This post appeared yesterday on the website of The Weekly Standard. I wrote it not out of a deep conviction about the Chuck Hagel nomination per se, but because I have an abiding interest the magical mindset behind the notion of linkage (see my piece “The Myth of Linkage,” 2008). Hagel seemed to be the absolutely perfect exemplar of linkage-think, so this proved irresistible. My modest hope is that a senator will pick up on the subject during Hagel’s confirmation hearing, and we will gain some insight into the metastasis of an idea.
Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel is President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense. Much has already been said about the pros and cons of the nomination, and much more will be said during confirmation hearings in the Senate. Here is one possible line of questioning: given the centrality of the Middle East in U.S. military planning, how does Hagel think the region works? If the United States has limited resources, and must apportion them judiciously, where is it best advised to invest them?
Hagel has a view of this, expressed on numerous occasions. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core problem of the Middle East. Until it is resolved, it will be impossible to make progress in treating any of the region’s other pathologies. Hagel claims to have reached this conclusion by talking with leaders of the Middle East. He’s just repeating what they tell him, he has said. So it’s interesting to go back and see just what they did tell him—an exercise made feasible via WikiLeaks. (If you belong to that class of persons who have to avert their eyes from WikiLeaks, don’t follow the links and take my word.)
The Core Conflict
But first, let’s look at how Hagel thinks the Middle East works. In 2002, he put it this way:
The Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be separated from America’s foreign policy. Actions in the Middle East have immense consequences for our other policies and interests in the world. We are limited in dealing with other conflicts until this conflict is on a path to resolution. America’s policy and role in the Middle East, and the perception of our policies and role across the globe, affects our policies and interests in Afghanistan, South Asia, Indonesia, and all parts of the world.
This is a broad exposition of the idea of “linkage,” which might best be described as a Middle Eastern domino theory. The assumption is that in places as far afield as Afghanistan and Indonesia, people are so preoccupied with the fate of the Palestinians that they cannot see the United States (which supports Israel) as a friend. These millions of people have their own conflicts that impact U.S. interests, but they won’t respond to American efforts to resolve them, unless the United States conjures up something for the Palestinians first. Often this claim is made regarding the Arabs. Hagel effectively extended it to the entire Muslim world.
The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict. The failure to address this root cause will allow Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorists to continue to sustain popular Muslim and Arab support—a dynamic that continues to undermine America’s standing in the region and the Governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others, whose support is critical for any Middle East resolution.
The vocabulary here—”core,” “root cause,” “underlying”—is taken from the standard linkage lexicon, which elevates the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a preeminent status, above all others. It is this conflict, practically alone, that prompts the rise of terrorists, weakens friendly governments, and makes it impossible for the United States to win Arabs and Muslims over to the good cause. That same year, he again described the “underlying” Arab-Israeli conflict as the “core” of the region’s maladies:
In the Middle East, the core of instability and conflict is the underlying Arab-Israeli problem. Progress on Middle East peace does not ensure stability in Iraq. But, for the Arab world, the issue of Middle East peace is inextricably, emotionally and psychologically linked with all other issues. Until the United States helps lead a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there will be no prospect for broader Middle East peace and stability.
In 2008, Hagel developed this into a full-blown “ripple” theory, in a passage in his book, America: Our Next Chapter (p. 82). There he wrote that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
cannot be looked at in isolation. Like a stone dropped into a placid lake, its ripples extend out farther and farther. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon feel the effects most noticeably. Farther still, Afghanistan and Pakistan; anything that impacts their political stability also affects the two emerging economic superpowers, India and China.
The notion that the greater Middle East would be a “placid lake” were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be regarded as extreme, even for someone in the grip of linkage fever. But Hagel, doubling down, extended the conflict’s baleful influence even beyond the world of the Arabs and South Asian Islam, suggesting that it “affects” India and China in a detrimental way, although he didn’t explain how.
That same year, Hagel made the most far-reaching claim for linkage. By this time, Americans knew considerably more about the complexities of the Middle East than they had known in 2002. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had demonstrated the salience of deep conflicts that defined the politics of the region, and that went back in time before there was an Israel. The great Sunni-Shiite divide, the region-wide Kurdish question, the rivalries of tribes, the chasm between rulers and ruled—all were sources of conflict and instability with long and autonomous histories. That’s what makes Hagel’s 2008 statement so striking: he was clearly aware that the linkage thesis looked shakier than ever, but he dug in his heels anyway:
The strategic epicenter of the Middle East [is] the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Why do I say that more than any other reason? It is the one issue, the one issue alone, the Israeli-Palestinian issue alone. Fixing that alone is not going to fix every problem in the Middle East. We understand that. We have religious hatred. We have centuries of it. We have regional, tribal issues. Yes, all complicated. But that one issue, the Israeli-Palestinian issue shapes almost every other issue, not just the optics of it, but the reality of it. It is allowed to—as it plays itself out to dominate relationships, to dominate the people who would like a different kind of world. I know that there is a lot made on the issue of—well it’s important, but it certainly doesn’t affect everything. It does.
In this remark, Hagel was clearly struggling to force all of the new and “complicated” American knowledge about the Middle East into his old template. He knew that his linkage thesis looked less plausible than it once did. How exactly could the Israeli-Palestinian issue “affect everything” and “shape almost every other issue,” not just the “optics” but the “reality”? Hagel couldn’t say how, except to assert that “it does.”
