Israeli pre-emption better
than Islamist cure
Militant Islam, or what US President George W Bush once called
"Islamo-fascism", may look back on the last months of the Bush administration
as its moment in the sun. Iran's nuclear program soon may cross the point of no
return; Pakistan's ruling coalition may have become the instrument of Muslim
revanchism against India; and Turkey may return to Islamist rule in a "silent
revolution" that will dismantle the secular institutions that have prevailed
for three generations. In the first two cases, the US State Department played
Dr Frankenstein to the creation of an Islamist monster, and I believe Turkey
will become a third.
America's presidential elections may be the proximate cause of
Western enervation, as Washington strives for calm and credibility prior to the
November poll. America is stuck to the Iraqi tar baby, and becomes more
entrapped the more it struggles. Iran's leverage inside Iraq, as I have warned
for years, gives the Islamic republic room to bargain for its broader
But the West's enfeeblement has deeper sources, in the same sort of
squeamishness that paralyzed European diplomacy in the years prior to World War
I and World War II.
There simply are too many adherents of militant Islam to deal with the matter
conveniently. Any solution today will be messy; a confrontation postponed for
another half dozen years might cost eight figures' worth of lives.
The nations of Western and Central Asia are not pieces on a diplomatic
chessboard, but living organisms with a dual character. They have one foot in
the secular world, and another in a lost past for which political Islam stokes
a deadly nostalgia. Iran represents the hope of the Shi'ite underclass of the
Middle East, from Lebanon to Pakistan, while the Turkish Islamists embody the
frustration of the Anatolian villages against the metropolis. Pakistan,
Washington's closest ally in the "war on terror", now lends evident support to
Islamist terrorists in India and Afghanistan.
The critical mass of three Islamist states - Iran, Turkey and Pakistan -
threatens to create a regional upheaval that can be contained only by wars of
attrition. The outlook is grim, not least because the US State Department is
repeating in Turkey the errors that helped bring Islamist governments to power
in Iran and Pakistan. Two weeks ago (Turkey
in the throes of Islamic revolution?) I accused the world press of
ignoring an Islamist coup in progress in Turkey. There is more to say on this
score, but America's whipsaw over Iran is even more alarming.
has gone dreadfully wrong in Washington when the clearest reports on Iranian-American
relations come from Iran's official news service IRNA. In advance
of the November election, the Bush administration wants quiet in Iraq and
quiescence in the oil market, and Tehran can help with both. That is why "talks
on Iran's nuclear program in Geneva indicated a shift of the US policy toward
Iran in line with the [James] Baker-[Lee] Hamilton recommendations [of 2006],"
as IRNA reported on July 31, quoting Iran's parliament leader, Hamidreza
The Iranian leader added that the US "has found out that Iran is
a country which cannot be ignored and the presence of US Under Secretary William
Burns in the Geneva talks on July 19 approves such a finding".
all due respect to the US's military chief in Iraq and now also Central Command
head, General David Petraeus, diminished violence in Iraq is not due entirely
to the skill of American arms. Without Iranian forbearance, the troop "surge"
would not seem as effective. Iran has leashed its proxies in Iraq, for example
Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr. In return, the US has taken a less
confrontational approach to Iran's nuclear ambitions, including, as IRNA
noted, high-level participation in direct talks with Iran for the first time in
As I wrote in October 2005 (A
Syriajevo in the making?), "the probable outcome is that Washington will
refrain from military action to forestall Iranian nuclear arms developments,
while Tehran will refrain from disrupting Washington's Potemkin Village in
Iraq. In this exchange, Iran gives up nothing of importance, for the rage of
the Iraqi Shi'ites will only wax over time. Tehran retains the option to stir
things up in Iraq whenever it chooses to do so. Its capacity to do so will
increase with time as Iraq grows less stable."
the Potomac, the Iranians can only conclude that their supporters in Washington,
notably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have crushed hardliners such
as Vice President Dick Cheney. "Direct dialogue" with Iran and Syria, that is,
accepting Iran as a regional player, was the leading recommendation of the
Baker-Hamilton "Iraq Study Group" report. As IRNA points out, dispatching a
senior State Department official to be insulted by Iran denoted a turning-point
victory for the friends of Tehran.
In another triumph for Iran, the government of Lebanon reportedly will legalize
the Hezbollah militia and guarantee its right to "liberate or recover occupied
lands", that is, to attack Israel. Two years after a United Nations resolution
requiring the disarming of Hezbollah ended a regional war, Iran's military
presence in Lebanon will obtain official status, without a harrumph from the US
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan visited Tehran last week to hail Iran as
"an important country in the region and the world". His discussion partner,
majlis (parliament) President Ali Larijani, was quoted by IRNA as stating,
"Iran wants an independent, stable and tranquil Iraq in its neighborhood."
