The one uncontroversial fact about the Middle East is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is inextricably linked to every other problem in the region. Known as “linkage,” this is the one idea that has won the support of a broad consensus of U.S. congressmen, senators, diplomats, former presidents, and their foreign-policy advisers, seconded by journalists, Washington policy analysts, almost every American who has ever watched a Sunday morning news roundtable, and the Obama Administration, from National Security Adviser James Jones to the president himself: “If we can solve the Israeli-Palestinian process,” candidate Obama said on Meet the Press in the spring of 2008, “then that will make it easier for Arab states and the Gulf states to support us when it comes to issues like Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also weaken Iran, which has been using Hamas and Hezbollah as a way to stir up mischief in the region.”
Having written a book that describes the Middle East in terms of a clash of Arab civilizations, I give no credence to the notion that the Arab-Israeli arena is the region’s defining issue. Rather, it is one among many conflicts that plague this conflict-prone area, and so I see the Arabic-speaking regions in terms of intra-Arab clashes, or an Arab cold war, where regional actors—not just nation states, but also regimes and their domestic rivals, in addition to competing sectarian groups—are warring with each other at varying levels of intensity. There is the Palestinian civil war between Hamas and Fatah that has cooled for the time being; in Lebanon, Hezbollah has routed the pro-democracy March 14 forces; the Houthi rebellion taking place on the Saudi-Yemen border is effectively a proxy war between the Saudis and the Iranians; in Syria, the ruling Alawite minority simultaneously fears the country’s Sunni majority even as it uses Sunni militants to advance its interests in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian territories; and in Iraq, Sunnis and Shia seem to be poised for a continuation of the civil war that will ensue after the U.S. withdrawal. That’s the real Middle East, where the Arabs’ fight for power among themselves takes priority over whether or not Washington negotiators have the percentages right in proffered land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, I can hardly help but recognize the central role that U.S. Middle East policy has given to the belief that, from the Persian Gulf all the way to Western North Africa, a region encompassing many thousands of tribes and clans, dozens of languages and dialects, ethnicities and religious confessions, the Arab-Israeli issue is the key factor in determining the happiness of over 300 million Arabs and an additional 1.3 billion Muslims outside of the Arabic-speaking regions. Where does such an extraordinary idea come from? The answer is the Arabs—who might be expected, in the U.S. view of the world, to give us an honest account of what is bothering them. However, this would ignore the fact that interested parties do not always disclose the entire truth of their situation, especially when they have a stake in doing otherwise.
Nor apparently can the Americans admit that linkage was just a strategic instrument that leveraged the Arab narrative to the advantage of the United States. The further U.S. policymaking gets from the origins of the myth, the more magical and enticing it has become. The myth of linkage has grown to such legendary proportions at this point that it is the extent of the current White House’s Middle East policy. We have no other strategy to stop the Iranian nuclear program but linkage. Movement on the peace process, the Obama Administration believes, will get the Arab regimes to help us with Iran. The problem is that the Arabs will not help us with Iran. They want us to deal with Iran ourselves, but if we keep forcing the issue of linkage they have no choice but to go along with the ruse that everything is linked to the Arab-Israeli crisis. After all, it’s their narrative, and they can’t disown it now.
In reality, the reason the Obama Administration, Gates, and Petraeus are pushing linkage into overdrive is that there is no Iran strategy, and nothing—not even linkage—is going to stop the Iranians. They are telling the Arabs that they are going to do what they can about the Palestinian question, because they are not going to do anything about Iran. That’s the Arabs’ consolation prize for being an American ally. What a cruel joke fate has played at the expense of Arabs, who have been talking out of both sides of their mouth about the Palestinians and linkage for almost a century, a myth that came to link the fate of the Americans to that of the Arabs, and theirs to ours. Since we have no other policy than a magic trick, the Arabs have no choice but to pretend to believe it’s real.