But Hagel, knowing his bald assertion might seem dubious, did something new. He invoked the authority of Middle Eastern leaders:
I don’t know any other way to gauge this, than you go out and listen to the leaders. You listen to Jewish leaders, and you listen to Arab leaders. You sit down with all the leaders with all those countries, and I have many times, different leaders, and they will take you right back to the same issue. Right back to this issue. Now I am not an expert on anything, and I’m certainly not an expert on the Middle East. Most of the people in this room, especially those that were on the panels tonight know a lot more about this issue than I do. But I do listen. I do observe. I am somewhat informed. That informs me that when the people of the Middle East themselves tell me that this issue has to be dealt with or there will not be a resolution to any other issue in the Middle East.
No other issue in the entire Middle East can be resolved until Israel and the Palestinians deal with theirs: this was Hagel’s long-standing belief, now placed in the mouths of authoritative interlocutors, those Middle Eastern leaders he met on his travels, and who always took him “right back to this issue.”
Meeting Arabs and Jews
On the face of it, this is a plausible assertion. It is often said that Arab leaders never miss an opportunity to browbeat American officials over U.S. neglect of the Palestinians. A senior American diplomatic once made this complaint: “Every American ambassador in the region knows that official meetings with Arab leaders start with the obligatory half-hour lecture on the Palestinian question. If we could dispense with that half-hour and get down to our other business, we might actually be able to get something done.”
But are these the sorts of discussions that Hagel had with Arab leaders? We don’t have a record of all his meetings with them, but we have several accounts, via WikiLeaks. These seem to contradict Hagel’s own assertion that his Arab interlocutors always came “right back to this issue.” In fact, it was usually the third or fourth item on the agenda, sometimes raised not by Arab leaders but by visiting Americans. Arab leaders who met Hagel expressed a very wide range of concerns, usually focused on Iran and Iraq. (There is one important exception, to which I’ll come in a moment.) Here are the publicly documented instances, from his trips to the region between 2004 and 2008:
On December 1, 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan had lunch in Amman with Hagel (as well as Senators Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein, and Linc Chafee). The account may not be complete, but the discussion as reported focused only on Iraq and the “negative role” of Iran. King Abdullah, looking ahead to Iraqi elections in January, “worried that elections held without credible Sunni participation could lead to cantonization or civil war,” and opined that Iraqi Shiites were loyal to Iran, not Iraq. “The King painted a picture of a monolithic Shia Arab/Iranian threat to Jordan and Israel if they ‘take over’ southern Iraq.” (A few days later, King Abdullah said much the same in an interview with The Washington Post, coining the phrase “Shiite crescent” to describe the menace.)
On December 4, 2004, the Crown Prince of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, received Hagel, Feinstein, and Chafee. The conversation also focused on impending elections in Iraq, which the Bahrainis feared might be captured by “radical elements.” Later, Feinstein raised the Israeli-Palestinian issue, urging Bahrain and Gulf governments to “speak out on the need for a two-state solution in Palestine in order to ostracize extremists on both sides and bring the Arab media on board.” Sheikh Salman gently deflected this, suggesting that the United States, “even if politically difficult, must engage in a public discourse that demonstrates that the goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East includes Palestinians as well.” So it wasn’t the Arab ruler who “came back to the issue,” but a peace-process-fixated American senator—an effort artfully foiled by Sheikh Salman.
A meeting in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah on November 29, 2005 was dominated again by Iran and Iraq. (Attending: Hagel, Senator Tom Carper and Representative Ellen Tauscher.) The monarch, still in his “Shiite crescent” mode, expressed his fear that Iran would establish its dominance over Iraq: “If this influence was not checked, he warned, it could lead to effective Iranian rule of southern Iraq, and to an even more active and dangerous Hizballah in Lebanon.” King Abdullah’s second concern: Syria, where he speculated that too much pressure on the Assad regime could lead to a “possible takeover of the country by the Muslim Brotherhood”—which, “the king warned, would be very negative for both Syria and the region.” Israel and the Palestinians? This figured as the third item on the agenda. In this case, Abdullah didn’t “warn” about anything, but simply highlighted Jordan’s commitment to train and reform Palestinian security forces, Jordan’s interest in more economic cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and a vague hope that there might be an “increased dynamism” in Israel, as a result of changes in the Labor Party.
Hagel (and Carper and Tauscher) met with Saudi King Abdullah, then-Crown Prince Sultan, and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, in Riyadh on November 30, 2005. (Pictured above: Hagel and the king.) Again, the top agenda issues were Iraq followed by Iran. Hagel would later go on the record as opposing the 2007 “surge” in Iraq (“the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”). But in 2005, when Hagel asked the Saudis about a U.S. troop withdrawal, King Abdullah “urged the U.S. not to withdraw forces or lose focus until Iraq was stabilized,” and the Saudi foreign minister added that “the U.S. should consider increasing troop levels in the short term to ensure the political process concludes successfully.” Only after a lengthy discussion of Iran did they get on to Israel and the Palestinians. Prince Sultan explained the various Saudi peace proposals, and praised Israel’s then-prime minister Ariel Sharon as “a clever and courageous man” who might “move in a direction which serves Israel and the Israeli people.” (This section of the dispatch carried the headline: “Sharon as Peacemaker: Saudis Surprisingly Pragmatic.”) Hagel later would claim that lack of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “undermines” the Saudi (and other pro-American) governments. But he didn’t hear that from the Saudis, who in their 2005 meeting with him treated the issue as a mid-level priority.
