I wish there were a way to express in English the words Mephistopheles uses – herzlich schlecht, or “heartily miserable” – to describe the state of men. Herzlich, literally “hearty,” conveys something comfortable and amiable – making “heartily miserable.” The phrase should pass into the political lexicon along with such German expressions as Schadenfreude. It qualifies wonderfully America’s current position in Iraq.

For the past three years I have argued that the inner logic of ethnic decline would shape the United States’ Iraq policy, rather than the messianic social engineering that temporarily turned the Bush administration’s brains into pulled pork. Civil war and partition, de facto or de jure, would turn Iraq’s potential for violence inward. [1] Unpleasant as this might be for Iraq, it would be good for US interests, as I wrote on January 21, 2004:

A devilish thought is forming in the back of the American mind: which is better, to have Iraqis shooting at American soldiers, or at each other? During the Cold War, Moscow stood to gain from instability, and Washington sought to stabilize allied regimes (Iran being the exception that proved the rule). Now, with no strategic competitor, America can pick up the pieces at its leisure. As in finance, volatility favors the player with the most options.

Last week was not a good one for America’s detractors. The price of oil fell to US$56 a barrel. The same financial markets that swooned in July while Israel fought Hezbollah have forgotten the meaning of risk. The question the world should ask George W. Bush is, “If you so dumb, how come you ain’t poor”? The US economy and US markets are looking more buoyant than ever. As I wrote last week (Jeb Bush in 2008?, January 3), the whole Iraq debacle might disappear from the public’s radar screen in time for America’s next presidential election.

Not being privy to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy debate, I do not know how Washington will present its intentions. But the facts on the ground speak for themselves. A full-dress civil war in Iraq and an incipient civil war between Fatah and Hamas in Palestine promise a period of bloodshed of indefinite duration – and America’s strategic position will be stronger as a result, provided that it can neutralize Iran. On the assumption that Iran had a reasonable shot at obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons by late 2007 or 2008, I forecast last year – wrongly – that Western powers would attack Iran. There is a consensus among the major powers’ intelligence services that Iran will not have nuclear weapons until 2010, and more likely 2012. Neutralizing Iran may be easier than I anticipated.

Last week I conjectured that Washington would obtain Russian and Chinese cooperation in preventing Iran from exploiting Iraq’s chaos to create a new Shi’ite empire. A report in the January 7 Los Angeles Times indicates that the US already has succeeded in choking off a great deal of financing and technology for Iran’s critical oil sector. [2] It appears that the US has obtained at least some degree of Russian and Chinese cooperation in delaying energy development agreements in Iran. European banks, including the major Swiss banks, are refusing new business from Iran at the request of the US Treasury, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Iran now spends 15% of gross domestic product on energy subsidies, paid out of net oil exports that are likely to fall to zero over the next 10 years. If the US continues to tighten the tourniquet around Iran’s energy sector, the result may be political chaos in Iran, including disaffection among the Turkic (Azeri) minority that comprises a quarter of Iran’s population.

There has been an inordinate amount of nonsense written about US decline, complete with Russian and Chinese designs to benefit from America’s embarrassment in Iraq. The reality could not be more different. Neither Moscow nor Beijing has the remotest desire to see the US withdraw from the region or lose power, for two reasons. The first is that America’s presence in the region ensures that little wars will remain little. The second is economic. America’s economy and particularly the appetite of American consumers for imports remains the locomotive of the world economy, most emphatically of China’s. China’s trading relationship with the United States is an irreplaceable pillar of national prosperity, and the means to generate the national savings China requires to establish what President Hu Jintao calls “the harmonious society.”

If, hypothetically, the Persian Gulf were to go up in flames and the price of oil were to double, the US economy would tumble into recession. China’s even more oil-sensitive economy would experience a double blow, in the form of higher energy costs and reduced exports to its major markets in the industrial world. By the same token, if Central Asia were to slide into chaos, the biggest loser would be Russia.

Russia and China will bargain hard in return for providing cooperation to the United States, as I wrote on January 2, but their interests ultimately overlap with America’s sufficiently to create a concert of nations to contain Iran. If economic pressures do not succeed, the option of a military strike remains ready.

That, I suppose, is the point of the January 6 report in the London Sunday Times that Israel is prepared to use tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s capacity to build nuclear bombs. Israel has no intention of doing any such thing in the near future. With the prospect of an Iranian nuclear device at least three years away, why would it? But the Sunday Times report at least reminded Tehran of what might be in store should it continue to misbehave.

It is a good wind that blows no one ill. Last month King Abdullah of Jordan warned poignantly against the outbreak of multiple civil wars in the Middle East, in Iraq as well as between the main Palestinian factions. The Hashemite Kingdom has reason to worry, given that 1.8 million of its 5.9 million population are displaced Palestinians, and that the country also harbors several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees. Jordan has reason to fret about the prospective spillover. But more broadly, civil carnage is part of the solution.

In a January 7 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote, “Civil wars can be especially atrocious as neighbors kill each other at close range, but they also have a purpose. They can bring lasting peace by destroying the will to fight and by removing the motives and opportunities for further violence.” [3]

Luttwak was writing about Iraq, but the same applies to Palestine. I can only reiterate what I wrote on August 29, 2003 (in Civil war: A do-it-yourself guide):

It is unpopular these days to draw attention to the merits of violence, particularly the sort that inevitably entails “collateral damagem,” that is, the slaughter of innocents. Progress supposedly brings us non-violent conflict resolution. Au contraire. The faster the world changes, the more people find themselves left behind, and the more people are left behind, the more diehards are willing to fight to the death. Real nations, as opposed to romantic visions of nations, have no room for irredentists and other rejectionists. They need the sort of people who show up on time, pay dues to a respectable political party and get along (if grudgingly) with the neighbors.

Contrary to what almost everyone has maintained for years – that the solution to the problems of the Middle East lies in the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian problem – the present civil war in Palestine proves that no one cares about the Israel-Palestinian problem. The so-called Palestinian issue has been subsumed into the broader problem of containing Persian imperialism, and the Palestinians have been left to fend for themselves, rather like the Kurds – but without the Kurds’ language, 3,000-year history, and success in creating institutions of self-rule.

1. See Will Iraq survive the Iraqi resistance?, December 23, 2003; The devil and L Paul Bremer, January 21, 2004; Mistah Kurtz, he clueless, May 11, 2004.
2. US puts squeeze on Iran’s oil fields.
3. Will civil war bring lasting peace to Iraq?



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