The old status quo just ain’t what it used to be
What’s most striking to me about recent events in the Middle East is how just about all the experts – the administration deep thinkers, their Republican critics, the academics and the foreign policy talking heads – failed to predict the seismic forces that are reshaping the region in ways we can’t begin to fathom.
This isn’t a matter of partisan politics. The Obama administration is clearly clueless about a region in turmoil, but I haven’t heard anything resembling acumen from the Republicans, either.
And Israeli leaders across the spectrum seem just as out of touch.
Wednesday’s bombshell about the Fatah-Hamas agreement, with a unity government and elections in a year, came after weeks of stories about talks between the two Palestinian factions, but just about everybody seemed astonished by the announcement and unable to answer this question: what next?
The Palestinian strategy of going to the United Nations to get endorsement of a unilateral statehood declaration seemed to catch everybody in Jerusalem and Washington by surprise even though it’s been talked about for months.
And the biggest surprise of all – the wave of anti-authoritarian protest that toppled Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, touched off a new war involving U.S. forces in Libya and pushed the Assad government in Syria to the brink – wasn’t on anybody’s radar.
I’m not criticizing those who didn’t predict these earthshaking events – heaven knows, I’m a columnist and blogger, and my track record wasn’t any better.
What bothers me: the longstanding mindset that the old status quo in the region was somehow etched in stone, and that nobody even needed to think about radical new paradigms.
Administration after administration believed buddies like Mubarak would be there forever no matter how badly they treated their people, and based their foreign policy accordingly. Far as I can tell the Obama administration continues to believe that about the Saudi royal family, which could prove the biggest miscalculation of all if the current wave of rebellion spreads.
Israeli governments believed the stalemate with the Palestinians could continue indefinitely with no real repercussions except for occasional eruptions of violence. They apparently missed the fact that Palestinian leaders – whether because they are frustrated with Israel or because the really have no interest in a state created through negotiations – might try a different route to their goal.
Now the Netanyahu government is acting like a deer caught in the headlights, but I see no evidence this week’s dramatic developments are causing a paradigm shift in their thinking.
Just remember all that the next time someone tells you Israel can wait until conditions are just right to make peace with its neighbors; tomorrow’s status quo could be a lot worse than the one we thought was permanent yesterday. Just remember that the next time an administration – Republican or Democratic – tells you we need to support some vile dictator because he’s on our side, sort of, and he’s a force for stability – until, of course, he gets the boot from his long-suffering subjects.