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Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Hamas Victory

In "Elections and Democracy" on December 3, I suggested that elections can heighten civil conflict as well as moderate it. That has now happened not only in Iraq, but also in Palestine, where the militant, fundamentalist organization Hamas has won a remarkable victory in elections, leaving the Administration's policy of "democratic peace" looking increasingly shakey, to say the least.

We must not focus, however, on the Administration's discomfiture. While our leadership has been forming its vision of the Middle East nearly out of whole cloth, Hamas's victory, combined with developments in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and elsewhere, is really the next step in a process that has been going on for about thirty years and is nowhere near its climax. And not only the Administration, but the entire western world, seems unable to grasp it or to cope with it.

The Middle East since the Second World War has been ruled by a mixture of regimes. The Egyptian Republic, the intermittent democracy in Lebanon, and Kingdom of Jordan and the Ba'athist regimes that eventually seized power in Syria and Iraq were relatively secular and westernized--if one is honest enough to acknowledge totalitarianism, as represented by the Ba'ath party, as a western invention. They initially benefitted from the glow of independence. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states remained traditional monarchies, and Iran passed from a relatively western state with a functioning parliament to a western-oriented monarchy as a result of an Anglo-American coup in 1953. All these regimes were authoritarian. Egypt, Syria and Iraq became Soviet clients at various times, but Egypt became pro-western in the 1970s. None of them, except Lebanon, developed functioning democracies, and Lebanon's died in a bloody civil war in the 1970s. (It has revived recently.)

Most of these states have either disappeared or weakened. Iran, of course, fell to the first great Islamic revolution in 1979, and has sponsored the growth of fundamentalism, as well as terrorism, ever since. Fundamentalists assassinated Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1981, but his successor Hosni Mubarak has successfully, if brutally, coped with the terrorist movement at home. The Muslim brotherhood, however, scored impressive gains in recent elections there. The American invasion destroyed Saddam's regime in Iraq, which now seems likely to fragment into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center, and a Shi'ite south closely allied to Iran. The Saudi monarchy has remained the chief sponsor of Sunni fundamentalism--the Wahabist movement--while remaining, in theory at least, an American ally.

As states decline, new movements emerge to challenge them, just as nationalist, liberal and socialist movements challenged the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires a century ago. To me--and I have no training as a Middle Eastern scholar--it appears that the major emerging movements all over the region are fundamentalist and terrorist, including the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood, the Sunni movement Hamas (founded in 1988), and the Shi'ite movement Hizbollah, which now has members in the Lebanese candidate after doing well in recent Lebanese elections. The latter two movements are particularly interesting, from what I can make out, because in addition to carrying out terrorist acts, they have spent a great deal of time and money organizaing and providing educational and social services to the people whom they hope to recruit. They have, in short, been winning hearts and minds.

The current US government seems conviced that a silent majority of Muslims wants to live in secular, modern states. Paul Wolfowitz, in a notorious quote, assumed that no Muslim woman would want to live under theocracy, and that some of the men wouldn't either. Recent events, including the elections in Iraq and Palestine, have not revealed any pro-western political movement that remotely compares in strength to our fundamentalist adversaries. The trends are running in their favor.

It behooves us to ask why. Certainly the corruption, repression, and immutability of existing governments is one major reason. A second is the belief, among many sincere Islamic believers, that western influence corrupts their faith. (This should not surprise us, since millions of fundamentalist Americans believe the same thing, and their political strength has been increasing as well.) And a third is the inability of Arab governments to prevent the continuing spread of Israel which, rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of Arabs deeply resent. That, of course, is why western governments, including the EU and the United States, have tried so hard to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians with the help of cooperative Palestinian leadership.

This has, in turn, created further problems. The United States and the EU have handsomely subsidized their Arab clients, including the Egyptians, who have received $2-3 billion in aid annually since making peace with Israel in 1978, and the Palestinian authority. After the Oslo agreements Washington and the Europeans assumed that Yasir Arafat might become a responsible partner for peace, but in 2000 he either would not or could not accept the best deal he was ever likely to get, and he resumed armed struggle. This led President Bush to decide to abandon him in 2002-3, and after Arafat's death Washington adopted his long-time colleague Abu Mazen. He, too, continued receiving large European and American subsidies, but he could not persuade Israel to halt settlement expansion or release prisoners.

