The Middle East continues to produce more news than can be consumed locally, and not all of it bad. However, a new low was marked with the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — on the eve of the seventieth anniversary of the Palestinian nakba (catastrophe). There wasn't the least attempt at sophisticated P.R. to make this American show more palatable for an international audience. The product was being marketed to certain political players: a handful of American billionaires and the president's "base." The split-screen juxtaposition of symbols was chilling: a blonde, beaming young American woman acting out the equivalent of "Let them eat cake!" on one side, and on the other a chaotic scene of human sacrifice — staggering Palestinians being tear-gassed and gunned down in the dirt by live ammo (61 killed, 2,700 wounded). You could almost smell the burning tires. Prayers were offered up by two Evangelical pastors notorious for their bigotry. No one appeared to be ashamed.
There was better news from Iraq. For the first time in decades, it seemed that nationality could be replacing sect as the primary political identifier. But then reality asserted itself, though not quite so shockingly as in the U.S. poll of November 2016. The major U.S. media had picked the party of incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to win, chalking it up to his outreach to Sunnis. However, he came in fifth overall and third in Baghdad. The kingmaker now is Muqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist firebrand who for the past decade has kept his distance from both the United States and Iran. Iraq is not simply falling in line behind the Shiite "wise judge" next door; it has its own political and religious traditions, holy places and revered leaders. Furthermore, despite the wholesale destruction of the country during the neo-con fever dream of 2003 on trumped-up (sorry!) charges of WMD possession and fraternizing with terrorists, Iraq has not fractured into three pieces. It's too soon to erase the 1916 Sykes-Picot lines dividing up Mesopotamia. Next door in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has apparently been reaching out to the Shiite population, as part of his reform program and his need to counter Iran in the Eastern Province, with its Shiite majority. The crown prince was quoted in an interview with The Atlantic asserting that "Saudi Arabia [is] home to both Sunnis and Shiites."
The bad news is that regional stability has been dealt a severe blow from Donald Trump's theatrical and self-harming withdrawal of the United States from President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. The P5+1 have become the P4+1. Our former partners— the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia plus Germany (and the EU) — are still hanging together, but our president has dragged his fellow citizens off into isolation while waiting for a response from the other side. Apparently he missed last year's Churchill movie, The Darkest Hour, in which Sir Winston galvanizes his despairing people into standing up to the enemy and rallying around the flag. Trump has made our allies' lives harder too, and they are unlikely to forget his disregard of our common interests — as well as common sense. They will, no doubt, work with Iran in various ways to prevent full repercussions from the Trump executive order, and the United States will be the ultimate loser.
Israel is perhaps alone in its eagerness for the United States to forcibly regime-change Tehran. But many enthusiasts from the Bush-Cheney years, John Bolton first among them, are back in power and acting as if they are spoiling for a fight. Not to be outdone, the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is on record as promising "to bring the swagger back to the State Department." Now might be an appropriate time to recall the second thoughts of some in the high echelons of the foreign-policy establishment who were so hot for the Iraq War in 2003, explained here by Leslie Gelb, famed editor of The New York Times and long-serving president of the Council on Foreign Relations. I keep it in a picture frame on my desk, photocopied from the article "Mission Unaccomplished" in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas (summer 2009):
"An Establishment Mea Culpa: My initial support for the [Iraq] war was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign-policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility. We "experts" have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we "perfect" the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common — often wrong — wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less."
By "disposition" he may mean thinking that credibility is everything, more important than victory. Better to commit tens of thousands of other people's lives and children than not to enter the fray. That's the word, from Pericles (fifth century BCE) to Lyndon Johnson. Not surprisingly, one of the pundits who flogged the Iraq War the hardest, Kenneth Pollack, is back, having apparently learned nothing — except that big and presumably avoidable mistakes in execution were made 15 years ago. History never actually repeats itself, and no one can predict the future, but the chance for a do-over is irresistible when circumstances seem to offer one up. Dick Cheney, Bush II's vice president in 2003, was hoping to revise the ending of the 1991 Kuwait war, when he was serving as Bush I's secretary of defense and his boss refused to push on to Baghdad to finish off Saddam. People often can't seem to help themselves, drinking the same old Kool-Aid together, as Col. Pat Lang reminds us in an update of his Middle East Policy article published just before the 2003 debacle (turcopolier.typepad.com).
There is never a Plan B — to answer the question, "and then what?" — though that criticism of Trump's shredding of the JCPOA has been mentioned by many analysts. There was no real Plan A worthy of the name. Trump had made a campaign promise to nullify Barack Obama's greatest foreign-policy achievement, out of what appears to be a combination of envy and racism. This was heavily inflected with instructions from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel lobby — Iran and Hezbollah being threats to Israel's regional hegemony. The Lobby has fractured somewhat, of course, and hope is in the air for more truth-telling than usual. A great deal of courage will have to be mustered on the matter of who owns U.S. foreign policy, how much it is worth, and to whom. These questions have loomed over our political system for far longer than the novelty of Russian influence.