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Op-Ed

Let's See Plan B, Please

Manuela Paraipan, Bucharest, Romania, January 31, 2008

The United States is poor at assessing the internal weaknesses and strengths of countries that are ruled by ideologies and poor at following up or making predictions.

After the National Intelligence Estimate, the incident from the Strait of Hormuz prompted discussions and countless rumors. Some said that the incident could have been another Gulf of Tonkin. Perhaps, but the important thing is that it did not, and now we are back to square one.

To make something crystal clear, an Iran with nuclear capacity would be a huge regional and global challenge, to say the least. When that day comes we will see a new global realignment of powers. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s discourse is reckless. I have no doubt in my mind that he and others like him truly believe in the Mahdi cult. He did not use religious references only as rhetoric. However, we have to remember that he is not the man in command. He cannot take any important decisions let alone attack Israel or any other country just for his personal conviction or the convictions of those in his entourage.

What the mainstream media failed to some extent to focus upon is the rift between the president and the ayatollah. That is proof enough that the religious elite that is in control of the country with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the top is not looking for a doomsday deadline anytime soon. What they want first and foremost is to upgrade Iran’s role in the region and to strengthen its function outside it. That is the prerogative of all independent countries whether democratic or not.

In order to establish any sort of peaceful coexistence with Iran, the United States should stop demanding unilateral concessions, and instead offer terms of a bargain with Iran that is both mutually beneficial and verifiable. Washington should offer to end the trade embargo against Iran, which hurts American producers far more than it hurts Iran, and to permit investment in the Iranian oil industry, especially refining, in exchange for adhering to the International Atomic Energy Agency agreement and permitting international inspection to assure that it ends and does not restart any nuclear weapons program.

On the other hand, if the United States attacked Iran, the militias affiliated with the regime from Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories, as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, to name just two major forces, would strongly retaliate against American interests in and outside the region. It would be extremely stupid to think otherwise. Iran is by no means Iraq, which the United States is even having a hard time securing. What we don’t need is more Iraq-like scenarios that cannot be substantiated but rather clear analysis and viable alternatives. The Iranians are hardly choirboys, but the Bush administration has zero credibility left in the foreign policy arena. That has to be immediately assessed and addressed by shifting resources back to the main theaters of the struggle, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The conventional wisdom, which is usually erroneous, is that the United States can use some kind of intimidation to force a Middle East peace. Israel would no more accept a United States-mandated settlement any more than the Arabs. Only the Arabs and Israel can negotiate and attain a lasting peace and security for both sides. The reality is that not one United States president, from Harry S. Truman through Bill Clinton, has been able to force either side to do anything constructive. To suggest otherwise is to ignore history.

That is why President Bush’s recent tour of the Middle East came too late to mean anything. All the leaders he met with and tried to get some support from are unpopular and caught in plenty of squabbles in their respective countries. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is arguably the least popular leader in Israel’s history. Other least popular leaders include Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, King Hussein of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora has to carry heavy battles on the home ground with little maneuvering space and as such is no position to help. In a similar situation are President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. All these leaders are there because they rely on the United States’ support. Now the United States needs their support. Can they do anything except extend sympathies and good wishes to a president who has gotten it wrong most if not all the time? It’s unlikely.

What the years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown is that there will never be an American-style democracy in the broader Middle East. Elections alone mean nothing. Freer elections brought Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and, given the chance, Iraq will likely follow the trend.

The single most important rule of leadership in a democracy is responsibility toward the people. If this feature is nonexistent then there is nothing else. Democracy is by all means a long learning and experiencing process that can be successful only if there are societal characteristics that will push it further. To pretend that the West can impose it at the barrel of a gun is folly. Nothing good can come of such a charade.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of American political thought has been its lack of understanding ideologies. In particular, the United States is poor at assessing the internal weaknesses and strengths of countries that are ruled by ideologies and poor at following up or making predictions. The United States was not fast enough at predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union or the long-term consequences of that event, and it was lousy at predicting the rise of radical Islam. The world of ideologies is not like a chess game. The rules are far from fixed. Nevertheless, mistakes were made in thinking that the fighters in Afghanistan were just a collection of nobodies that could be used and then discarded without any consequences and by overlooking the tribal and sectarian features of Iraqi society. No policy, no direction, and no ability to respond—I wonder if the United States has a plan B for the region.

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