What’s in store for the Middle East after Iraq?
Israeli historian Benny Morris is famous in his country for reopening the forgotten history of the expulsion of the Palestinians during the 1948 “war of independence” and deconstructing the Israeli myth that they freely chose to abandon their homes.
By five years ago, however, he had lost faith in a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians and was openly saying everybody would have been better off in the long run if one side or the other had won a decisive victory in 1948.
If Israel had conquered all of Palestine and expelled all the Palestinians in 1948, Morris wrote, “today’s Middle East would be a healthier, less violent place, with a Jewish state between Jordan and the Mediterranean and a Palestinian Arab state in Transjordan. Alternatively, Arab success in the 1948 war, with the Jews driven into the sea, would have obtained the same, historically calming result. Perhaps it was the very indecisiveness of the geographical and demographic outcome of 1948 that underlies the persisting tragedy of Palestine.”
Well, of course, but most outcomes are indecisive. Like many knowledgeable people in the Middle East, Morris’s mood was strikingly pessimistic even before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but five years later the mood is darker still.
Beyond forecasts of civil war in Iraq, however, there has been little effort to discern what the Middle East will actually look like after the U.S. troops go home.
There is already a civil war in Iraq, and it might even get worse for a time after American troops leave, but these things always sputter out in the end.
There will still be an Iraqi state, plus or minus Kurdistan, and regardless of whether or not the central government in Baghdad exercises real control over the Sunni-majority areas between Baghdad, Mosul and the Syrian border.
The Sunni Arab parts of Iraq have been turned into a training ground for Islamist extremists from all parts of the Arab world by the American invasion.
Once the American troops are gone, however, the action will soon move elsewhere, for the U.S. defeat in Iraq has dramatically raised the prestige of Islamist revolutionaries throughout the Arab world and beyond.
It’s not possible to predict which Arab states will fall under Islamist control, and they certainly aren’t all going to: the pipe-dream of a world-spanning Islamic empire remains precisely that.
But it will be astonishing if one or more of the existing Arab regimes does not fall to an Islamist revolution in the next few years.
For the citizens of the country or countries in question, that could be quite a big problem, since it would probably mean not democracy and prosperity, but just more decades of poverty and a different kind of tyranny. For people living outside the Middle East, however, it would probably make little difference.
Islamist-ruled states are not the same as bands of freelance fanatics. If they have oil to export, then they will go on exporting it, because no major oil producer can do without the income those exports provide; they need it to feed their people.
And they would have little incentive to sponsor terrorist attacks outside the region, for they would have fixed addresses, and interests to protect.
For Israel, however, the situation has changed fundamentally. For the first 20 years of its existence, Israel was a state under siege. For the past 40 years, since the conquests of 1967, it has had the luxury of debating with itself how much of those conquered lands it should return to the Arabs in return for a permanent peace settlement. (The answer was always “all of them,” but that was not an answer many Israelis would hear.)
Now the window is closing. Before long, some of the Arab states that Israel needs to make peace with are likely to fall to Islamist regimes that have an ideological commitment to its destruction. (Hamas’s capture of the Gaza Strip is a foretaste of what is to come.) Israelis trying to evade hard choices have long complained that they had “nobody to negotiate with.” It is about to become true.
Israel faces another generation of confrontation and quite possibly of war, and the Palestinians face another generation of military occupation.
Significant chunks of the Arab world face Islamist revolutions that would bring more poverty and a new kind of oppression.
It is a mess, and it’s too late to fix it.