Any lingering hopes of a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians evaporated last week as the Islamist extremists of Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the more secular Fatah party, now finds himself president of the West Bank only. The next Middle Eastern peace plan will have to be a three-state solution: Israel, Hamastan and Fatahland.
Meanwhile, even as hooded Hamas gunmen and Fatah forces traded bullets in Gaza, and even as another anti-Syrian politician was blown to pieces in Lebanon, Sunni militants in Iraq destroyed the twin minarets of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, finishing the job they began last year, when they demolished its golden dome. Nothing could be better calculated to intensify the sectarian conflict there and push the country another step closer to bloody partition.
And don't forget Kurdistan, the semiautonomous republic in northern Iraq that is set to be the third state in Iraq's three-state (dis)solution. The Turks haven't. They're currently massing troops on its border.
As I said, there's no shortage of division in the Middle East. But who gets to rule is less clear.
For some time I have been warning that the next great global conflict will begin in the Middle East, just as the two world wars had their origins in Eastern Europe. The lethal combination of ethnic disintegration, economic volatility and an empire in decline (in this case, the U.S.) makes an upward spiral of violence hard to avoid. Add to that the demographic pressures caused by high Muslim birthrates, the money generated by vast deposits of oil and natural gas and the risk that the most revolutionary power in the region will soon possess nuclear weapons — and you have a recipe for Armageddon.
What can the rest of the world do? According to Edward Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the answer is: Ignore it. In a recent article, Luttwak dismisses the entire region as "the middle of nowhere," arguing that overblown prophecies of doom are, after oil, the Middle East's biggest export.
Luttwak's argument is twofold. First, we exaggerate the importance of the violence there. After all, he writes, "the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000." And Iran, he says, is no more of a threat to the West than Iraq was.
At the same time, Luttwak insists, we exaggerate the economic importance of the Middle East. In truth, it is an underachieving region where "almost nothing is created in science or the arts." Its principal export is oil, but global dependence on that is declining.
Hence, the only rational policy is one of benign neglect. "Backward societies," he concludes, "must be left alone, as the French now wisely leave Corsica to its own devices, as the Italians quietly learned to do in Sicily."
Of all the commentaries I have read in the last six months, this stands out as the silliest. Does Luttwak seriously believe that the disintegration of Iraq (or for that matter, of Iran, which he foresees) can be compared with the trivial disorders of Corsica and Sicily?
Violence in Iraq is claiming the lives of about 3,000 people a month. Since 1998, according to the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, Middle Eastern terrorism has killed 24,289 people. Is this Luttwak's idea of an acceptable level of violence? And would he like to offer an estimate of how many people may die in the next 10 years, as Iraq falls apart and the Israel-Iran showdown reaches its climax?
What's more, it is simply ludicrous to claim that the Middle East is economically irrelevant. True, the West is less dependent on oil from the region than it was in the 1970s. But has no one pointed out to Luttwak the trajectory of global oil supply and demand? The oil fields of the rest of the world are likely to be exhausted much sooner than those of the Middle East, which today account for 62% of proven reserves, compared with 54% in 1980. Meanwhile, Asia's economic boom is causing an unprecedented increase in demand. If Middle Eastern oil is so unimportant, why were crude futures up to $67 last week?
Far from benign neglect, what is desperately needed in the Middle East is a more effective policy of diplomatic intervention — to establish some kind of rule amid all the division.
My worry is that with two U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups off the Iranian coast and an admiral newly appointed as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, precisely the wrong kind of intervention may be about to happen.