Iran’s puppies of war in Gaza and their counterparts in Lebanon are a mixed blessing for their sponsors in Tehran. In Western capitals, the case for military action of some kind against Iran has become far more compelling. I continue to believe, as I wrote on May 30, that Iran will fight rather than compromise with the West. Tehran may have Hamas and Hezbollah on a leash, but it is the master that is dragged forward now, rather than the dog dragged back. But these are things that the casual newspaper reader knows by now.
Speaking of Gaza, it is a general rule that countries that have no business being there eventually find ways to disappear. The Andean countries of South America are a case in point; sundry warlords carved them out of the Spanish viceroyalties after the break with Spain. A correspondent on this writer’s discussion board observes that 40% of legal immigrants to Spain now come from Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador, with the last-named contributing 2 million people, or a third of its working-age population. The population of the Andean countries is clever enough to understand that there is little reason for them to be there, and therefore leaves at the first opportunity.
That is an exercise in what postmodern scholars deride as “essentialism,” by which they mean the view that a people or country displays “essential” characteristics that it can change no more than a leopard can change its spots. Sigmund Freud liked to say that long-suppressed problems in history eventually force themselves to the surface, referring in this case to the fault line between Roman and tribal Germany along which the Catholic-Protestant divide occurred during the Reformation.
“Essentialism” also informs racial and national stereotypes, which is why postmodernists reject it as a colonialist ideology. National humor by its nature is essentialist. If Scotsmen weren’t stingy and East Frisians weren’t stupid, we wouldn’t have jokes about them. One should be cautious in ascribing essences, to be sure, but in some cases nothing else makes sense.
For the past five years I have analyzed Palestinian affairs according to an “essentialist” standpoint, which amounts to the simple observation that the Palestinians, rather like the Andean countries, have no reason to be there, and so eventually will not be. Like the Bolivians, many Palestinians do emigrate, but the rest of the world will not have them (Kuwait expelled 400,000 of them during the first Gulf War in 1991).
The means by which the Palestinians have chosen to disappear are unappetizing, but no less effective. The essence of what we euphemistically call the “Palestinian people” is self-destructive, because it is not a people at all, but the artificial construct of Arab politics and Western relief agencies. After last week’s debacle, just this once, I am going to indulge myself in an extended “I told you so.”
As I wrote five years ago (Live and let die, April 13, 2002):
How quaint, we tell ourselves, that stone-age peoples still dwell in the Amazon, and we wonder: What are they doing in the modern world? Yet no one asks what 3.5 million Palestinian Arabs are doing on a small patch of land on the west bank of the Jordan, not to mention the 400,000 or so in camps in Lebanon and yet more in Jordan. They are an agrarian rather than an urban people, ill at ease with the economic pursuits of the modern world.
Mechanization of agriculture, rather than Zionist political aims, began displacing the rural Arab population in the 1930s, as a number of historians observe. This led to the 1936-39 Arab uprising against the British Mandate and Jewish settlement. Rather than disperse gradually like other agrarian populations, the Palestinian Arabs found themselves in refugee camps after 1947. Thanks to the relief efforts of the United Nations they obtained access to medical care and education, lacking in their old villages. The 700,000 Arabs who fled or were driven from Israel quintupled their numbers in two generations. For half a century they have nursed the dream of returning to a world that vanished long ago.
To become a nation, I advised President Mahmoud Abbas, would require a civil war, which, if not accomplished quickly by the Palestinian Authority, would turn into a protracted proxy war dominated by outside powers:
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. Having a civil war is de rigueur. All the right people do it. It shows that the prospective nation has the grit to sort out its own problems.
How expensive will your civil war be? It’s only a good-faith estimate, but I would guess that 20,000 would do the trick for Palestine, provided that you act quickly. It seems like a lot, but remember that Jordan’s late King Hussein killed more than that number of Palestinians (at least according to your own Palestine Liberation Organization estimates) during “Black September” of 1970. Wait, and the bill could be much bigger.
Remember that it costs much, much more if an outside contractor arranges your civil war. It’s always cheaper to do it yourself. During the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, the German princes let the French Cardinal Richelieu take charge. The bill came to more than half the population of Central Europe. Just as I warned, the Palestinian civil war has turned into a proxy war between Iran and the Sunni bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
The emergence of an Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia makes Palestine the odd man out. The Palestine problem has dropped to the bottom of the Arab priority list, and the fate of the Palestinians is to become cannon fodder for proxy wars (Civil wars or proxy wars?, December 5, 2006).
The Hamas putsch in Gaza strengthens the position of American hawks who favor a military strike against Iran, as the New York Times reported on its website on June 15. Again, this was obvious a year ago:
Wars start because no one wants to disown his dog. If your dog bites a neighbor, your neighbor well might come after you with a shotgun. Nicholas II of Russia, I observed recently, did not want war in 1914 and until the end of July insisted that no war would break out.  But the Serbian puppies supported by his secret service dragged him into it willy-nilly. The past week’s events in the Middle East have a disturbing feel of July 1914 about them.
The old dogs in Tehran and Riyadh can do nothing to satisfy the deeply felt and long-frustrated aspirations of their pups in the Gaza Strip or Baghdad’s Sadr City, no more than Nicholas II could requite the nationalist hopes of Serbia without going to war with Austria and Germany. In fact, nothing can dampen the Palestinians’ existential outrage against the misery of their circumstances, or fulfill the ambitions of Iraq’s Shi’ites without the reduction of the Sunni population.
That leaves Tehran in a dilemma. Iran’s power rests on its ability to threaten destabilization, especially in Iraq, and it is counting on this to keep the Bush administration at bay. Even the greatest military autocrat, though, is constrained by the character of his army, and the standing of the region’s little powers depends on the outcome of the puppy fights now in progress. The logical result is continued escalation until America and Iran stand off in earnest (Cry havoc, and let slip the puppies of war, July 10, 2006).
And it remained obvious last month, when I warned of the consequences of Iranian meddling (Those pesky puppies of war, May 22, 2007):
The Persians are chess players, and if the constellation of forces (to use the old Soviet term) is against them, they will pull back and wait for another opportunity. That does not imply, however, that they have abandoned the game.
Real conflict, though, is not a chessboard. The pawns have an unpleasant tendency to move on their own and spoil the game …
In the current round of negotiations between the United States and Iran, Hamas rather than Hezbollah is the odd man out. Iran attempted to insert itself into Palestinian politics by taking over subsidies to the irredentist wing of the Palestinian movement, to the chagrin of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Hamas appears able to make a nuisance of itself great enough to force the Israelis to take action, which in turn will make it extremely difficult for its sponsors to abandon it.
It is sickeningly clear and ineluctable.
1. Why war comes when no one wants it, Asia Times Online, May 1, 2006.