and the sharp scaling-down of Western hopes for a remade, democratic Iraq reflect the durability of existing patterns of regional political behavior.
Middle East politics remains dominated by the confessional and the ethnic, steeped in the legitimating tradition of Islam and in sectarian definitions of identity. It is complicated by the manifest failure of ideas meant to act as the engine of modernization, which live on as dysfunctional political systems and angry myths, generating developmental failure and a prevailing mood of rage and humiliation.
Israel’s disengagement transcends the simple act of redeploying from the Gaza Strip and four northern Samarian settlements. There is a larger withdrawal taking place, which is not geographical. This is the withdrawal of Israeli policy from the idea of rapprochement between the Jewish state of Israel and Middle Eastern politics as currently constituted represented in its local version by Palestinian nationalism and its Islamist opponents. The peace process of the 1990s represented the high-water mark of Israeli attempts to engage with the Palestinians, and through them with the dominant political language of the region. That experiment, as is known, was not successful. Regional politics, in its Palestinian variant, was ultimately responsible for the failure. A familiar combination of grand myth-making, militarist fantasies of revenge, and an abject disinterest in developing real and tangible instruments of government and administration, left the process doomed.
On the Israeli side, what has followed is a simple and curt dismissal of the very possibility of meeting the region, as currently constituted, halfway. Thus, Israel’s security barrier follows a route defined unilaterally, according to the formula of maximum security, maximum Jews and minimum Palestinians. Israel developed and coordinated its unilateral redeployment with its United States ally, rather than its Palestinian neighbor. And it has, at least since the election of Ariel Sharon in 2001, answered insurgency not with frantic new political initiatives, but with determined counterinsurgency.
All these elements form part of a coherent whole. They are elements of a strategy which assumes the continuation of low-level conflict between Israel and whatever Palestinian entity emerges in the areas from which Israel will withdraw. It assumes, in the absence of any telling evidence to the contrary, that regional politics will remain its usual self for the foreseeable future, and it assumes that Israel, on condition that it has a border containing a large Jewish majority, can navigate and survive this reality.
In Iraq, meanwhile, another great experiment in rebuilding Middle East politics on rational lines is following a similar trajectory to its 1990s predecessor, albeit at an earlier stage of the curve. U.S. and allied ambitions of helping to build a democratic Iraq are in the process of being endlessly whittled down, in the forlorn hope that they will eventually reach manageable proportions. Thus, an Iraqi constitution that was meant to represent a beacon to a better way is mired in unreconciled contradictions between irreconcilable ethnic and sectarian interests. U.S. diplomats in recent days found themselves in the uncomfortable position of backing Shiite religious demands for the primacy of Islamic canon law in the new constitution, against Kurdish hopes for a less dominant role for Islam. The final document was rejected outright by the Sunni negotiators.
Reports of the situation on the ground detail the growing role of ethnic and confessional-based militias, enforcing their will upon the populace. This is the case not only in the Sunni center of the country, but also in the Kurdish north and Shia south. Often formally attached to the security forces, these elements are taking advantage of the absence of central authority to enforce what some observers are calling the “effective partition” of Iraq.
What is emerging in the vacuum in Iraq is certainly a very different arrangement of power to that which pertained under Saddam Hussein. It will include a level of political influence and power for non-Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims of a kind that is unprecedented in the history of modern Arab states. But in terms of the dynamics of power, of how it is gained and wielded and justified, of legitimacy, of individual rights, it seems that as the tidal waves unleashed by the U.S. invasion begin to recede, the familiar Middle Eastern layout of ethnic and confessional loyalty, politicized religion and myth is once more becoming visible in the Iraqi landscape.
A scaling-down of optimism and grand hopes, and a re engagement with reality constitute, as a result, the emerging mood in Washington. It is a mood that fits well with current thinking in Jerusalem (which will remain current for as long as the current government or something resembling it remains in office.) In both cases, grand regional projects have given way to a new understanding that regional engagement is likely to mean the continued management of conflict for Israel, and the continued management of disorder and dysfunction for the broader Western world. The fact that such realization in both cases comes only at the end of a costly flirtation with utopia serves to confirm once more the old philosopher’s dictum that the Owl of Minerva, which brings wisdom, spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.