As long as any of us has been around, the Middle East — one part or another — has been in crisis. The question today is, is there any end in sight? Well, BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs spent the plurality of his overseas career covering the Middle East as a television network news correspondent. And plainly put, as he writes in this Boomer Opinion piece, he’s not optimistic.
As baby boomers, we know this much from all we’ve seen: Just about everything of late that puts us in crisis mode — tensions with Russia, trade with China, even nukes in North Korea — will likely settle into a sustainable if new norm … if no one goes flat-out ballistic.
But not the Middle East. As a correspondent for two television networks, I covered the Middle East off and on for almost forty years. Not just the Hatfield-McCoy feuds that still fuel the burgeoning battles between Shiites and Sunnis, but the gulf between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Nine presidents now, clear back to Richard Nixon, have fiddled with that gulf. Eight of them learned the hard way that it is insurmountable. The ninth, with his official recognition now of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has only widened it.
But in the bigger picture, that is merely another blip on the radar screen, because the Palestinian-Israeli divide is a microcosm of the greater Middle East: a cauldron of competing cultures, competing beliefs, competing interests, competing ideologies, competing ambitions. Obviously religion is at the core of the region’s conflicts. Then add power, fanaticism, and bragging rights.
Yet in my firsthand experience there, history plays the biggest role of all. You can’t change history, you can’t erase it. You can put it aside of course, which is how South Africa came together after apartheid and, for that matter, how the United States reconciled after the Civil War. But in the Middle East they don’t ignore history. To the contrary, it drives them to this day.
I covered the first Gulf War, for example, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s. Saddam was a nationalist who believed that because modern Kuwait (and its wealth of oil) sits on land that once was part of the ancient pre-Iraqi Babylonian Empire, by rights it should once again be part of Iraq. Twenty to thirty thousand people died in that one.
I covered barbaric battles in the Iran-Iraq War in what was basically a border dispute that had been in play for four centuries. That one dragged on for eight years in the 1980s. An estimated million people died, yet at the end of the day, neither side’s borders shifted a single inch.
Maybe most stupefying is the ongoing and incessant clash between Sunnis and Shiites, which I covered all over the Middle East. The conflict dates back a mere 1,400 years to the death of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and, albeit a simplification, it comes down to who should have inherited Mohammad’s mantle of leadership after he died? Talk about a grudge! It’s behind the deaths of millions in all the centuries since.
And history is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Which makes resolution particularly perplexing because each faction believes it has history on its side. From control of ancient sites in Jerusalem to control of land that at one time or another has been occupied by both Muslims and Jews, the argument comes down to whose history carries more weight?
In language unique to our current president, Mr. Trump has called an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement “one of the toughest deals of all.” How tough? Son-in-law Jared Kushner, the president’s senior advisor with Middle East Peace in his protruding portfolio, told some Congressional interns last summer that he doesn’t know if the United States has anything new and unique to offer. So far, at least, we haven’t seen much to change that assessment.
That’s discouraging, but realistic. And part of a pessimistic assessment of the future: there is nothing new to offer on the intractable core issues that have always divided Israel and the Palestinians; there is even more hostility alienating the antagonists now than in years past; and there is even more instability in the region overall. So unlike Russia and China and North Korea, the chasm between Palestinians and Israelis might be a foreign crisis that just keeps coming. The whole Middle East might be.