On December 4, 2005, Hagel (accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Egypt) met with Egyptian President Mubarak in Cairo. At the top of the agenda: the threat posed by the prospect of Shiite ascendency in Iraq. “In Mubarak’s view, the Shi’a were extremely difficult to deal with and given to deception,” and they represented a potential Iranian fifth column in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other Gulf states. Second: Syria, where he advised the United States to “avoid stating publicly that it sought ‘regime change.’” It was Hagel who raised the Palestinian-Israel issue, thanking Egypt for supporting the peace process. Mubarak responded by calling Ariel Sharon, “a strong leader, the strongest since Begin,” and he went on to blame Syria’s late leader, Hafez Assad, for failing to reach a peace deal with Yitzhak Rabin. Mubarak then circled back to “the untrustworthiness and duplicity of the regime in Tehran,” with illustrative examples. In this conversation, it was Hagel, not Mubarak, who had “come right back” to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
On May 31, 2007, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora received Hagel (as well as Senators Patrick Leahy, Thad Cochran, Ken Salazar, Ben Cardin, and Representative Peter Welch). The prime minister dwelt at length on the UN resolution establishing the Hariri tribunal (it “meant the end of an era of impunity for assassins and Lebanon would now never turn back”). He then gave a detailed preview of the army’s plan to crush the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam, holed up in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Barid near Tripoli. Siniora did urge the United States to persuade Israel to open talks based on the Saudi peace initiative. If the opportunity were missed, “it would give considerable momentum to extremists in the region and all that entailed.”
On July 20, 2008, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah, received Hagel (as well as Senator Barack Obama). The conversation focused Iraq, oil prices, and Aljazeera. Israel and the Palestinians weren’t discussed.
So in none of these meetings was there a preliminary half-hour lecture on Palestine. In most of them, the threat posed by Iran loomed larger than any angst over the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Looking back at these meetings in 2008, Hagel claimed that “the people of the Middle East themselves tell me that this issue has to be dealt with or there will not be a resolution to any other issue in the Middle East.” In none of these meetings did any Arab leader tell Hagel any such thing.
Hagel didn’t just claim to get the linkage message from Arab leaders. “You listen to Jewish leaders, and you listen to Arab leaders.” By “Jewish,” he must have meant Israeli (an elision he has made elsewhere, in his well-known reference to the “Jewish lobby”). Hagel has met many Israelis, and only he and they know what they told him. But on at least one occasion, he heard one of them brusquely dismiss the linkage argument. Hagel (and Senator Biden) met with then-prime minister Ariel Sharon in December 2004, and one of the Americans in the delegation (unnamed in the dispatch) had the temerity to suggest that “progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace would have a dramatic impact on ending regional and international terrorism. Sharon quickly stated that Israel should not be held responsible for terrorism, asserting that it was the target of terror even prior to June 1967. It was not correct to believe that terror would disappear if the Israeli-Palestinian dispute were solved. The only thing that Israel was ‘responsible’ for, he maintained, was defending its people.” If “Jewish leaders” told Hagel anything that reinforced his thesis, Ariel Sharon definitely was not among them.
Neither was his successor, Ehud Olmert, who told Hagel (and several other senators) in May 2007 that Arab fear of Iran had created a situation where, “for the first time, we are not enemy number one.” On that same visit, then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni told the senatorial delegation that “there was a new understanding in the region that the Iranian threat is an ‘existential’ one and has become more significant than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Abdullah of Jordan: Linkage Man
In Hagel’s meetings (as revealed in the WikiLeaks sample), there is one exception—one meeting in which an Arab leader said something approximating what Hagel claimed they all told him. In Hagel’s meetings with King Abdullah in 2004 and 2005, he heard little about the Palestinians, and a lot about the “Shiite crescent” and a possible Iranian takeover of southern Iraq. But in a meeting in Amman in May 2007 with Hagel (plus Leahy, Cochran, Salazar, Cardin, and Welch), the Jordanian monarch did a turnaround. King Abdullah “highlighted his view that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the key issue facing Jordan and the region.” He claimed that “within as little as one and a half years the opportunity for a two-state solution may be lost.” Jordanian then-foreign minister Abdelelah al-Khatib told the visiting senators that “lack of progress on peace was undermining efforts on other issues such as stabilizing Iraq, Lebanon, and isolating Syria and Iran.”
Why did King Abdullah change his tune? Thanks to the U.S. “surge” in Iraq, he’d come to believe that Iran had been checked. In June 2008, Lally Weymouth interviewed him for The Washington Post. “I remember a couple of years ago, you warned against the danger posed by Iran to moderate Arab regimes,” she told him. “Do you view Iran as the number one threat in this region?” King Abdullah: “I think the lack of peace [between Israel and the Palestinians] is the major threat. I don’t see the ability of creating a two-state solution beyond 2008, 2009. I think this is really the last chance. If this fails, I think this is going to be the major threat for the Middle East.” Weymouth: “But aren’t you concerned that Iran is a threat both to your country and to other countries in the region?” Abdullah: “Iran poses issues to certain countries, although I have noticed over the past month or so that the dynamics have changed quite dramatically, and for the first time I think maybe I can say that Iran is less of a threat. But if the peace process doesn’t move forward, then I think that extremism will continue to advance over the moderate stands that a lot of countries take.”