In early 2005 President Bush repeatedly said that a new book, The Case of Democracy, by Russian refusenik-turned-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, summed up his own thinking about international politics. Sharansky's basic points are straightforward: the trouble in the world comes from "fear-based" regimes, which oppress their people and cause trouble abroad to distract them. Only the unreserved support of liberty for all peoples can be the foundation of real peace. Sharansky criticized the President's father for having tried to hold the Soviet Union together during his Administration (and the current President was reportedly surprised to learn that Sharansky was still in contact with his father more recently.) Sharansky blamed continuing Palestinian resistance on Yasir Arafat's corrupt and authoritarian rule, and lauded President Bush for cutting him loose in 2002 and calling on the Palestinians to elect new leadership committed to peace. (Sharansky left the Israeli government last summer in disagreement over the decision to pull out from Gaza.)

Given Sharansky's influence, it behooves us to look at what he actually proposed both directly to the Bush Administration and in his book. His proposal, he says, "called for the establishment of an interim Palestinian Administration which would be chosen by a coordinating body headed by the United States. The interim administration, which would not include those who were directly or indirectly responsible for terror, would be responsible for running the lives of the Palesinians in the areas underits control (only external security would remain in Israel's hands) and would work over a transition period of at least three years to develop the Palestinians' civil society and democratic institutions. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of political, social and religious organization would be guaranteed and educational programs encouraging terror would be replaced by programs that promote peace. Economic assistance would be made conditional on maintaining these freedoms and changing the educational programs. . . After three years, free elections would be held and the government of Israel and the elected representatives of the Palestinians would negotiate a permanent peace."

To Sharanksy's regret, the Administration didn't go nearly that far--it simply adopted Abu Mazen as its new client and placed its hopes upon him and upon Palestinian elections. Abu Mazen became the new President partly because the most popular alternative candidate, Marwan Bargouti--now in jail in Israel for life--was dissuaded from taking part. Now, however, even after the Israeli withdrawal fromt he Gaza strip, Abu Mazen and his whole Fatah party have been decisively defeated by Hamas.

Sharansky's own proposal makes me scratch my head, since it assumes that the Palestinian people, who have seen themselves as refugees for nearly 60 years and have been occupied for nearly 40, are simply malleable clay that can be remolded into good citizens in just a few years by leaders chosen by the US. Unfortunately, the whole Administration project of democratizing the region is essentially the same plan on an enormous scale. What the Palestinian and Iraqi elections suggest to me, however, is that no leader seen as an American client can win widespread popular following in the current Middle East, and that the American policies of the last five years have made the situation worse, not better. "Moral clarity" is a two-edged sword, and I suspect that the Palestinian majority that elected Hamas felt that they were voting for "moral clarity" as well. Gush Enumin, the militant Israeli settlers who regard it as disobedience to the Lord to withdraw from one inch of Biblical Israel also believe in moral clarity. The victory of Hamas seems to leave both the US and the EU without much of a policy for settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. We shall see its impact upon Israeli politics in the months to come.

The first sign of the impact of democracy in the Middle East emerged in 1992, when fundamentalist parties won a majority in Algeria. The Algerian military, backed by both France and the US, staged a coup to prevent them taking power and another ciivl war began. Now the Administration and the Europeans are talking about cutting off funding to any Hamas government that does not change its positions and accept Israel's right to exist. I do not see how such episodes can do anything but persuade the Middle East that the US sees democracy as a means of rewarding those peoples willing to do our bidding, rather than an attempt for Arab peoples to make their actual beliefs known.

