On Point: Bad Month for Diplomats

by Austin Bay
June 18, 2003

June 2003 is a tough month for diplomats. Three ever-simmeringcivil wars in the Middle East have simultaneously neared or exceeded theirrespective political boiling points, while a fourth shows signs ofresolution.

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

Each war has critical international impact. Arguably, they arefurther evidence that, in the 21st century, what international law andpolitical borders once boxed as "internal conflicts" have long escaped thosediplomatic confines.

Palestine's civil war allies Israel and Palestinian moderatesagainst Palestinian militants. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates eagerfor a secure peace, just as there are uncompromising Zionist extremists whobelieve the Book of Genesis documents a real-estate deal. We rarely heardfrom Palestinian moderates because these intelligent people found silencepreferable to death. The radicals -- be they old-time secularists inhard-line PLO factions or Islamists in Hamas -- held guns to the moderates'heads.

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

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

Don't underestimate the strategic effects on Iran of Saddam'sdemise. Saddam presented Iran with a long-term threat, one the ayatollahscould use to legitimate a degree of internal militarization. Now, theButcher 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 twoweeks, street demonstrations have spread to every major city. Demonstratorsno longer call for the political reform of the mullah's regime, they demandreplacement.

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

There's a case to be made -- by no means totally facile -- thatthe 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 longas Al Qaeda was off in Afghanistan with the Taliban or in East Africablowing up American embassies, the princes could pretend the Islamists wereno threat to them.

The Saudis now say their response to last month's bombing inRiyadh 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 Qaedacell in Mecca is a key event. Controlling Mecca is to Saudi politics whatcontrolling the eastern oil fields is to the Saudi economy -- absolutelyvital.

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

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

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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