So Jordan’s King Abdullah became the linkage lead man, and it’s not difficult to see why. Jordan is the Arab state that sits astride the West Bank, that has a Palestinian majority, and that shares the longest border with Israel. Were things to go very wrong between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank, Jordan would be the first to feel it. So it is Jordan’s national interest to elevate Israeli-Palestinian peace to preeminence. In particular circumstances, such as the Iraq war, it will strike other chords. But its default position is to declare, always with urgency, that the sky is about to fall on Israelis and Palestinians, that the world must act now to prevent that, and that a Palestinian state will help solve every problem, everywhere. In that respect, Jordan is unique in the Arab world.
And King Abdullah of Jordan seems to have been the only Arab leader whose message strictly conformed to Hagel’s idée fixe about linkage. This would become significant in July 2008, when candidate Barack Obama set off for the Middle East, accompanied by Hagel (and Senator Jack Reed). This visit has been described as “an intense bonding experience” between Hagel and Obama, in which they “delved deeply into policy discussions—’wonkfests,’ as one former aide called them.” The swing included a stop in Amman. (King Abdullah returned from Aspen to be there, and at the end of the visit, he personally drove Obama to the airport like the regular guy he is.) We don’t have a leaked record of the king’s meeting with the delegation. But the press statement issued by the royal palace reported that the king stressed to Obama “that ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and achieving a just settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict tops the priorities of the people of the Middle East.” The king’s view of how linkage actually operated came through in Obama’s own account, in a press interview:
I think King, King Abdullah is as savvy an analyst of the region and player in the region as, as there is, one of the points that he made and I think a lot of people made, is that we’ve got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that all these issues are connected. If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.
It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.
So Obama, under the combined influence of Hagel and Abdullah, became a convert to linkage. It was this notion that propelled the Obama administration, from its very first day, into a flurry of efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The very urgency with which this campaign was launched may have been its undoing, producing the “self-inflicted wound” of the U.S. demand for an Israeli settlement freeze. Hagel wasn’t implicated in that decision. The linkage mindset was.
A Dangerous Notion
It could do still more damage. Linkage-think can lead to panicked overreaction whenever Israelis and Arabs do exchange blows, as they occasionally do. In the summer of 2006, when Israel and Hezbollah fought another round (not their first and probably not their last), Hagel had just such a seizure:
I think it is so serious now, I think we are at the most dangerous time maybe we have seen ever in the Middle East with all the combustible elements… The president needs to get seriously engaged now. If we do not do that now at this moment, and I mean this moment, then the possibility of this escalating into a Middle East catastrophe, which would drag in all nations of the world, if for no other reason than just the energy dynamic here. The ramifications, the significance of all of this is astounding once you start to chart it out.
“The most dangerous time ever,” “catastrophe,” “drag in all nations of the world,” “astounding”—there is not a sentence here (even an incomplete one) that isn’t a model of apocalyptic hyperbole, more evocative of an end-time preacher than a U.S. senator. Linkage, like any domino theory, inflates events way out of their true proportion. Israel’s mini-wars aren’t preludes to Armageddon, and one would hate for a U.S. secretary of defense to think they were.
And linkage mania is a standing temptation to an open-ended intervention of the kind Hagel is supposed to abhor. Hagel signed his name (with other “realists”) to a 2009 paper warning the new President Obama that the “last chance” for a two-state solution could be lost in “six to twelve months.” The paper proposed deployment of a UN-mandated, U.S.-led NATO force (plus Egyptians and Jordanians) to the West Bank for five to fifteen years, to assume security responsibilities. The United States has always been steadfast in resisting proposals to put U.S. troops between Israelis and Palestinians, for fear of not ever being able to extricate them. A 2010 NATO-published planning paper concluded that “NATO’s mission in Palestine would have slim chances of success, and a high probability of failure…. It seems irresponsible to hasten NATO into a mission that has all the ingredients to turn into a quagmire that equals the Alliance’s involvement in Afghanistan.” Hagel would consider taking that plunge.
Of course, if you believe that the future of America and all humankind hinges on urgent creation of a Palestinian state, you might favor such a risky intervention. But does it? That would be a great question to pose to Chuck Hagel when he comes up for confirmation.
The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has just published its fifth long-term prognostication, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. This is an officially sponsored guessing game, but much of what government does has long lead times, so long-term projections need to be made by somebody.
By their nature, these hedged predictions say as much about present politics as future probabilities. One prediction (p. 71) is particularly striking, touching as it does on the drivers of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world:
Although al-Qa’ida and others have focused on the United States [as] a clear enemy, the appeal of the United States as the “great enemy” is declining. The impending withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and decreases in US forces in Afghanistan help to reduce the extent to which terrorists can draw on the United States as a lightning rod for anger. Soon, US support for Israel could be the last remaining major focus of Muslim anger.
It’s a peculiar assessment. After all, when al-Qa’ida attacked the United States on 9/11, there were no US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. The 9/11 attacks undoubtedly did resonate in the Muslim world, and that couldn’t have been the result of an American boots-on-the-ground presence in the region. So what drove anti-Americanism back then? Is there a suggestion here that US support for Israel was already the “major focus”? What about American support for authoritarian regimes? We are told again and again how deeply Muslims have resented such support, and they could resent it even more in 2030, should the oil-saturated monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf last that long.