While Americans--including most of our leadership class--have only taken the growth of Islamic fundamentalism seriously since 2001, it has been going on for at least four decades. We may actually have accelerated the disintegration of the old order, but it was probably doomed. What we now face, as we did in the 1930s and again in the late 1940s, is the spread of a hostile ideology. This ideology, unlike those, does not directly threaten the heart of western civilization--which in my opinion is where our focus should once again return. We can survive some triumphs on its part as we survivived nearly 75 years of Communism. But the United States is not yet intellectually equipped to do so; from one end of the political spectrum to the other we seem to believe in a short-term happy ending in the Middle East. I fear we may only make things even worse until we can accept the limitations upon our power and prepare to secure, rather than expand, the frontiers of our civilization. This is no betrayal of democracy of our heritage, merely a recognition that the spread of our principles will be an intermittent and always impartial process, combined, perhaps, with the reflection that American democracy has generally been truer to its self when it has alternative outcomes against which it can be measured.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Munich

It's a banner season for movies. Good Night and Good Luck,, Match Point, and Brokeback Mountain are all noteworthy events, though I was deeply disappointed by the decision not to release the new All the King's Men, which looked as if it might actually do justice to one of the greatest political novels ever written. (The casting of Anthony Hopkins as Judge Irwin, a key character who was essentially left out of the original movie, was a tip-off.) But today I'm going to discuss the most controversial, though not perhaps the best, of the new crop, Munich, which had set off a violent controversy on the op-ed pages even before it had opened. Three prominent journalists, indeed, singled it out for special opprobrium: Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post, and David Brooks of the New York Times. Each of their attacks raises some revealing points--as does the movie, which seems based on my experience to be too painful for very many people even to acknowledge its obvious message. (Readers like myself who do not like to know much about a film before they see it, and who intend to see this one, must, alas, defer reading this post--and particularly the final paragraph.)Wieseltier's, Krauthammer's and Brooks's pieces are on line at http://www.jewishworldreview.com/1205/munich.php3, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/
2006/01/12/AR2006011201541.html, and http://select.nytimes.com/2005/12/11/opinion/11brooks.html--the latter requiring a Times select subscription.

Wieseltier's argument is straightforward: the movie is guilty of the sin of "equivalence." Its Israelis--Mossad agents dispatched to kill the perpetrators of the 1972 Olympic massacre--are as ruthless as the Palestinian terrorists, and their victims include some innocents. For Palestinians, he argues, killing innocents is actually a conscious strategy, while for Israelis it is unfortunate collateral damage. (He acknowledges, however, that more innocent Palestinians than Israelis have died during the Intifada.) He argues that the Palestinian agents are portrayed in more humanity than the Israelis--something I did not see in the movie that I watched, which included long conversations between the Israeli hero and his wife, his mother, and his friends and collaborators on all sorts of topics, while the Palestinians (with one exception) make only the briefest appearance. And Wieseltier raises--but certainly doesn't fully develop--the issue of the justice of the creation of Israel in 1948. The Israeli characters in the film, he rightly notes, justify its creation based on necessity--the world needed an enduring refuge for Jews. That actually has been the argument of many Zionists from the beginning and continues to be today. "The necessity of a Jewish State," a recent publication of the Israel Project (a non-profit group devoted to enhancing Israel's image, whose board of advisers includes sixteen Senators and Congressmen), "can only be explained by reviewing the prevalence of anti-Semitism around the world and across the decades." Wieseltier rejects this explanation as inadequate, but he doesn't offer another one.

Charles Krauthammer does. Israel, he points out--rightly--was not simply a response to the Holocaust--the modern Zionist movement had emerged and began sending settlers to and buying land in the Holy Land more than one hundred years ago. Zionists had "fought for" and secured the Balfour declaration in 1917. But he goes much further than that:

"But the Jewish claim is far more ancient. If the Jews were just seeking a nice refuge, why did they choose the malarial swamps and barren sand dunes of 19th-century Palestine? Because Israel was their ancestral home, site of the first two Jewish commonwealths for a thousand years -- long before Arabs, long before Islam, long before the Holocaust. The Roman destructions of 70 A.D and 135 A.D. extinguished Jewish independence but never the Jewish claim and vow to return home. The Jews' miraculous return 2,000 years later was tragic because others had settled in the land and had a legitimate competing claim. Which is why Jews have for three generations offered to partition the house. The Arab response in every generation has been rejection, war and terrorism."

