Beware Complacency

Deadlines for Armageddon are nothing new in the Middle East. Someone is always predicting the end of the world brought on by the coming of a messiah, the passing of a dictator, the rise of a sect, the failure of a peace plan. The region is forever about to die of thirst or bathe in blood. The world watches with fear and incomprehension as the crisis comes--and passes. Then life goes on. Complacency settles over the Middle East again as if all those fears were unfounded. Tourists start to drift back to the Pyramids. Regular programming resumes around the world.

But nothing in the Middle East is more dangerous than complacency. Enormous problems are put on hold instead of being solved; declared at an end simply because they didn't end the world. In fact they accumulate, they fester, and create the potential for greater problems to come. If we didn't know that before, it's certainly a lesson the last year should teach us about the next one. The peace process between Israelis and Palestinians that was often called "irreversible" has all but collapsed, and the land that both call holy is in flames. Democratic advances in the Arab world, small though they were, have ground to a halt. And in Iran they've been largely reversed. Terrorism has not been eradicated, and no longer seems contained.

Think back. Just 12 months ago, mysterious plotters grabbed the headlines when a nervous Algerian coming from Canada got stopped at the U.S. border with the makings of a bomb in the trunk of his car. On the verge of the Millennium, somebody was planning to bring a taste of Armageddon home to the U.S. Investigators quickly arrested alleged members of the conspiracy all over the North American map. Some leads linked the group to the "network of networks" led from Afghanistan by Saudi exile Osama Bin Laden. Then...nothing. Even though the initial arrest in the case appeared to be mostly a matter of luck, the threat seemed to pass. Complacency settled in.

Then, two months ago, in the faraway port of Aden on the Arabian Sea, a pair of suicide bombers blew an enormous hole in the side of the American destroyer U.S.S. Cole, killing 17 American sailors and wounding more than twice that number. Evidence is accumulating to link the attack to Bin Laden's web, which seems as wide and dangerous as ever. And is Washington prepared? "The United States has no coherent, functional national strategy for combating terrorism," says Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who heads a panel that issued its first gloomy report on the issue a year ago, and came out with another one last week. "We are not, as some suggest, totally unprepared to meet the threat of terrorism in our own front yard," said Gilmore. "But we can be better prepared." What the United States cannot be, in other words, is complacent.

French scholar Gilles Kepel pronounced the era of Jihad at an end in April. The Islamists, as he calls radical fundamentalists, were a spent force. "What we see now is a sort of terrorist refusal to face reality," Kepel said. "They are isolated, and they are engaged in actions that have no popular backing any more." And at the time you could make that case. Even Iran, a source of Islamist inspiration for two long decades, was undergoing a democratic renaissance. Newspapers were flourishing, elections were drawing massive turnouts, and the voices and votes of the people were being heard by the government of President Mohammad Khatami. But in the months since, the conservatives have fought back effectively. They've shut down the press and limited Khatami's reforms. In November, he admitted publicly that after three and a half years in office, "I don't have sufficient powers to implement the constitution, which is my biggest responsibility." In December, Khatami had to fight a first bid to impeach him. It may not be the last.

In Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has consolidated his government, and many rebels have sued for peace. Yet massacres remain so common among the rolling wheatfields and rural villages outside Algiers that they no longer make headlines abroad. In Sudan, Islamist sects have turned on one another, bringing horrific slaughter to a mosque outside of Omdurman. When Hizbollah's guerrillas finally made south Lebanon too painful and insecure for Israel to occupy, and the troops of the region's superpower withdrew, Lebanese and Syrian politicians claimed a nationalist victory. But it was Hizbollah's jihad that did the job.

Ten years ago a powerful alliance of Western and Arab nations, led by the United States, forced Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. But the dictator remains alive, apparently well and ready to raise hell in Bagdad. His nuclear program may have been stopped. He may be wise enough to forego the use of whatever biological and chemical agents he still has at his disposal. But the oil weapon fell back into his hands this year. World markets came to depend on Iraq's production of more than 3 million barrels a day. Saddam's ability to spike the price was proven several times over the last few months, and it grows with every cold day that pushes up demand for heating oil in Europe and the United States. Mercy flights into Iraq are starting to look like regular charters. The embargo is breaking down. And Saddam, who always believed that to survive was to win, can celebrate his victory with greater confidence every morning.

So can Libya's Muammar Kadhafi, who saw his nation's isolation and tribulations come to an end as two of his former agents, allegedly responsible for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, finally went to trial in a special court set up in the Netherlands. The case is not going well for the prosecution. There is a real possibility that no one at all will pay for the crime, least of all the eccentric tyrant of Tripoli.

It will be fascinating to watch the new Bush administration's team--Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney--confronting tyrants they left in place when they were the old Bush administration's team.

One reason dictators have endured for so long in the Arab world is worry that their reigns of fear will be replaced by the reign of chaos. The smooth transition of power from monarch to monarch in Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain has been taken as a positive sign of regional stability. When Syria's Hafez Assad passed away, the machinery of his clan, his army and his party put his ophthalmologist son, Bashar, on the dictator's throne without overt bloodshed. And a collective breath of relief was audible from Washington to Moscow. But no member of the much-publicized "new generation" of leaders has faced a major test so far, nor implemented fundamental democratic reforms, nor faced down a concerted challenge. Their greatest achievements have been to preserve, for the moment, a dilapidated status quo.

It was in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that complacency led to the most ferocious disappointments, however. Seven years after the Oslo Accords were forged and confidence building measures begun, neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders had enough faith in each other, or enough backing from their people, to build a real peace. When President Bill Clinton summoned them to Camp David last summer, he drew them into a diplomatic trap of their own making. As they tried and failed to solve the greatest symbolic problem, sovereignty over Jerusalem, they only exposed their earlier failures.

The map of the West Bank being proposed by the Israelis, which looked like a Swiss cheese with the Palestinians in the holes, was at best an extremely improbable blueprint for lasting peace. Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat could not credibly sign a deal that surrendered the hopes of millions of Palestinians to return their homes or be compensated for their loss. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while he had general support for the idea of peace, had a coalition government too fragile to make the tough decisions necessary to achieve it. When the decaying peace process turned explosive in October, Jewish Israelis re-discovered not only the hate borne against them by the Palestinians under occupation, but the ferocious resentments of Arab Israeli citizens. The peace once described as irreversible gave way to a cycle of violence that seemed, in retrospect, inevitable.

Barak's shaky government came crashing down. The resurgence of right-wing leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, and the no-holds-barred election campaign ahead--with or without Bibi--are only likely to deepen the bitterness on all sides.

Difficult as the prospects for peace and stability appear, there are positive signs as well. The people of the Middle East have never been so well-educated. The social and commercial revolution brought on by information technology has helped make Israel independently wealthy, and is beginning to transform life in Arab countries, too. Dictatorships may close down newspapers and jail protesters, but Internet chat rooms are increasingly beyond their control. The pace of change has picked up dramatically--potentially for good as well as for ill. The Clinton administration's ideas and initiatives in the region were worn out. The return of key members of the old Bush team, who not only brought us the Gulf War but the Madrid peace talks, could shake up the Middle East's stalemated diplomacy. It would be wrong to say there's no room for optimism about the year to come. But there's certainly no room for complacency.

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