And what happened to the assessments in past reports, which cited “globalization” as the source of Muslim anger against the West in general, and the United States in particular? The report issued in 2000, anticipating 2015, offered this: “Popular resentment of globalization as a Western intrusion will be widespread. Political Islam in various forms will be an attractive alternative for millions of Muslims throughout the region, and some radical variants will continue to be divisive social and political forces.” Right on the mark, as evidenced by events unfolding before our eyes. Why isn’t such “intrusion” likely to continue to inflame the Muslim world?
Such resentment has a long history, and so does its neglect by Western analysts. The British historian Arnold Toynbee, in his 1922 book The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilisations, offered a striking allegory to illustrate the West’s effect upon the East:
Savages are distressed at the waning of the moon and attempt to counteract it by magical remedies. They do not realise that the shadow which creeps forward till it blots out all but a fragment of the shining disc, is cast by their world. In much the same way we civilised people of the West glance with pity or contempt at our non-Western contemporaries lying under the shadow of some stronger power, which seems to paralyse their energies by depriving them of light. Generally we are too deeply engrossed in our own business to look closer, and we pass by on the other side—conjecturing (if our curiosity is sufficiently aroused to demand an explanation) that the shadow which oppresses these sickly forms is the ghost of their own past. Yet if we paused to examine that dim gigantic overshadowing figure standing, apparently unconscious, with its back to its victims, we should be startled to find that its features are ours…
It is difficult for us to realise the profound influence on the East which we actually, though unconsciously, exercise… and the relationship described in my allegory cannot permanently continue. Either the overshadowing figure must turn its head, perceive the harm that unintentionally it has been doing, and move out of the light; or its victims, after vain attempts to arouse its attention and request it to change its posture, must stagger to their feet and stab it in the back.
The attacks of 9/11 were just such a stab in the back, and the confusion that ensued over Muslim enthusiasm for them arose precisely from America’s failure to grasp how thoroughly its revolutionary example undermines traditional orders everywhere. Where Toynbee erred, of course, was in his assumption that the West could simply “move out of the light,” thus liberating those in its shadow. No doubt there are still those who believe that if only we were to stand aside or step back, our profile would diminish, and with it the resentment against us. It was the historian and political thinker Elie Kedourie—a relentless critic of Toynbee as historian and seer—who added the necessary refinement.
In his view, the damaging effect of the West upon the East had nothing to do with what the West did. It was an inevitable effect of what the West was, and no amount of sidestepping or backtracking could mitigate the consequences. The West, Kedourie asserted, “cannot help being what it is. By the very fact of its existence, it was a destabilizing force for the Middle East.” And he employed a different allegory: “Someone who has influenza is not really responsible for the fact that someone else catches his disease.” The West could not be blamed for being what it is: the carrier of an aggressive virus that ravages all traditions.
So the suggestion in the NIC report, that Muslim anger against the United States might soon be reduced to a kernel of resentment over US support for Israel, is a species of wishful thinking. The United States will continue to infect the Muslim world, even if its willingness or ability to project hard power declines. The so-called “Arab Spring,” which is so often hailed as the product of indigenous processes, is in fact an inflammation produced by the most contagious of all viruses: the idea of freedom, now linked inseparably to American-style democracy. As long as Muslim societies remain internally divided over freedom and democracy, there will be governments and factions that will stoke hatred of America. In some places, American flags will be waved, but in others American embassies will be burned. In either case, the United States will be regarded, favorably or unfavorably, as the grinding wheel of change in the world.
There is another odd assertion in the report (p. 75):
Resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have dramatic consequences for the region over the next two decades. For Israel, a permanent resolution to the conflict could open the door to regional relationships unthinkable today. The end of Palestinian conflict would provide a strategic setback to Iran and its resistance camp and over time undermine public support for militant groups such as Hizballah and Hamas.
This is the myth of linkage, and it echoes almost precisely a claim made by President Obama when he was still a candidate in 2008. “All these issues are connected,” Obama said.
If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region.
This thesis (the theatrical NIC version reads like “New Middle East” circa 1995) seems less persuasive with each passing month, as many other “dramatic consequences” unfold, eclipsing or competing with the long-running Israel-Palestine show. The reassertion of linkage here is thoroughly political. It is not a measured assessment, but it is the sort of statement that stands a chance of being echoed by a high administration official, if not by the President himself. And it draws rebuttals from people like me—which helps to keep the NIC, a poor cousin to the agencies that deal in hard intelligence, in the limelight and on a budget line. After all, this was an agency that the Obama administration first thought to entrust to the ministrations of Chas Freeman (click here in case you’ve forgotten). That wasn’t exactly a token of high regard for the institution.
But if one really does believe in linkage, and in the “dramatic consequences” that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would have for the region, why not reverse it? If such an agreement promises to be so transformative, shouldn’t its pursuit justify delivering hammer blows to Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, to keep them from obstructing it? The linkage thesis has dual uses—and abuses—which make it the favorite concept behind all sorts of reductionist approaches to the Middle East. It’s a pity to see it surface in a report that pretends to nuance and sophistication.
In my earlier post on the myth of linkage, I brought a number of exemplary quotes from figures such as Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski to illustrate my point. Now another quote can be added to the collection—this one from Barack Obama, fresh from his quick tutorial in the Middle East:
I think King, King Abdullah [of Jordan] is as savvy an analyst of the region and player in the region as, as there is, one of the points that he made and I think a lot of people made, is that we’ve got to have an overarching strategy recognizing that all these issues are connected. If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process, then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan.
