Thomas L. Friedman / Order in the Middle East doesn’t come easy

Moderation must be built from the ground up

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I’ve argued for a while that it is always useful to study the Israeli-Arab conflict because it is to the wider war of civilizations what off-Broadway is to Broadway. A lot of stuff starts there and then goes to Broadway.

So what’s playing off-Broadway these days? The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the “world of order” and the “world of disorder.”

Israel faces nonstate actors in civilian clothes, armed with homemade rockets and drones, nested among civilians on four of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And what is most striking about this play is that the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective. Israel, a mini-superpower, keeps pummeling the ragtag Islamist militias in Gaza with its modern air force, but the super-empowered Palestinian militants, leveraging cheap high-tech tools, keep coming back with homemade rockets and even a homemade drone. You used to need a contract with Boeing to get a drone. Now you can make one in Gaza.

What to do? For starters, it would be great if the big powers of the world of order — the United States, Russia, China, Japan, India and the European Union — were able to collaborate more in stemming the spread of the world of disorder. That is certainly necessary. But the prospects for that are limited. No powers these days want to lay hands on the world of disorder because all you win is a bill. And even if they did, it would not be sufficient.

The only way Israel can truly curtail the Hamas rocket threat is if the Palestinians of Gaza demand that the rockets stop. Sure, Israel can inflict enough pain on Gaza to get a cease-fire, but it never lasts. The only sustainable way to do it is by Israel partnering with moderate Palestinians in the West Bank to build a thriving state there so that Gaza Palestinians wake up every day and say to the nihilistic Hamas: “We want what our West Bank cousins have.” The only sustainable controls are those that come from within.

That is how the U.S. military defeated the earlier version of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, aka ISIS, when the jihadists largely took over Iraq’s Anbar province in 2006-2007. The United States partnered with the Sunni Muslim tribal leaders who didn’t want puritanical Islam, or their daughters to be forced to marry fundamentalists, or to give up their whiskey.

But we did not just arm them. We brokered an agreement of shared guns, shared power and shared values — about the future of Iraq — between those Sunni tribesmen and Iraq’s ruling Shiite president, Nouri al-Maliki. That is what ended the jihadist disorder there in 2007.

And then what did Mr. Maliki do as soon as we left Iraq? He stopped paying the Sunni tribal militias and tried to arrest moderate Sunni politicians. Rather than building on the foundation we laid of power-sharing, Mr. Maliki uprooted it. That is why ISIS found it so easy to move in. Iraqi Sunnis weren’t going to fight for Mr. Maliki’s government. No trust, no power-sharing — no order.

Jewish settlers in Israel have done all they could to build more settlements and undermine Palestinian trust that Israel will ever share sufficient power for a West Bank Palestinian state to emerge. And the moderate, secular Palestinian leadership in the West Bank all too often has shown too little courage to compromise at crunch time. So no compelling West Bank alternative to Hamas’ nihilism exists.

Israel, moderate Palestinians and Mr. Maliki all wasted the relative quiet of the past few years. And Mr. Maliki and Israel’s leaders now insist on wiping out the military threats they face from radicals — before rebuilding or reconsidering any of the political alternatives that they themselves helped to scuttle. That won’t work.

Patrick Doherty, author of “A New U.S. Grand Strategy” in Foreign Policy magazine, argues that if you look at the traditional responses to the world of disorder by both U.S. and other leaders, you notice that there are a lot of “controllers and disrupters but no builders. Our leaders were trained in the control tactics of the Cold War — aka ‘crisis management.’ So it’s no surprise that we are using our power only to hedge risk and preserve a failing status quo. But now we need our leaders to be builders with enough foresight to shape a sustainable international order — and to support regional leaders committed to the same.”

Control, notes Mr. Doherty, is surely better than chaos. But as we have seen with the controllers America has tended to adopt in Egypt, Iraq and Israel, their brand of control “tends toward stagnation and excesses, as power is concentrated to counter the forces of chaos.”

When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a strongman isn’t what it used to be) leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust. Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order.

Yes, yes. I know that sounds impossibly hard. But when isolated Gazans can make their own drones, order doesn’t come easy anymore.

Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.



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