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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Decent Intervals

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The American president’s speech this week declaring an end to the war against Islamist militants brought to mind several analogies from recent American history: Ronald Reagan’s “turn” after 1986 in the Cold War when he replaced the fist with the outstretched hand and, together with Mikhail Gorbachev, ended that war peacefully; and Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s peace with honor to the war in Vietnam. In both cases, the enemy played along: the first caved; the second prevailed. Each one did so after a period of heightened tension and great violence (or the threat of violence). Neither result seems to be self-evident, so far, however, in this most recent instance.

Good gamesmanship depends on a proper diagnosis: realism, in some cases, can be overtaken by pragmatism. The war against al Qaeda and its fellow travelers has generally been depicted as a war against an ‘ism: fanaticism, terrorism, extremism. That is to say, a war against a nihilistic ideology bent against the destruction of all that the civilized world holds dear. It has been that, to some degree. But locally the picture blurs. It is possible to view this particular conflict, beginning in the mid-1980s, in parallel to the conflict that began in the late 1970s with the Iranian revolution, namely, a struggle for the mastery of a region and a political culture therein. Analogies tempt the urge to simplify and exaggerate. But it is difficult to depict today’s Syria as anything but such an internationalized civil war, in which every party has great interests at stake, not least their prestige. If anyone doubts this, just listen to Hasan’s Nasrallah’s speech today.

President Obama is wise to keep his country out of this. Nobody should get mixed up in someone else’s civil war unless it is absolutely necessary and vital to one’s own country’s interests. Franklin Roosevelt was wise to do so in Spain. George H. W. Bush was, to a point, wise to do so during the wars of Yugoslav succession. Some have said that today we are witnessing such a regional civil war dating back to the Ottoman succession. Perhaps. The older the analogy, the more facile it is. But the geopoliticians have a point here. If the Russians pull everyone’s chestnuts out of the fire for the fourth time in two decades at the upcoming Geneva meeting, many people will save a good deal of face. We must pray for this outcome, however ironic. Indeed, the best that anyone can hope for is a result similar to the one that followed the Geneva Conference of 1954. This won’t please Vietnam analogists. Let them come up with something better.

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