Libya and the Morphing Middle East Conflict

Conflicts take on their own logic over time. That is why wars often get out of hand, like the first and second great wars did. Once the war starts, it pulls people in directions they would would not have gone otherwise. So was the first great war in the end really about Serbian nationalism? Was the second great war really about liberating Poland?

This type of morphing is happening in the middle east now. For years, the main conflict was between Israelis and indigenous folks who didn’t want the Israelis to have their own state. This conflict seemed to be driving things forward. And this conflict still smolders. But this is no longer the only driver of violence.

Most of the talk we hear of is about “sectarian” violence. Factions that cannot get along — Sunni versus Shiia, for example. Because of the tribal nature of many middle eastern cultures, this is not likely to end no matter what. Another and more interesting dimension is radical versus conservative. And I think this split is one to watch.

What do I mean? Well, some time ago, certain groups embraced “terror tactics” against Israel. I am reminded of the terrible hostage taking in the Munich Olympics back in 1972. Use of terror as a tactic resonated with certain groups who, over time, have made them their signature weapon. I am now thinking of al qaeda and groups like it. We tend to say that these groups have become “radicalized”. They are at war, not just with Israel, but with the status quo in general.

Well, this is pretty scary for conservative Muslim governments who are pretty happy with the status quo, like Saudi Arabia and the gulf states. The leadership there is conservative in a religious sense (as the radicals are) and not thrilled about Israel. But they do not want to rock the boat. The more that radicals threaten to do that, the more conservatives see them as a threat to their own power.

So with this background, let’s take about the Arab Spring. More precisely, let’s talk about how the Arab Spring got highjacked by the above conflict. When established powers fell, a power vacuum was created. The radicals and the conservatives have been keen to fill that vacuum and we see growing conflict where states are “in play”.

I think this is something that the fool Morsi did not get in Egypt. Somehow, he thought that conservatives would just roll over and play dead when he raised the radical  populist flag. Well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Whether he really was a radical or not,  he found out what it meant to be characterized as one.

This conflict is now playing out in Libya. And it is the backdrop for the recent attacks by Egypt and UAE on radicals who seized the Tripoli airport. The last thing recently re-installed Egyptian conservatives want is a radical regime in neighboring Libya.

So where is this headed? The logic suggests that conservatives will get more serious about fighting radicalism in order to preserve their status quo. That might include trying to stamp out ISIS and trying to end the civil war in Syria. And if the Israelis play their cards right, it might include some sort of broader middle east reconciliation.

Can the conservatives win? They have the resources to crush radicals who are fighting in the field. But they need one more thing. They need a political dimension — a message that they can offer a better future. Not just more corruption and stagnation.

What should Americans think? After 9/11 American policy makers took an “us versus them” approach to fighting terrorism. The US declared that it would lead the fight to end this tactic. This did shake things up, but the US has not been able to build a strong coalition of followers to make  its strategy work. Instead, the US encountered a “free rider” problem. the attitude is “If the US was going to do the heavy lifting, why should we get serious?” Add to this, the fact that US interventions are by definition temporary things. The US is not a colonial power. For these reasons, I think this free rider problem is a serious one in dealing with terrorism in the middle east. It should have been anticipated by the Bush Administration before they invaded Iraq, but … well, can you spell the word “arrogance”? US hubris has blinded the US to middle east realities.

In fact, the underlying conservative/radical conflict is not really US centric. The US may choose to take sides and intervene when it is in US interest to do so to help the conservatives. But there is a strong argument that Muslim conservatives will need to take the lead in stamping out radical Islamic groups. They are the ones who have the most to lose if they do not. And they are the ones most likely to be “free riders” on US power if the US leads.

And what about promoting democracy? The disastrous US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan relying on democracy to quell conflicts should teach us that whatever its value, democracy is not easily transplanted into conflict ridden areas. The US does not want to get married to totalitarian dictatorships (as it has in the past, for example, the Shah of Iran). So our support of conservatives should be conditioned on their promise not to stamp out moderates. Indeed, there are reasons why conservatives need moderates around. They are not inherently in conflict.  But it is a fool’s errand to put those moderates in power when they are in the conservative/radical crossfire.

So let’s look at this in light of US politics. Barrack Obama is taking heavy fire for not “leading” in ending the Syrian civil war. John McCain, Lindsay Graham and others are trying to score political points by saying they would be “tougher”. They would “assert US power”. We should recognize by now that this is nonsense on stilts. The more the US tries to lead, the less it will get done. It is time to get smarter, not tougher.

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