It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region. If we’ve gotten an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, maybe at the same time peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit, that makes it easier to isolate Iran so that they have a tougher time developing a nuclear weapon.
Thus is the myth of linkage perpetuated from generation unto generation. This same savvy King Abdullah, in a CNN interview the day after 9/11, offered up the ultimate linkage thesis, when asked whether the attacks would have happened if Israelis and Palestinians had reached a peace agreement at Camp David in July 2000:
I don’t believe so, because I think that if you had solved the problems of the Middle East, and obviously the core issue is that between the Israelis and Palestinians, I doubt very much that this incident would have taken place, and again, that was a reminder to all of us and why I think so many of us in the international community have been working so hard to bring a stop to the violence and bring people back to the peace process, because, in a vacuum, you do allow the extremists the upper hand and the chance to try things as what happened yesterday. And they will continue on trying until we can solve the problem once and for all.
Last September, when I arrived in Cambridge for my fall stay at Harvard, I opened the Boston Globe and saw this headline over an editorial: “The Other Middle East Conflict.” I immediately said to myself: well, I know what the Middle East conflict is—that’s the Israelis and the Palestinians. So what is the other Middle East conflict? But as I read through the first sentence, it became clear that I was totally wrong. The editorialist, or the headline writer, assumed that most readers would understand “the Middle East conflict” to be the war in Iraq. By the “other Middle East conflict,” it turned out, they meant the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which was the subject of the editorial.
I began to wonder whether typical students, in a classroom, would know what I was talking about if I started discussing “the Middle East conflict” without defining it. And if I defined it as Israel and the Palestinians, would I be showing my age?
It also reminded me of something else that had surprised me: a 2005 National Geographic survey of 18-to-24-year-olds, asking them to look at a blank map of the Middle East and locate Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. I would have guessed that Israel would have loomed largest on the mental maps of young Americans today.
I would have been wrong. 37 percent can identify Iraq and 37 percent can find Saudi Arabia—not high percentages overall. But even fewer, 26 percent, can identify Iran, and still fewer, 25 percent, can find Israel on a blank map. Perhaps it isn’t surprising when one recalls that war has cycled well over over a million Americans through Iraq and Afghanistan—as soldiers, administrators, and contractors. It was Ambrose Bierce who once said, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” Thanks to war, the Middle East of early 21st-century America has been re-centered—away from Israel and toward the Persian Gulf. That is where conflict commands American attention.
But not everyone thinks it should. The last time I counted papers at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference, about two years ago, there were 85 papers on Palestine-Israel, 30 on Iraq, 27 on Iran, and only 4 on Saudi Arabia. Here, too, the skewing is conflict-driven—that is, the judgment that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians should command American attention.
And it isn’t just the specialists. They would be seconded by Jimmy Carter, who was recently asked: “Is the Israel-Palestine conflict still the key to peace in the whole region? Is the linkage policy right?” Carter’s answer: “I don’t think it’s about a linkage policy, but a linkage fact…. Without doubt, the path to peace in the Middle East goes through Jerusalem.” Likewise, Zbigniew Brzezinski: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the single most combustible and galvanizing issue in the Arab world.”
This is obviously meaningless unless one has weighed all the other issues. Is it more combustible than the Kurdish question? Is it more galvanizing than Sunni-Shiite animosity? How would Brzezinski know if it were? I have broken down all Middle Eastern conflicts into nine clusters, and have appended them below. You decide.
But the bottom line is this: given so long a list, it is obvious that conflict involving Israel is not the longest, or the bloodiest, or the most widespread of the region’s conflicts. In large part, these many conflicts are symptoms of the same malaise: the absence of a Middle Eastern order, to replace the old Islamic and European empires. But they are independent symptoms; one conflict does not cause another, and its “resolution” cannot resolve another.
So the more interesting question is this: why is the idea of “linkage” so persistent in some quarters? Why are there still people who see one particular conflict as “the Middle East conflict,” and who believe that in seeking to resolve it, they are pursuing “the Middle East peace process”?
Some would answer this question by pointing to the world’s fascination with Israel. Unlike, say, the future of the Kurds, the future of Israel (and the Palestinians) fascinates the world. A conflict involving Jews, set in the Holy Land of Christianity and in a place of high significance to Islam, is destined to received more than its share of attention. There is also an illusion of familiarity with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No one beyond the specialists can spell out the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, or understand why the (Muslim) Sudanese government is persecuting the (Muslim) people of Darfur. But many people believe (usually wrongly) that they understand the core of the issue between Israel and the Palestinians.
Others might point to the West’s self-imposed obligation to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Europe, but to some extent also in America and even Israel, there is a perceived sense of guilt at having caused the conflict in the first place. There may be other conflicts that are more dangerous, but foreigners did not create the Arab-Persian or Shiite-Sunni conflicts, whereas the international community facilitated the creation of Israel and legitimated it by a U.N. resolution, along with a Palestinian state. Thus, many believe, the world has a special obligation to employ all means to bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians, by creating that Palestinian state.
