Middle East Mess Isn’t About
In an interview with Charles Gati in Politico Magazine, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to Jimmy Carter, proves once again that he is a man of profound religious faith. He worships at the Church of Linkage, which holds that Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank is the primary cause of Middle East instability and a principal cause — if not the main cause — of the U.S.’s troubles in the Muslim world.
Before I go on, the usual caveats: The settlement project — especially those settlements far from Jerusalem that have been planted in the middle of thickly populated Palestinian areas — is a strategic and moral disaster for Israel. The settlements should be dismantled. They threaten Israel’s standing in the world; they threaten to undermine the very nature and purpose of Israel. And so on. I’ve written before about the threat that settlements pose, at great length.
But there is danger in thinking that the removal of these settlements would bring about a liberal, enlightened Middle East. The danger is analytical: If you don’t understand what ails the Middle East, how can you possibly fix it? It is also dangerous to scapegoat Israel for problems it didn’t cause, in the same way that it has historically been quite dangerous to blame the Jewish people for problems they didn’t cause. Brzezinski’s native Poland provides lessons in this regard.
Brzezinski has had hard feelings toward Israel for years, and he has been consistent in suggesting that American Jews possess too much political power. In Politico, he asserts in drive-by fashion — which is to say without offering proof to buttress his contention — that “the Jewish community is the most active political community in American society.”
Here is what Brzezinski told Politico about President Barack Obama’s failure to force Israel to permanently freeze settlements: “At a critical juncture he failed to show he had steel in his back, he failed to follow through. He spoke on the record and very sensibly about the settlements, but when a confrontation developed between him and [Israeli prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, Obama caved in. That has contributed significantly to the general mess we now have in the Middle East.”
Brzezinski is referring to one of Obama’s earliest confrontations with Netanyahu. Early in his first term, the president demanded that Israel stop building in the settlements as a confidence-building measure in advance of peace negotiations. Israel gave in partially, but only partially, and when settlement building continued, Obama offered rhetoric but did nothing concrete to shape Israel’s behavior.
Obama’s mistake was to make a public demand of an ally (and a client) and then have no Plan B ready when that ally refused to listen. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to reverse himself on settlements — an unwillingness born of careerism as much as anything else (his governing coalition includes a disproportionate number of settlers and their sympathizers) — has hurt Israel, but has it actually, as Brzezinski alleges, “contributed significantly to the general mess we now have in the Middle East”?
Let’s look at the Middle East as it is today. Here is a partial catalog of phenomena that plausibly illustrate the idea that the Middle East is a “general mess”:
1. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear program. Jewish settlements did not provoke Iranian leaders to build the infrastructure of a nuclear weapons program. Regional ambitions, fear of American domination, a desire to counterbalance Saudi Arabia and opposition to Israel’s existence (as opposed to its settlement policy) have all contributed to Iran’s nuclear policy decision making.
2. The broad anger directed at the U.S. by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. Though these governments pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, the source of their current anger with the U.S. stems from the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate with Iran.
3. The Syrian civil war, in which more than 100,000 people have died so far. The Syrian cataclysm does not appear to be traceable to Israel’s West Bank settlement policy or Obama’s failure to challenge it.
4. The regionwide schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims, which manifests itself in violence and disorder, not only in Syria, but also in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and, beyond the Middle East, in Pakistan. This schism does not seem to be caused by settlements.
5. The slow-motion collapse, amid horrendous violence, of Iraq as a unitary state. A settlement freeze on the West Bank will not stop the dissolution of Iraq.
6. Continued political instability and violence in Egypt. Tensions among Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers, advocates of liberalism and the Egyptian military would not be ameliorated by a settlement freeze. The overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak was not prompted by Obama’s failure to confront settlements. Nor was the subsequent coup launched against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi triggered by settlements.
7. Libya’s descent into gangsterism and chaos. The civil war that led to the ouster and death of Muammar Qaddafi was not caused by settlements. Nor was the fatal attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. It is difficult to imagine how a settlement freeze on the West Bank would stabilize Libya.
8. The proliferation, from Somalia to Yemen to Syria to Pakistan, of al-Qaeda-affiliated and -inspired groups. Settlements have not “contributed significantly” to persistent al-Qaeda activity. It could be argued that the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East is one of several sources of anger for al-Qaeda sympathizers, but a settlement freeze, as opposed to the elimination of Israel as a country, would not affect the views of radical Sunni terrorists. It could also be argued that the annihilation of Israel would empower radical terrorists by making them believe that they were one step closer to the establishment of a global caliphate.
9. Pathological misogyny that impoverishes the lives of millions and weakens countries that would otherwise be able to tap into the brainpower of their women. A settlement freeze would not lead to the widespread liberation of women.
10. The persecution of Christians in a dozen countries across the Muslim world, which will eventually lead to the elimination of these ancient communities. This persecution was not caused by Netanyahu’s recalcitrance on settlements.
And so on. I’ve neglected to mention such issues as literacy, water shortages, corruption, education stagnation, torture and the suppression of free speech, all of which contribute to general instability in the Middle East. The willingness of esteemed foreign-policy thinkers such as Brzezinski to scapegoat the Jewish state for problems it did not cause is myopic and dangerous.