Krauthammer has the self-righteousness of his generation and mine, but this critical paragraph raises two enormous questions. To begin with, it must be obvious that any attempt to redistribute the world's land based upon where various tribes were living 2500 years ago would be, to say the least, chaotic. Surely he does not want to give the United States back to the tribes that inhabited it then, or restrict Great Britain to pure Anglo-Saxons without a trace of Roman, Danish or French blood? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of something much larger, the never-ending struggle of different populations to occupy the same pieces of land. There is none who is righteous, no, not one, in the world's long history of struggles for territory, and thus Israelis can certainly claim with some accuracy that what they have done is not different, for example, from what white Americans did to the Indians. But no one but a devout believer in the Old Testament, it seems to me, can be expected to take the Lord's award of Israel to the Jewish people several Millennia ago seriously as a blueprint for today's map, and Israel must recognize (as most Israelis surely do) that they cannot expect the rest of the world to accept such claims at face value. As for Israeli offers to partition the territory, recent scholarship has shown, alas, that things are not so simple. Ben Gurion and the original generation of Israeli leaders accepted partition in 1948 as a tactical maneuver and always intended to expand the original frontiers, as eventually they did. (This is the conclusion not only of even-handed Israeli historians like Benny Morris, but also of sympathetic outsiders like Conor Cruise O'Brien--because the evidence for it is overwhelming.) And since 1967, Israeli society and Israeli governments have remained ambivalent about surrendering any of the West Bank for good. Ehud Barak did make a very generous offer in 2000. Because Yasir Arafat did not have the will or the courage to accept it, we did not find out whether Barak would have had the political strength actually to make such sweeping concessions. Certainly a strong, vocal and aroused minority of Israelis still wants to hold on to the entire West Bank, and now we will never know whether even Ariel Sharon would have been able to risk it. One of his closest aides, Dov Weisglass, admitted last year that the purpose of the Gaza disengagement was to take the pressure off of Israel to make a broader deal. Israel, he said, had promised to talk seriously about peace with the Palestinians "when they become Finns," which, based on the projections of Hamas gains in new elections, does not seem to be happening.

The movie, alas, made Krauthammer so angry that he apparently couldn't see straight. He refers to one episode as the murder of an innocent Dutch prostitute designed, in his eyes, to show what merciless killers the Israelis are. In fact, the woman was obviously directly implicated in the murder of an Israeli agent--indeed, it is explicitly stated in the book upon which the movie is based that she killed him herself. The movie at least implied as much.

David Brooks, in my opinion, portrayed the movie more accurately than Wieseltier or Krauthammer. It is, he said, the story of an endless cycle of violence for which there is no solution. Brooks states a different view--the problem in the Middle East is Islamic radicals who will never accept Israel, and if enough of them can be arrested or killed--and he praises the Israelis for relying increasingly upon arrests, while ignoring their increased reliance on targeted killings of exactly the kind that the movie portrays--Palestinians and Israelis will live side by side in peace. The Palestinians, he suggests, will be rewarded for renouncing violence. We can all decide whether history suggests that will, in fact, happen.

Brooks's column was noteworthy for another reason--he quoted Spielberg saying that, in his view, the only solution is peace talks that last until a solution is reached. Spielberg may believe this but I certainly couldn't see that in the movie. The movie told me that there was no solution--that, as the hero says, the two sides have embarked upon an endless cycle of retaliatory killings. One can reach that conclusion independently of any opinion of the basic rights and wrongs of the conflict, and I regret to say that I share it. Where that leaves us is a judgment mainly for Israelis and Palestinians to make. In killing each other for the same piece of land, they are playing out one of the oldest dramas in history. The recent example of Yugoslavia shows how hard it is to put some quarrels to rest. The United States at least has a Constitution that allows all religions and ethnicities to live together as citizens, and that remains, in my opinion at least, a huge step forward, however imperfect its application.

(Spoiler--end of movie.)