Others might point to the fact that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and the leftover Israeli-Syrian conflict) still lies just around the corner, because it was once so tantalizingly close. All of the conflicts’ protagonists were regular guests in the White House and frequent guests of a succession of Secretaries of State. No one knows what it would take to end other conflicts, but there are “parameters” for ending this one. The United States theoretically has enough leverage on Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians, and if only it were prepared to use it, this conflict could be ended, along predictable lines.
All of these beliefs are widespread, and they explain why so much attention and effort have been lavished on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But they do not explain the belief in linkage. It is possible to be fascinated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, feel obligated to resolve it, and think it is relatively easy to resolve, and still not believe in linkage—that is, that the success of your efforts will bring a greater reward across the Middle East, or that an absence of progress will have grave consequences across the region.
The concept of linkage requires another belief: that the Middle East is a system, like Europe, and that its conflicts are related to one another.
Europe in modern times became a complex, interlocking system in which an event in one corner could set off a chain reaction. In Europe, local conflicts could escalate very rapidly into European conflicts (and ultimately, given Europe’s world dominance, into global conflicts). And Europe had a core problem: the conflict between Germany and France. Resolving it was a precondition for bringing peace to the entire continent. Churchill put his finger on this in 1946: “The first step in the re-creation of the European Family,” he said, “must be a partnership between France and Germany.”
Linkage, I propose—and this is my original thesis—is a projection of this memory of Europe’s re-creation onto the Middle East. The pacification of Europe was the signal achievement of the United States and its allies in the middle of the 20th century. It then became the prism through which the United States and Europe came to view the Middle East. From NATO to the European Union, from the reconstruction of Germany to Benelux, Europe’s experience has provided the template for visions of the future Middle East.
It was this mindset that led analysts and diplomats, for about three decades after the creation of Israel, to interpret Israel’s conflict with its neighbors as “the Middle East conflict.” Like the conflict between France and Germany, the Arab-Israeli conflict was understood to be the prime cause of general instability throughout the region, as evidenced by repeated Arab-Israeli wars, in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.
The flaws in the analogy only began to appear after Egypt and Israel achieved peace in 1979. From that point onward, the Arab-Israeli conflict moved in fits and starts toward resolution. Yet other conflicts in the region intensified. Large-scale wars erupted—not between Israel and its neighbors, but in the Persian Gulf, where a revolution in Iran, and the belligerence of Iraq, exacted a horrendous toll and required repeated U.S. interventions.
By any objective reading, the reality should have been clear: the Middle East is not analogous to Europe, it has multiple sources of conflict, and even as one conflict moves to resolution, another may be inflamed. This is because the Middle East is not a single system of interlocking parts. It is made up of smaller systems and distinct pieces, that function independently of one another.
The myth of “linkage” persists, then, because many observers cannot shed the analogy of the Middle East with Europe. A good case is Brzezinski, a man who did play a role in reconstructing Europe, and who has said: “The problems of the Middle East are conflated, and certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq are interactive. That’s absolutely a fundamental truth.” This is no more than a profession of faith, mere habit and analogy substituting for analysis. In what way are these problems conflated? How are they interactive? Brzezinski offers no substantiation at all.
The myth of linkage also persists because, paradoxically, the neo-conservatives embraced it. They, too, made extravagant claims about the likely effects of Iraq’s “liberation” from Saddam’s regime, which they understood as directly analogous to the destruction of Hitler’s dictatorship. Former CIA director James Woolsey, before the war, used precisely this analogy: “This could be a golden opportunity to begin to change the face of the Arab world. Just as what we did in Germany changed the face of Central and Eastern Europe, here we have got a golden chance.” But it may have been a realist, Henry Kissinger, who first claimed that “the road to Jerusalem will lead through Baghdad”—that victory over Iraq would produce a peace dividend for Israel. Saddam’s fall hasn’t had any such effect, but such claims have tended to validate the idea of linkage as a principle—that roads from here lead to there.
Finally, there is the deliberate effort by Iran, Al Qaeda, and others, to create linkage, or at least the illusion of it. In a bid for the sympathy of the fabled “Arab street,” they seek to portray the conflict with Israel as a supra-conflict between Islam and evil. The globalized Arab media such as Al Jazeera effectively do the same. Then various Pew and Zogby polls pick up the reverberations, and spread the message to Western elites that nothing interests the “Arab street” so much as Israeli misdeeds and American support for them.
Take, for example, this statement by Jimmy Carter:
There is no doubt: The heart and mind of every Muslim is affected by whether or not the Israel-Palestine issue is dealt with fairly. Even among the populations of our former close friends in the region, Egypt and Jordan, less than 5 percent look favorably on the United States today. That’s not because we invaded Iraq; they hated Saddam. It is because we don’t do anything about the Palestinian plight.
Carter, of course, has no idea what is in the “heart and mind of every Muslim.” He simply picks up sound bites from pollsters and so-called experts on Arab opinion. He then avoids the inconvenient fact that while the United States has been accused for decades of doing nothing for the Palestinians, its popularity in places like Jordan and Egypt has only plummeted since the Iraq invasion—military action that removed a ruler, Saddam Hussein, who was beloved by the “Arab street” and Arab intellectuals.
I have called linkage a myth, both in past and present. It is a myth because the Middle East is not a single region. But is it destined to remain so?