Washington, as I reported two weeks ago, hopes that Turkish influence in Iraq
will help stabilize the country.
M K Bhadrakhumar, formerly India's ambassador to Turkey, wrote on this site on
August 1, "We may never quite know the extent to which any role Washington
would have played in ensuring that the government led by Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan was not unseated by Turkey's constitutional court in the trial
regarding the alleged Islamist agenda of the ruling Justice Development Party
(AKP). The US is far too experienced in the logarithm of power play in Ankara
... what is clear is that Washington is visibly relieved that the AKP
government continues to rule in Ankara and Erdogan remains in harness."(
A triumph for Turkey - and its allies)
If anything, that is an understatement. Neither the US government nor the
mainstream press has expressed concern about the Erdogan government's arrest of
86 secular leaders for an alleged plot to overthrow the government and kill
political leaders, on the strength of a 2,455 page indictment with a pronounced
tone of pulp fiction. Among other allegations, Turkish prosecutors claim that
the 1993 assassination of the secularist journalist Ugur Mumcu was the work of
a six-man Israeli hit team that entered from sea and hid at the Israeli
consulate in Istanbul. The indictment includes extensive transcripts from
wiretaps on secularist figures, none of which contains decisive proof of a
plot, but which combine to demonstrate that the new Islamist power in Ankara
hears and sees everything.
What matters to Washington at the moment is Turkey's ability to
create the appearance of progress in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Bhadrakumar
reported arranged contacts between US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who both visited Ankara on July
17. Turkey's well-publicized attempt to mediate between Israel and Syria seems
to have dissipated, but the Israeli website Debka reports that Ankara now wants to
attempt to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian organization Hamas.
Turkey and Iran both have regional spheres of influence, which conflict more
than they overlap. Iran is subsidizing Shi'ite revanchism from Pakistan through
Iraq and Saudi Arabia to Lebanon. Turkey's Islamists have been infiltrating
Turkish-language Central Asia from Azerbaijan to so-called "East Turkistan",
that is, western China, for decades. Their Islamist governments rest on the
militant cadre who carry the caliph's banner rather than a field-marshal's
baton in their knapsacks. For the moment, Iran's backing for Iraq's Shi'ites
provides a counterweight to the ambitions of Iraq's Kurds for an independent
state, and the two Islamist governments are aligned. That will not last.
Pakistan's evident support for the Taliban as well as for irredentist bombers
in India appears to be the future of the region, now raised to the third power.
Overshadowing the apparent success of the Iraqi "surge" (thanks in large
measure to Iranian help) is the alliance of Pakistan's intelligence services
with elements of the Taliban.
In November 2007, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, a secularist and an
admirer of the Turkish model, attempted to impose a state of emergency. The US
State Department pulled the rug out from under its erstwhile ally, warning on
November 3, "The United States is deeply disturbed by reports that Pakistani
President Musharraf has taken extra-constitutional actions and has imposed a
state of emergency. A state of emergency would be a sharp setback for Pakistani
democracy and takes Pakistan off the path toward civilian rule." Now the US has
accused the duly-elected government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of
providing covert support to its enemies, a charge that the Pakistanis qualified
India is persuaded that Pakistan supported last month's bombing of its embassy
in the Afghan capital of Kabul as well as terror bombs in Gujurat and Bangalore
The Middle East bears strong comparison to Europe in the years before World War
I. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, its capacity will jump to deploy
surrogates such as Hezbollah, Hamas, the Mahdi Army and whatever Shi'ite
militias it has in place in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. We are not in 1914, but
in 1905, when the First Morocco Crisis of 1905 gave Germany a pretext it did
not seize to make short work of France while the Russians were busy with an
insurrection. Germany's chief of staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, tried in
vain to persuade the temporizing Kaiser Wilhelm II to attack France when
Germany had the upper hand. Had it done so, Europe would have had a six-week
war on the scale of 1870 rather than four years of unrelieved slaughter and the
disintegration of its civilization. The kaiser waited until the outcome of war
could only be the ruin of the contending parties. Pre-emption would have been
the humanitarian solution.
Israel is the only player in the region with the perspicacity and power to stop
the slide towards regional war. The Jewish state may not have the capacity to
eradicate Iran's nuclear development program, but it almost certainly has the
means to set it back for a number of years. The forthcoming resignation of
feckless Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opens all options for good and ill.
If Israel can find a von Schlieffen, it still might be able to interrupt the
slide towards political Islam in the region. If Israel fails to act, the
near-certain outcome will be regional war on a scale dwarfing the Iran-Iraq war
of the 1980s.
As in 1967, the Jewish state will be on its own, with reluctant support, if any
at all, from its American ally. Forty years ago, Israel had military leaders
willing to act with decisiveness. It is far from clear whether it has the same