It was at dinner in the garden of a well-known analyst of Iran. He’d spent years writing prolifically and astutely about the regime, its progress on nuclear technology, dissidents, U.S. policy, Israeli policy, and the machinations of the P5+1. “What’s the latest on your blog?” we asked.
“Italian food,” he replied. “There’s nothing left to say about Iran.”
That doesn’t mean nothing is happening — only that, like in Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day, the things that are happening are largely repeat events, and what there is to say about them has largely been said1. Or perhaps it is recognition that writers and analysts, no matter how correct they are, do not have influence in the right quarters right now.
How many times over how many years have we heard that the unraveling of dictatorial regimes in the Middle East a) favor well-organized movements which are mainly Islamist, b) are not good for the United States, and c) are not good for Israel? Which writer will write the piece that makes the Muslim Brotherhood say, “Oh, right! It’s better to have a country in which women are equal, dissenting voices important, and Christians and Jews good citizens who make our national mosaic better”? Who will write the one that makes President Obama say, “I’ve been wrong about the Brotherhood — their election is not about democracy, it is about power”? Or “What I remember about Islam from my childhood was a child’s view; now I am a grown-up and need to readjust”?
Give that writer a prize.
How many ways are there to say that Palestinians and Israelis are talking past each other because they have profoundly different needs and goals? Israel seeks recognition as a legitimate, permanent part of the region with the “secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force” that are the promise of U.N. Resolution 242. Palestinians seek to reverse the establishment of Israel, which they believe was created on their land and at the expense of their patrimony. Whose writing will make Abu Mazen say Jews are the indigenous people of the region and State of Israel is their rightful home? Dennis Ross’s latest “six point plan” for a “two state solution” won’t do it.
Iran has been seeking nuclear capability since the time of the shah and expanded and accelerated its search — and changed it enemies list — with the advent of the Islamic Republic. The response of the West has been talks, sanctions, talks, sanctions, talk, talk, talk — during which time Iran has proceeded to do what it chooses to do. P5+1 talks in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Moscow produced only more time for the program. Most of us don’t really need any more dissections of the “Israeli plan to bomb the Iranian reactor,” Iranian anti-Semitism, the rationality of the regime, or sanctions. Which “next article” will change the minds of Iranian leaders? “Actually, Israel isn’t the spawn of the devil,” Khameini will muse. Ahmadinejad will say, “Nuclear energy is really a better use of our skill than that bomb.” Or something.
Syria? Yes, the Russians could abandon Assad, or Assad could abandon the Alawites. But even after 14,000 deaths, both appear to be sticking with the program — although both have probably read all the reasons why The New York Times and The Washington Post think they should behave differently. What new information will convince them? Yes, the U.S. could drop bombs on Syria, or invade Syria, or train and arm the rebels or take charge of international diplomacy — but the president has said we won’t, and we’re not. NATO has said it won’t, and its not. So why do people keep putting forward plans for ways the U.S. could intervene militarily or diplomatically in Syria? Will the president suddenly say, “Oh my, I didn’t think of that; I’d better get to training that Syrian rebel army”?
The spread of Islamism across the Middle East and North Africa, north through Turkey, and east through Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan in some ways resembles the Iron Curtain falling across the middle of Europe. There were certainly people who knew how communism would march and the damage it would do, but they couldn’t stop it for a combination of political, military, and economic reasons that must have made sense to them at the time. At some point, governments turned to limiting and managing the problem, and then, under President Reagan, they forced it to collapse.
Official Washington is watching and talking as a problem that affects us militarily, politically, and economically unfolds in a manner both predictable and predicted. When a prominent analyst of national security writes about food, it isn’t because everything has been said that can be said — it’s because no one who could stop it is listening.
1There is, on the other hand, much that goes unreported or under-reported. Last week, for example, UNESCO accepted the contention that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a Palestinian Heritage Site “endangered” by “Israeli occupation.” So busy was UNESCO turning Palestine into a country and slandering Israel that it noted only in passing the destruction of Sufi holy sites in Mali — also UNESCO Heritage Sites — by Islamic extremists currently waging a brutal war there, using arms primarily from Gaddafi’s old arsenals supplied by America’s erstwhile friends. Now there’s a story.