Krauthammer touches a real nerve at the end of his polemic, when he highlights the message of the hero's decision to abandon Mossad and settle in Brooklyn--that perhaps the attempt to maintain Israel is in itself morally compromising. That is a judgment for Israelis to make. As an American, I feel my own country's main responsibility for the conflict goes back to the immediate postwar period, when we were not willing to welcome every holocaust survivor to the United States, should they have chosen to come. Benny Morris is right--there isn't any moral difference, really, between Zionism and the settlement of North America by Europeans, and we Americans are simply lucky that our greatest crimes took place centuries ago. But Spielberg has the last word, in the final, chilling shot of the movie--a conversation on a Brooklyn hill between the hero and his controller, with the World Trade towers in the background. Because of the United States' own involvement in the Middle East, we have now been drawn directly into the blood feud and have begun our own cycle of revenge and retaliation. And eventually, Americans will have to ask themselves whether we have any stake in the region that really makes this worth it.

p.s. Having made this post, I went to my mailbox and found the new issue of the New York Review of Books, which includes a somewhat similar (but in many ways edgier) piece by Henry Siegman, a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former executive head of the American Jewish Congress. Unfortunately, for the time being it is available only to subscribers to the electronic edition.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Information Warfare again

The following remarkable exchange took place at today's White House Press briefing. Scott McClellan had begun the session by explaining that the Treasury Department had just frozen the assets of a Syrian security chief whom the government believes has helped support terrorism. A few minutes later, he was questioned.

Q. There are allegations that we send people to Syria to be tortured.

MR. McCLELLAN: To Syria?

Q Yes. You've never heard of any allegation like that?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I've never heard that one. That's a new one.

Q To Syria? You haven't heard that?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's a new one.

Q Well, I can assure you it's been well-publicized.

MR. McCLELLAN: By bloggers?

As a matter of fact, the New Yorker last February published the story of Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer of Syrian origin who was detained at a New York airport in 2002 and, he says, flown to Jordan and driven immediately to Syria, where he was tortured extensively, held for an entire year, and released after the Canadian government interceded on his behalf. The Syrian Ambassador announced in Washington that his government had found no link between Arar and terrorism. Arar has filed suit against the United States. (The original New YOrker article, which essentially broke the story of our rendition program, is at http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?050214fa_fact6.) And last March, the New York Times reported that the government claimed that Arar was deported to Syria, not rendered for torture, because of accusations that he was linked to Al-Queda. That McClellan could tell the White House press that he knows nothing about such an allegation seems rather extraordinary, and I hope that some reporter will raise the matter again soon.

On another front, in Britain, two men have been charged for leaking the memo of a conversation between President Bush and Tony Blair in 2004, in which the President allegedly suggested bombing the Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. Al-Jazeera has filed a freedom of information suit in Britain asking for the relevant portion of the transript. The suit is not likely to be successful, but I am sad that they, rather than an American news organization, have had to file it. Even though the charges filed by the British government certainly tend to show that the story was true--since one cannot be charged under the Official Secrets Act unless one leaks secret information--the American press has essentially ignored the story, which, even if the President was speaking in jest, strikes me as worth pursuing. In Britain, the Guardian has published two stories (on January 10 and 11) indicating that the men who had the document gave it to John Kerry supporter during the 2004 campaign, but that no one dared publish it. The Guardian stories, including quotes from a solicitor who has now seen the document, suggest that the story was indeed correct, and that there is an excellent chance the document will be released as part of the proceedings. That would force American media to pay a little attention.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Truth and Illusion in the Middle East

I did not anticipate when I began this blog that Iraq would feature so prominently in it, but as the crisis there continues, it behooves us all to do what we can to learn more both about Iraq and the whole region which we are now committed, in theory at least, to transform. Over the holidays I read two interesting books on the subject--See No Evil by the retired CIA Agent Robert Baer, and Richard Clarke's new novel, The Scorpion's Gate (not to be confused with George Packer's nonfiction work of the same name which I reviewed here some time ago.) They are different kinds of books, but they left me some very important insights into the region that is now our main focus, and into the gulf between the realities of that region and the image of it upon which our policies are based.