I still believe Middle East is less integrated than Europe, but it does share one feature with early 20th-century Europe. Until now, the Middle East has had more geography than military power. States have been unable to project power very far beyond their borders. But the spread of missiles and, possibly, nuclear weapons, could change that, leaving states with too little geography and too much power. In these conditions, conflicts that have been localized could become regionalized. In this case, it would not be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would occupy the place of France and Germany. It would be the conflict between Iran and Israel, and between Iran and the moderate Arab states. Such a conflict could configure the Middle East as one region, collapse the distance between the Levant and the Gulf, produce arms races, spur nuclear proliferation and proxy wars, create tightly-integrated alliances—in short, make the Middle East very much like Europe in its darkest days.
Whether the United States will act to affirm the pax Americana, by checking Iran’s rise, remains to be seen. Whether or not it does, but especially if it does not, the common understanding of “the Middle East conflict” seems destined to shift again. We may then look back with nostalgia to a time when the grandiose title of “the Middle East conflict” belonged to Israelis and Palestinians. The next Middle East conflict could be very different.
Clusters of Conflict
First, the Arab-Persian conflict (with its origins in earlier Ottoman-Persian conflict). This manifested itself in our time most destructively in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and it continues to inflame post-Saddam Iraq and other parts of the Arab/Persian Gulf (even the name of which is the subject of dispute). This is probably one of the oldest rivalries in the history of the world. It has been exacerbated by the bid of Iran, under the Shah and now under the Islamic regime, to restore lost imperial greatness and achieve hegemonic dominance over the Gulf and beyond.
Second, the Shiite-Sunni conflict, which goes back in various forms for fourteen centuries, and which the struggle for Iraq has greatly inflamed, both within that country and beyond. There is some overlap here with Arab-Persian conflict, but the Shiite-Sunni conflict also divides Arabs against each other, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries. The ruthless violence between the sects in Iraq suggested the savage potential of this sectarianism, which has some potential to spread to other places in the Middle East where Shiites and Sunnis contest power and privilege.
Third, the Kurdish awakening, which involves a large national group experiencing a political revival in the territory of several existing states. Over the past two decades, violent conflict generated by Kurdish aspirations has torn at the fabric of Turkey and Iraq. Kurdish groups have used terrorism, and states have used scorched-earth repression and chemical weapons against Kurds. Now that Iraqi Kurds have established a de facto state in northern Iraq, there is every prospect that the Kurdish awakening will generate more conflict, and that it will spill over borders, possibly involving Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Fourth, the inter-Arab conflict among Arab states over primacy, influence, and borders—the result of disputes created by the post-Ottoman partition of the Arab lands by Britain and France. In some places, these disputes are exacerbated by the inequities in nature’s apportioning of oil resources. The most destructive example of such a conflict in our times was Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait—the attempted erasure of one Arab state by another. Other examples include Nasser’s invasion of Yemen and Syria’s occupation of Lebanon.
Fifth, conflicts over the political aspirations of compact Christian groups with strong historic ties to the West. Foreign Christian minorities were turned out of the region decades ago, but the Maronites of Lebanon and the Greeks of Cyprus have held their ground. In the 1970s, wars were launched to deprive them of their political standing, leading in Cyprus to de facto partition between Greek and Turkish areas, and in Lebanon to a quasi-cantonization. These conflicts have defied all attempts at final resolution.
Sixth, conflicts that arise from the quest of Arab states to preserve or restore parts of their pre-colonial African empires. The most significant conflicts in this category are the long-running war in Sudan, which has descended into genocide in Darfur, and the festering contest over Western Sahara.
Seventh, the nationalist-Islamist conflicts within states, which are the result of failed modernization and the disappointed expectations of independence. The costliest of these conflicts in our time were the Iranian revolution in the 1970s (Islamists prevailed), the Islamist uprising in Syria in the 1980s (nationalists won), and the civil war that ravaged Algeria for much of the 1990s (nationalists triumphed). Smaller-scale conflict has occurred in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and is now afflicting the Palestinian territories.
Eighth, numerous conflicts, centered in the Persian Gulf, generated by the addiction of the industrialized West to the vast oil resources of the region, and the need of the United States to maintain its hegemony over the world’s single largest reservoir of energy. The United States essentially keeps the Gulf as an American lake, using aggressive diplomacy, arms sales to clients, and its own massive force to keep oil flowing at reasonable prices. This has put the United States in direct conflict with regional opponents—Islamic Iran, Saddam’s Iraq, and a non-state actor, Al Qaeda—who have seen its dominance as disguised imperialism. In particular, U.S.-Iranian conflict for regional hegemony has escalated over the last thirty years, and is now being exacerbated by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and pursuit of regional power status.
Ninth, there is conflict involving Israel, on three planes: Arab-Israeli (that is, Israel versus Arab states), Palestinian-Israeli, and Iranian-Israeli. The Arab-Israeli conflict produced a series of four inter-state wars in each of the four decades beginning in 1948. But since Egypt’s peace with Israel, three decades ago, there have been no general Arab-Israeli wars, and Israel has negotiated formal or de facto agreements or understandings with neighboring states. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict periodically erupts and subsides (most dramatically in two intifadas), and continues to defy resolution, but hasn’t led to a regional conflagration. The brewing Iranian-Israeli conflict isn’t about the Palestinians; it is an extension of the contest between the U.S. and Iran for regional dominance. So far, this conflict has manifested itself in short but sharp contests between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Martin Kramer presented a version of this post in the Director’s Series at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies on October 24. First posted at Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) on June 12.