As the United States public settles into debates on the economy and health care, foreign policy and the “wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq fade from public consciousness. Yet there are still soldiers over there, civilians are still being killed in the conflicts, and the future is uncertain. Ultimately, solving these problems will be necessary to assure that the 21st century is stable and relatively peaceful.
Israel and Palestine: If only this could be settled, things would be a lot easier. It appears on the surface that settlement should be easy. The Israelis cannot push the Arabs into the desert, and the Arabs cannot push the Jews into the sea. An secure viable Israel must exist alongside a secure viable Palestine. Just as the Arabs can no longer claim Jews there are mostly “European colonists” trying to steal their land, the Israelis cannot deny Palestinian identity and say they are just Arabs who could live elsewhere. The two peoples have linked destinies.
Yet the kind of commonsensical solution that seems so obvious to a neutral observer has proven virtually impossible to achieve. Israel correctly fears that extremist elements could use a Palestinian state to continue a war against Israel, and the Palestinians correctly resent and want to end decades of humiliation and mistreatment at the hands of the Israelis. Both sides see clearly their side of the issue and feel righteous; neither side has been able to adequately empathize with the other. I think some top politicians understand, but publics are fickle and easily manipulated, especially when their emotions are played.
Iranian regional ambitions. Iran, buoyed by the fact the US military has proven relatively weak in the region, and that the American public does not want any more war, has set its sights on becoming a regional central Asian power. Iran fancies itself as a major player between China and Russia in the region, with global import due to the world addiction to oil. To secure its position, however, Iran must confront numerous threats. First, there is American and EU opposition to Iran’s regime and its effort to expand its military might and potentially develop nuclear missiles. Second there is the geopolitical rivalry against more powerful states, Russia and China. Third, Iran’s regime is feared by Sunni Arab states who see the Shi’ite Persian Iran as a threat. Finally, Iran’s influence will be limited by the rule Pakistan can play in the region, and however the Afghan situation develops. Iran is the natural regional power, but faces intense rivalries and threats.
Iraq: The failure of the US to turn Iraq into a pro-American ally has been key to Iran’s power play. Once it became obvious the US could not pay the price it would take to dominate Iraq and subdue it, Iran slowly infiltrated all levels of Iraqi government and is very close to the current government of PM Maliki. The Saudis and their allies would have no problem giving some support to al qaeda elements and Sunni Bathists to try to undermine the pro-Iranian Iraqi government and shift it to one more neutral. Whatever one thinks of the old Hussein Bathist regime in Iraq, it was part of a stable regional balance of power. Shifting Iraq to the Shi’ites and making it a defacto Iranian ally has been destabilizing.
Oil: Of course, all of this might be easy to ignore if not for oil. China and Russia each see it in their interest to woe rather than work against Iran. China wants access to Iranian oil, Russia fears a Chinese-Iranian alliance. They also do not want American or western military action to expand in the region, because of the threat that might pose to their oil interests. This gives Iran some cover as it pursues its goals. As the planet runs shorter on oil, the price and regional geopolitical stakes will rise. Iran knows that if it is to be a true regional power, a real player in future global battles over oil reserves, it has to position itself now. That brings us back to Israel and Palestine.
Terrorism: One way Iran can counter the Sunni Arab efforts to limit its power is to emerge as a dominant force supporting the Palestinians against Israel. That has emotional appeal in Arab lands, and could create chaos in the region which Iran might ultimately see in its favor. Iran has supported Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite organization ironically created in the early eighties in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Iran has tried to make inroads with the Sunni Hamas organization, and is on good terms with the Syrian government. Syria’s leadership is Shi’ite, though the public is overwhelmingly Sunni. Syria is not a loyal ally of Iran, and even Hezbollah has shown it refuses to be simply an Iranian proxy, but Iran has positioned itself to benefit from on going tension between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Since the Hezbollah-Israeli war in the summer of 2006, the prospect of a joint Hamas and Hezbollah uprising against Israel, funded and supported by Iran and Syria, has been the nightmare of Israeli officials. The power of these organizations has also helped marginalize Palestinian moderates who truly want to find a path to peaceful co-existence. Fear, of course, inspires nationalists, and the right wing in Israel has used this to drum up support for anti-Arab sentiment. This creates a powder keg waiting for a spark.
Right now, no state benefits from war. Israel realizes that its ability to truly ‘defang’ Iran is limited, and worries that if they start a war, Hezbollah and Hamas will be able to respond effectively. The US simply wants to leave Iraq, and the Obama Administration hopes to be leaving Afghanistan by 2012 — they know the American people are sick of war. Iran wants to be a regional power, but knows its vulnerabilities. A real war could mean the end of the Iranian regime, and they understand that. The Sunni Arab states essentially want stability with the oil states hoping to milk their oil reserves for all they’re worth.
The wild cards are the terror organizations and oil. Lacking a geographical center, terror groups have less to lose if things get out of control, and they often are motivated by emotional extremism rather than rational self-interest. But that can be overstated. Many terror leaders are very comfortable running something that is akin to an organized criminal organization — they do not want to risk their power for a quixotic cause.
If peak oil theory is correct and oil resources start running low once the world economy starts growing again, there will be an increased threat of oil wars. States like the US, Russia and China could be involved directly, or through proxies. Such a situation could escalate quickly. Word is that Vice President Cheney wanted to attack Russian forces during the 2008 Georgian war. That was rejected because it could have expanded into a broader war whose limits could not be predicted. The same could happen if larger states, driven by the need for oil, are willing to risk military action.
The failure of the US operation in Iraq has shown the world how difficult it is to use military power to try to shape the region. It should make it less likely that larger states will think it easy to achieve interests int he region through war. The success of Hezbollah in 2006 makes an Israeli offensive less likely, especially against Iran. The cost to Hezbollah of that success, however, makes Hezbollah less willing to risk all out conflict. Given the loses they suffered, their ‘success’ was in some ways pyrrhic.
Still, however much we shift focus to domestic affairs, and however likely it appears that Obama will successfully end the US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2012, the Mideast is still a dangerous place, and an even minor event could unleash a chain of reactions that lead to major war.