Baer joined the CIA in the 1970s and left in the 1990s, and the movie Syriana identifies it as its source. The movie, however--although a respectable attempt to make sense of what is happening in the Middle East--has very little to do with the book. Baer was stationed in the Middle East in the 1980s, and he became obsessed with unraveling the mystery of who had bombed the American Embassy in Lebanon in 1983, which killed a number of prominent CIA agents. (This was some months before the more famous suicide bombing that killed several hundred Marines.) In particular, he became interested in the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO, which had claimed responsibility for the bombing.

To make a very long and very complicated story very short, Baer gradually came convinced that IJO never really existed--that it was a front for the Iranian intelligence service Pasdaran, which had essentially opened a campaign against American and western influence against western influence in the Middle East within a few years of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Their more obvious instrument for the last twenty years as been the organization Hizbollah, which has built up a significant following in various parts of the world by combining Shi'ite indoctrination with the provision of education and social services. But the Iranians have also made alliances across religious lines, most notably, Baer argues, with Yasser Arafat, who, according to Baer, met the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and subsequently put his whole terrorist network at his disposal. The Iranians, of course, were behind the kidnappings of various Americans in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, and benefited directly from them thanks to the generosity of the Reagan White House and its attempts to ransom them. And although he cannot prove it, Baer also believes the Iranians were behind the bombing of Pan Am 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988--partly because a CIA agent named Chuck McKee, who had supervised Baer's work in Beirut, was on the plane.

The American public has remained somewhat uncomfortable over intelligence operations for the last half century or so because of the lying they involve. From the founding of the Republic we have wanted to believe that we could carry out government, diplomacy and war honestly, without deception, since we stand for democracy and the rights of others. Despite the hypocrisy which these views inevitably involve, since we are, after all, human beings, these are still national strengths which we should try to maintain. What concerned me as I read Baer's book, however, was that these views leave us totally unprepared to deal with a region where no one trusts anyone, where deception is away of life, and where every alliance is temporary. To cite merely one of our many problems, we do not seem to understand that both a terrorist act and a bogus attribution of the responsibility for it are used by terrorist to further their objections. Our default procedure for dealing with any area of the world is to identify the good and bad guys, and adopt the former. But as Ben Stiller said to Bill Pullman in the wonderful film The Zero Effect, here there are no good guys and bad guys. There are just a bunch of guys, bound together by little or nothing except an intense dislike for the United States, its ally Israel, and virtually everything that Washington stands for. (The Israeli government, by the way, understands all this very well, but I am not sure of how much effort it has made to educate its ally the United States.) The Administration's basic principles for the war on terror--that any regime that has supported terrorists must go, that he who is not with us is against us, and that the cure for the ills of the Middle East is its transformation into a series of modern western societies--appeal instinctively to the American people, but they seem to have virtually no relationship to the realities of the region.

And thus, as both Baer and Clarke document at length, successive American Administrations have failed again and again to distinguish between greater and lesser threats and to understand the real consequences of their actions. The Reagan Administration, while attempting to overthrow Muammar Qadaffi, apparently didn't realize that the most prominent Libyan dissidents had close ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which had assassinated Anwar Sadat, and would probably impose some form of Islamic Republic in Libya should they come to power. The late Hafiz Al-Asad of Syria, whose son neoconservatives now dream of overthrowing, had struggled for years against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood--a struggle which involved the almost entire destruction of the Syrian town of Hama in 1982. It was the Syrian regime, with our blessing, that finally intervened in Lebanon, brought the civil war there to an end, and enabled the Lebanese people to begin living relatively normal lives beginning in the late 1980s. Now we have triumphantly forced the Syrians out of Lebanon, but it is far from clear that what comes next will be better either for the Lebanese or for us.

