State of the Union January/February 2008

After Iraq

A report from the new Middle East—and a glimpse of its possible future

Unintended Consequences

In an effort to understand the shape of things to come in the Middle East, I spent several weeks speaking with more than 25 experts and traveling to Iraq, Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel. Many of the conversations were colored, naturally, by the ideological predispositions of those I talked with. The realists quake at instability, which threatens (as they see it) the only real American interest in the Middle East, the uninterrupted flow of Arab oil. Iranophobes see that country’s empowerment, and the threat of regional Shiite-Sunni warfare, as the greatest cause for worry. Pro-Palestinian academics blame Israel, and its friends in Washington, for trying to force the collapse of the Arab state system. The liberal interventionists lament the poor execution of the Iraq War, and wish that the Bush administration had gone about exporting democracy to the Middle East with more subtlety and less hypocrisy. The neoconservatives, who cite the American Revolution as an example of what might be called “constructive volatility,” see no reason to regret instability (even as they concede that it’s hard to imagine a happy end to the Iraq War anytime soon).

Some experts didn’t want to play at all. When I called David Fromkin and asked him to speculate about the future of the Middle East, he said morosely, “The Middle East has no future.” And when I spoke to Edward Luttwak, the iconoclastic military historian at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, he said there was no reason to engage the subject: the West is unable to shape the future of the Middle East, so why bother? “The United States could abandon Israel altogether, or embrace the general Arab cause 100 percent,” he said, but “the Arabs will find a new reason to be anti-American.”

Many experts I spoke to ventured that it would be foolish to predict what will happen in the Middle East next Tuesday, let alone in 2018, or in 2028—but that it would also be foolish not to be actively thinking about, and preparing for, what might come next.

So what might, in fact, come next? The most important first-order consequence of the Iraq invasion, envisioned by many of those I spoke to, is the possibility of a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shiites for theological and political supremacy in the Middle East. This is a war that could be fought by proxies of Saudi Arabia, the Sunni flag-bearer, against Iran—or perhaps by Iran and Saudi Arabia themselves—on battlefields across Iraq, in Lebanon and Syria, and in Saudi Arabia’s largely Shiite Eastern Province, under which most of the kingdom’s oil lies. In 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan, a Sunni, spoke of the creation of a Shiite “crescent,” running from Iran, through Iraq, and into Syria and Lebanon, that would destabilize the Arab world. Jordan, which is an indispensably important American ally, is a Sunni country, but its population is also majority-Palestinian, and many of those Palestinians support the Islamist Hamas movement, one of whose main sponsors is Shiite Iran.

There are likely second-order consequences, as well. Rampant Kurdish nationalism, unleashed by the invasion, may spill over into the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. America’s reliance on anti-democratic regimes, such as Egypt’s, for help in its campaign against Islamist terrorism could strengthen the Islamist opposition in those countries. An American decision to confront Iran could have an enduring impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—a tenuous undertaking to begin with—because the chief enemies of compromise are the Iranian-backed terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Then there are third-order consequences: in the next 20 years, new states could emerge as old ones shrink, fracture, or disappear. Khuzestan, a mostly Arab province of majority-Persian Iran, could become independent. Lebanon, whose existence is perpetually inexplicable, could become partly absorbed by Syria, whose future is also uncertain. The Alawites who rule Syria are members of a Shiite splinter sect, and they are a tiny minority in their own, mostly Sunni country (the Ala­wites briefly ruled an independent state in the mountains above the Mediterranean). Syria, out of a population of 20 million, has roughly 2 million Kurds, who are mostly indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to the government in Damascus.

Kuwait is another state whose future looks unstable; after all, it has already been subsumed once, and could be again—though, under another scenario, it could gain territory and population, if Iraq’s Sunnis seek an alliance with it as a way of protecting themselves from their country’s newly powerful Shiites. Bahrain, a majority-Shiite country ruled by Sunnis, could well be annexed by Iran (which already claims it), and Yemen could expand its territory at Saudi Arabia’s expense. And the next decades might see the birth of one or two Palestinian states—and, perhaps, the end of Israel as a Jewish state, a fervent dream of much of the Muslim world.

And let’s not forget Pakistan, whose artificiality I was reminded of by Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani dictator, during an interview in the garrison city of Rawalpindi some years ago. At one point, he took exception to the idea that the Baluch, the quasi-nomadic people who inhabit the large deserts of Pakistan’s west (and Iran’s southeast), might feel unattached to the government in Islamabad. In so doing, he undermined the idea of Pakistan as a naturally unitary state. “I know many residents of Baluchistan who are appreciative of Pakistan and the many programs and the like that Pakistan has for Baluchistan,” he said, referring to one of his states as if it were another country. He continued: “Why [is Pakistan] thought of as artificial and not others? Didn’t your country almost come to an end in a civil war? You faced larger problems than we ever have.”

Musharraf also made passing reference to the Afghan-Pakistan border, the so-called Durand Line. It was named after the English official who in 1893 forced the Afghans to accept it as their border with British India, even though it sliced through the territory of a large ethnic group, the truculent Pashtuns, who dominate Afghan politics and warmaking and who have always disliked and, accordingly, disrespected the line. Musharraf warned about the hazards of even thinking about the line. “Why would there be such a desire to change existing situations?” he said. “There would be instability to come out of this situation, should this question be put on the table. It is best to leave borders alone. If you start asking about this and that border or this and that arrangement …” He didn’t finish the sentence.

All of this is very confusing, of course. Many Americans (including, until not so long ago, President Bush) do not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, let alone between a Sindhi and a Punjabi. Just try to imagine, say, Secretary of State Podhoretz briefing President Giuliani on his first meeting with the leaders of the Baluchi­stan Liberation Army, and it becomes obvious that we may be entering a new and hazardous era.

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, which is now out in paperback. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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