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On Point

Bad Month for Diplomats

by Austin Bay
June 18, 2003

June 2003 is a tough month for diplomats. Three ever-simmering civil wars in the Middle East have simultaneously neared or exceeded their respective political boiling points, while a fourth shows signs of resolution.

The Palestinian civil war is underway -- and it's the toughest milestone on any road to Israeli-Palestinian peace. In Iran, the mullahs' dictatorship is reeling from open opposition. Saudi Arabia's civil war is now out in the open, with the Saud regime thwarting planned Al Qaeda operations in Mecca. Finally, there's Iraq, where Baathist diehards are dying hard.

Each war has critical international impact. Arguably, they are further evidence that, in the 21st century, what international law and political borders once boxed as "internal conflicts" have long escaped those diplomatic confines.

Palestine's civil war allies Israel and Palestinian moderates against Palestinian militants. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates eager for a secure peace, just as there are uncompromising Zionist extremists who believe the Book of Genesis documents a real-estate deal. We rarely heard from Palestinian moderates because these intelligent people found silence preferable to death. The radicals -- be they old-time secularists in hard-line PLO factions or Islamists in Hamas -- held guns to the moderates' heads.

Yassir Arafat never removed the zealots' guns. Arafat committed his greatest strategic error in the summer of 2000, when he rejected Israel's peace plan. Arafat lacked the guts to wage the necessary civil war with Hamas, even though he would have had the support of the United States and Israel. He could have followed the example of Israel's David Ben Gurion. In 1948, Ben Gurion's Haganah attacked the Altalena, a ship supplying Menachem Begin's Irgun Zvai Leumi. That Israeli civil war helped bring the terror-inclined Irgun to heel.

The last thing the United States should do is send troops to fight Hamas, but don't take that chatter from Sen. Richard Lugar literally. It's a message that says the United States is backing Palestinian premier Mahmoud Abbas to the hilt. The moderates have a chance, and it's not simply a matter of Israeli might. With Saddam gone, the strategic picture has changed. Saddam regularly stoked Palestinian resentment. Now, Syria is less inclined to meddle.

Don't underestimate the strategic effects on Iran of Saddam's demise. Saddam presented Iran with a long-term threat, one the ayatollahs could use to legitimate a degree of internal militarization. Now, the Butcher of Baghdad's gone. Iranians have seen Iraqis dancing in the streets. Is it time for the Theocrats of Tehran to take a hike? In the past two weeks, street demonstrations have spread to every major city. Demonstrators no longer call for the political reform of the mullah's regime, they demand replacement.

Will Iran slide into all-out civil war or follow the 1989 path of Eastern Europe's decayed communist dictatorships? We may know that answer by July.

There's a case to be made -- by no means totally facile -- that the War on Terror is a Saudi civil war diverted to the rest of the globe. The Saud regime's petro-princes were always an Al Qaeda target, but as long as Al Qaeda was off in Afghanistan with the Taliban or in East Africa blowing up American embassies, the princes could pretend the Islamists were no threat to them.

The Saudis now say their response to last month's bombing in Riyadh demonstrates they are full participants in America's War on Terror. The civil war's come home with a vengeance. The Saudi bust of an Al Qaeda cell in Mecca is a key event. Controlling Mecca is to Saudi politics what controlling the eastern oil fields is to the Saudi economy -- absolutely vital.

How can I call Iraq a civil conflict when the U.S. Army is on the ground? Ask the Iraqis who still fear the Baath. For four decades, the Baath Party waged war on its own people. The mass graves found by forensic teams are evidence of that hideous form of mass destruction.

If anything, Iraq is a cause for optimism. Despite the flickering warfare, June 2003 is witnessing something quite remarkable -- the first signs of a civil society re-emerging from totalitarian devastation. Achieving a stable civil society, however, is still years away.

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