Tue, Aug 29, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The politics of extremism override reason

The problems in the Middle East are much more about the extremist political views of leaders on all sides than about terror versus freedom

By Jeffrey Sachs

Despite the fragile ceasefire in Lebanon, the risks of a wider war in the Middle East remain. Too many political leaders, including US President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the leaders of radical groups in the Middle East, prefer military solutions to peaceful compromise.

When Bush paints the Middle East as a struggle of good versus evil, or terror versus freedom, he abandons politics. When Israel attempts vainly to defeat Hezbollah, it tries to avoid painful but necessary political compromises over disputed territory.

The problems of the Middle East are much more about politics and culture than about terror and freedom. Part of the problem is Israel's continuing occupation of the West Bank as well as a piece of southern Lebanon. Until Israel agrees to return to the 1967 borders with minor modifications, and to end its political control over millions of West Bank Arabs, unrest will continue.

Another part of the problem is the brazen manipulation of the Persian Gulf region by the UK and US to ensure their oil security. There can be little doubt that the current war in Iraq is fundamentally about oil. For nearly 100 years, first the British empire and then the US have manipulated Middle Eastern governments, launched coups, bought puppet regimes and supported wars in order to control the region's oil flows.

This approach continues despite its persistent failure. The key to oil security is peace, not military occupation and puppet regimes. The US embraced the Shah of Iran and the result was a revolution in Iran. The US embraced and later toppled Saddam Hussein, inciting chaos with an unintended boost for Iran. The US stationed troops in Saudi Arabia and thus helped to create al-Qaeda's political agenda. The US pushed for elections in Palestine but then championed the financial strangulation of the newly elected Hamas government.

These factors, together with the obvious failings of many Middle Eastern governments, have fueled the surge of fundamentalism among Muslims, American Christians and some Israeli Jews that has now boiled over into rampant extremism, terror and messianic visions of good versus evil. True, fundamentalists are a minority everywhere, but they are stoking widespread fear, loathing and dreams of salvation. Fundamentalists promote violence and war while weakening moderates forces.

Many warmongers in Washington, including apparently some in the White House, are seeking to expand their endless military campaign to Iran and Syria. Indeed, the daily demonizing of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah has much the same tone as the campaign against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the lead-up to the Iraq War.

The war party appears to be trying to whip up American public opinion in support of a wider conflict. Political operatives may also judge that an increased sense of danger and insecurity will tilt votes to the Republicans in the US Congressional elections in November.

We need to reject "us versus them" logic, in which Israel is pure and the Arabs are evil (or vice versa). Every state in the region must embrace compromise and mutual respect as the basis of a lasting settlement. Israel will not be able to avoid territorial withdrawals to the 1967 borders by exercising its military might; the US will not be able to ensure oil security through continued military occupation in the Middle East; and terrorists will not be able to destroy Israel or foist their fundamentalist ideas by force on moderate societies.

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