Fifteen years ago, after the first defeat of Saddam Hussein and the liberation of Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker faced the question of how best to exploit the American victory as a means of stabilizing the Middle East. The obvious course would have been to deploy the immensely enhanced prestige of the United States, backed by its unprecedented military presence in the Persian Gulf, to help create new and durable security structures in a region regarded as vital to American national interests.
How might this have been done? The U.S. could have urged its Arab allies to introduce long-overdue reforms as a step toward legitimizing their regimes and broadening their domestic political support. At the very least, the U.S. might have urged the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council to end their decades of intramural feuding and forge a broader alliance with Jordan and Egypt. This, with American support, might have helped create a new balance of power in the region to counter the ambitions of adventurist regimes like Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
But nothing of the sort was ever considered in Washington. Instead, as Baker declared in September 1991, the administration would go for "the big thing": that is, finding a solution to the century-old conflict between the Jews and the Arabs. The result was the Madrid conference, an impressive show of heads of state but, as the decade's subsequent events would prove, a wholly counterproductive exercise in peacemaking.
The two key analytical assumptions that led to Madrid were, first, that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the issue, the Ur-issue, of Middle Eastern politics and, second, that all the other issues in the region were inextricably linked to it. Despite everything that has happened in the interim to disprove these two assumptions, they still underlie the thinking of diplomats today. Most recently, they were repeated almost word for word in the long-awaited report of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) headed by the very same James Baker.
Charged by the present Bush administration with finding ways to win the war in Iraq more quickly and at a lower cost in blood and treasure, the ISG found itself irresistibly drawn to the old notion of the Ur-issue. Evidently regarding the Bush Doctrine, with its diametrically opposed analysis, as too irrelevant even to merit mention, the ISG suggested instead that "solving" the Israel-Palestine dispute was the key to winning in Iraq.
In this, moreover, Baker and his team are hardly alone. Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, has long been of the same mind. So too, apparently, is his successor Ban Ki-Moon, who told a South Korean newspaper that "If the issues in the conflict between Israel and Palestine [sic] go well, other issues in the Middle East . . . are likely to follow suit."
That Arab despots should long have sought to divert their tyrannized subjects with dreams of driving the "Zionist enemy" into the sea is no surprise. Each time the late Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt faced social and political unrest at home, he would assure his own people and the Arab "nation" at large that social and political reform had to wait until "the enemy" was dislodged from "our beloved Palestine." For a group of American "wise men" to embrace such retrograde and easily refuted notions bespeaks a truly dangerous ignorance of reality.
In fact, far from being the root cause of instability and war in the wider Middle East, one could argue that the Arab-Israeli conflict is rather peripheral, and that the region's deeper and much more intractable problems lie elsewhere. And one would be right. In the last years we have all become acquainted with televised images of the brutal carnage that Shiites and Sunni are capable of inflicting on each other in Iraq, the ghastly work of Baathist death squads, the steady rhythm of political assassinations, and the laying waste of civilian life. And that is just within one country. For our purposes here, however, it may be more instructive to look at the Middle East at the regional level, and to examine in particular the huge number of inter-state conflicts that have bedeviled this area in the modern era—conflicts that have nothing whatsoever to do with the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
Covering a vast swath of territory between the Atlantic and Indian oceans, the "arc of crisis," as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has accurately referred to the greater Middle East, consists of 22 states, sixteen of them Arab, plus Iran, Israel, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Few could be regarded as nation-states in classical European terms; all are remnants of various empires.
As such remnants, indeed, none of the states in the region enjoys fully defined or internationally recognized borders. Every one of them is engaged in pressing irredentist claims of one kind or another against one or more of its neighbors, and most have entered into armed battle with each other as a consequence. A brief tour of the region, proceeding roughly from east to west, yields a depressingly uniform catalog.
Afghanistan, to begin there, maintains a claim over neighboring Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. This is the home of the Pathans, whose Pushtun kin form the largest ethnic bloc north of the colonial border fixed by Britain in the 19th century. In the 1960's, the two neighbors fought a series of border wars over this province, which the Afghans call Pakhtunistan.
For its part, Pakistan has been engaged in a longstanding territorial dispute with India over the ownership of Kashmir, divided between the two in 1947 (with China snatching a portion for itself in 1960). The Indo-Pakistani conflict has led to three major wars and countless border clashes over the past half-century, and in part accounts for the determination of the two neighbors to develop their respective arsenals of nuclear weapons.
Pakistan is involved in a dispute with Iran as well—this one over territorial waters in the Arabian Sea as well as over the nationality of a number of Baluch tribes astraddle the international frontier. Iran, in turn, claims a right of supervision (droit de regard) in western Afghanistan based on the Paris Treaty of 1855. Iran and Afghanistan have likewise been in militant dispute for more than six decades over the waters of three border rivers, the Hirmand, the Parian, and the Harirud.
Then, on a much larger scale, there is the Iran-Iraq conflict. Between 1936 and 1974, these two neighbors fought a series of wars for control of the Shatt al-Arab border estuary. In 1975, they signed an accord to end the dispute, only to see the agreement declared null and void by Saddam Hussein in 1980. Invading Iran, he started a conflict that lasted eight years and claimed a million lives on both sides.
Since 2003, Iran has seized the opportunity presented by the fall of Saddam Hussein to redraw the border to its advantage. Iranian forces have gained control of Zaynalkosh, a strategic salient pointing to Baghdad like a gun. Iran has also revived a series of old accords with the former Ottoman empire, known as the Erzerum treaties, to claim a right of supervision over the Shiite holy shrines in present-day Iraq (Samara, Kazemayn, Karbala, Kufa, and Najaf).
Iran is in disputes elsewhere as well. To the south, it is trying to retain its hold over three strategically valuable islands near the Straits of Hormuz, through which passes each day half of the world's exported oil. Iran seized these islands from Great Britain in 1971, just hours before the British ended their protectorate over the seven sheikhdoms that together form the United Arab Emirates (UAE). To its north, Iran is fighting with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Azerbaijan over the Caspian Sea. These littoral neighbors want the territorial waters divided in accordance with the respective lengths of the five countries' coastlines, leaving Iran with only 10 percent of the sea's oil, gas, and fishing resources. Iran wants the Caspian to be divided equally among the five, thus doubling its share to 20 percent. Ever since 1995, it has taken action to underline its demands, creating a navy and preventing Western oil companies from exploring in Azerbaijani and Turkmen waters that Tehran regards as its own.
Iran has also acted to ensure its hold over the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, the object of a pan-Arab campaign to claim the region as part of the "Arab homeland." This territory, which did indeed boast an ethnic Arab majority until the late 1940's, has been steadily Persianized. Recently, in what amounts to an administrative ethnic cleansing, several Arab tribes living in areas close to the Iraqi border have been expelled, their members replaced by new arrivals, mostly from central Iran.