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 objectives.
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.
Something 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 Haji-Babaei.
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.”
With 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 a generation.
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.”
Watching 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 State Department.
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 as “rubbish.”
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 in India.
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. Preemption 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 will today.