Both Baer's and Clarke's books lead inescapably to the conclusion that our two biggest failings--never more apparent than in the last five years--have been, first, not to recognize secular Arab regimes as our most important allies against fundamentalist terrorism, and secondly, not to recognize that Iran remains the most serious long-term threat to our interests in the region. To be sure, governments like the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq--not to mention the Saudis--have aided various groups in a number of different ways at various times, because in their environment, just as among Mario Puzo's five Mafia families of New York, such temporary alliances are a way of life. Yet such governments would not tolerate fundamentalist terrorism within their own states, and their removal, as we have now seen in Iraq, is very likely to increase it. And meanwhile, such Sunni governments have all faced a long-term threat from the growing Shi'ite population in the area. Many warned that in Iraq, the alternative to Saddam or to a neo-Ba'athist regime under more respectable leadership might be an Iranian-allied Shi'ite state run by militias and fundamentalists. That is now coming to pass.

Baer and Clarke repeatedly show tremendous frustration with the inability of successive Administrations to grasp these facts. Baer experienced first hand the extraordinary power of Oliver North, who actually believed that he could outwit the various Middle Eastern players and who convinced his superiors that he could do so. (The Iran-Contra affair also suggested that the CIA, at that time at least, had not given up the fantasy that Iran was somehow destined to become an American ally once again.) It becomes more and more apparent every month that the Administration only sold the war on Iraq by ignoring almost everything that professionals at the CIA and State Departments had to say, not only about the issue of WMD in Iraq, but, more critically, about the consequences such an invasion was likely to have. Professional opinion had to be ignored, because it would inevitably contradict neoconservative fantasies--fed with respect to Iraq by Ahmed Chalabi, who is himself suspected by many of connections to Iranian intelligence. (It is not inconceivable that we shall eventually discover that Iran played an important role in convincing the United States to remove Saddam Hussein.) Clarke's book is a novel set a couple of years in the future, at which time the United States has been invited out of Iraq by the new Shi'ite government--a prospect which I regard as very likely myself--and a fundamentalist revolution has overthrown the House of Saud, renaming the Kingdom Ismaliyah. In his book, Secretary of Defense Conrad--a very recognizable Donald Rumsfeld--and his ethnically transformed Undersecretary, Lawrence Kashigian, are plotting to return the Saudis to power in an alliance with Iran, which plans to gobble up the rest of the Gulf states in the process. Fortunately, a conspiracy of heroic British and American intelligence officers and sensible Saudi revolutionaries saves the day. Baer's and Clarke's focus on Iran should give many Americans pause, and indeed, Clarke's first book Against All Enemies, seemed to indicate that Clarke, although violently critical of the decision to invade Iraq, would not have opposed a war with Iran at the proper time. Such a war, however, would have required a truly enormous coalition of allies and the support of the EU, Russia, and China. That would not be forthcoming now.

Although Clarke ritually denies any factual basis for his characters, no one is going to be fooled, especially regarding the two whom I have already identified. Clarke goes even further, suggesting, in essence, that leading American figures have been so deeply identified and actively interested in the fortunes of the House of Saud for so long that they cannot imagine a world without it in power. And this leads me, as it did to Clarke, to the heart of the matter. Our dependence on Middle Eastern oil has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into a region which simply does not share our values, and which has become increasingly alienated from us both as a result of the impact of petrodollars and because of our polices during the last forty years. Only one solution remains--a real national effort to cut petroleum consumption, develop alternative energy sources, and reduce the importance of the Middle East both in our region and in the world. The hero of Clarke's book, ironically, is a western-educated Saudi doctor who persuades his militant brother to found an institute for alternative energy in Saudi Arabia, because he realizes his country cannot survive the consequences of having the world's greatest petroleum reserves. But as Vice President Cheney has made clear from the very first months of the Bush Administration, our current leadership is far too closely associated with the oil industry ever to begin thinking seriously along these lines.

In this regard, however, the Administration is not alone. I am not aware of any elected official of either party who has bluntly suggested that our whole involvement in the Middle East is simply encouraging trends hostile to us and that disengagement and alternative energy sources are the only solutions. We have not shaken the idea that the end of the Cold War must mean the worldwide spread of American values. But those values, even at their best, represent only certain aspects of human nature--and ironically, they seem more likely to thrive more here at home in a world where the alternatives survive to remind us of our best role.

Stereo 411