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Two Modest Proposals for the Middle East

In 1729 Jonathan Swift published “A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden on their parents or country and for making them beneficial to the publick”.  Swift proposed that Irish parents fatten their infants and export them for the delectation of wealthy English gentlemen.  “A young healthy child well nursed is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled…”

Swift argues that fattening infants for consumption would not only reduce poverty in Ireland, it would have the added benefits of reducing the frequency of abortion and inducing husbands to have greater solicitude for their pregnant wives. And, most importantly, it would obviate the need for the obvious but unthinkable solution: taxing landowners to relieve the poverty of the underclass that was enriching them.

“Modest proposals” are called for when vexing, horrific circumstances defy ordinary or even extraordinary solutions.  They are “out-of-the box” solutions that run outrageously counter to prevailing norms and what passes as common sense.”  They put on display the ineffectiveness of political orthodoxy and the hypocrisy of its adherents.

I offer out-of-the-box solutions to two seriously vexing and intractable problems in the Middle East: (1) lethal military attacks on civilians in Syria; (2) political rivalry between Iran and Israel morphing into military conflict.

Part I: A modest proposal to end the slaughter in Syria.

The Syrian situation worsens by the day.  Ideological control, economic growth, corruption and repression no longer work to maintain political quiescence.  In resorting to lethal attacks on the popular opposition, the Baathist regime is down to the last arrow in its quiver.  The slaughter will continue because the regime has nothing else to fall back on.

However, Baathist retention of power through military violence is unacceptable to everybody but the Baathists.  The international “community” is straining to roll out the standard nostrum of sanctions, isolation, and condemnation to force Bashar Assad to rein in the army and to institute democratic reforms.  It is plain as day that the Baathist regime will not be dislodged by armies of the “coalition of the willing”.  It is equally clear that the regime will not survive serious democratization.

Bashar knows how ruthlessly his father crushed a revolt in 1982.  Estimates of the slaughter range from eight to twenty thousand.  Chunks of the city of Hama, which was a focal point of rebellion, were obliterated.  This time around it looks like Homa will suffer the destruction visited on Hama. The regime has just passed the 5400 mark.  Bashar may have to surpass his father’s brutality to save the regime.  The Baathists will have to fight to the bitter end because yielding power will lead to ruin or death.

In the 1970s and 1980s, pere Assad was in a much stronger position. He didn’t have to contend with international sanctions or pressure from Turkey, and he had the Soviet Union at his back.  So while Bashar mobilizes his forces to crush the revolt, he must also concern himself with what the loss of power would mean for himself, his men and their dependents, and for his clan.

Lately, exit routes for dictators have not been very inviting.  Qaddafi’s televised summary execution was obscene. Saddam was captured hiding in a hole, put on display in a show trial and mocked at his execution. The military ousted Mubarak to halt the spiral down into destabilizing levels of violence in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria. His reward for this act of “statesmanship” is being wheeled into a Cairo courtroom on a gurney to defend himself against a charge of murder and possibly a trip to the gallows.   Lawrence Mgambo, the former president of Ivory Coast, was captured after a particularly vicious civil war and has just been shipped to The Hague for prosecution by the International Court.   Milosovic died in a Dutch prison in midst of an interminable trial.   Augusto Pinochet was arrested while visiting London eight years after relinquishing power.

With this scorecard of dictators’ falling from power, Assad and the Baathist leadership have little incentive to give up the fight.  The ruthless suppression of the opposition has the potential for transformation into a full scale civil war.  Sectarian militias and military defectors supplied with arms coming through Turkey and Iraq will start to launch meaningful military assaults on the regime which will then pull out all the stops on the lethality of its suppression. While the violence in Libya is fresh in memory, it pales in comparison to the 200,000 deaths in the Algerian civil war sparked in 1991 by the military’s cancelling elections to block the Islamic Salvation Front from taking power.

In the face of this carnage and mayhem, I offer a modest proposal to curtail political violence, avoid a protracted civil war, and save thousands of lives.  The international “community” should approach Bashar with an offer of safe passage, exile and sanctuary. When the regime begins to sprout serious worries about its longevity, the possibility of exile and sanctuary could incline them to surrender power and leave the country with their kinsmen and their wealth.  Northern Michigan or North Dakota would do just fine.

Not so long ago, the baddest of the bad could get a pretty good deal. Idi Amin, famed for cannibalizing children in the basement of the presidential palace (shades of Swift!), lived out his days in luxury in Saudi Arabia.  Francois “Baby Doc” Duvalier lived comfortably in France for 15 years until he stupidly returned to Haiti for what he supposed would be a brief visit after the earthquake.

A generation ago, the idea of exile and sanctuary for Bashar and the Baathist leadership would have been a diplomatic no brainer.  Now it is off limits.  Swift’s cannibalism violates a deep, ancient taboo.   My modest proposal violates a taboo of recent vintage:  you can’t do business with evil.  It runs afoul of a principle of political morality newly installed as a fixed point on the moral compass of the new world order.  The international “community” has ordained the principle, in ideology and law, that political leaders must be prosecuted law for violations of human rights and that punishment for their crimes is a moral imperative.  Granting exile and sanctuary to Bashar Assad and the Baathist leadership would leave human rights ideologists aghast.  Imagine the outcry if Qaddafi had been given sanctuary in the American Midwest, but also calculate the lives that would have been saved if the civil war had been shortened.

There are three ironic twists to this.  Standing on principle would be an impediment to abbreviating the slaughter.  Second, no government or international institution can grant and assure sanctuary.  The International Court would compromise its legitimacy by pardoning the Baathists in a political deal.  And, unless the principle of universal jurisdiction is revoked, a prosecutor somewhere can issue arrest warrants at some future time.  Prosecutors like Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon, who issued the warrant for Pinochet, can strike out of the blue.

Third, rejection of this modest proposal because it violates a grand moral principle displays the hypocrisy of the powerful.  Governments that would refuse to negotiate exile because it would be morally wrong to allow Bashar to escape trial have a history of exempting themselves from prosecution for their own wrongdoing. This familiar hypocrisy is paid for in Syrian blood.

Like raising Irish children for the market, exile and sanctuary for Assad is an idea whose day is never to come.  And the killing will continue until…

Part II. How to Deal with Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East

The war against Iran has been heating up for several years.  The current battle plan includes isolation, economic sanctions, covert action against military and industrial facilities, cyber sabotage, and assassinations. The critical escalation lies ahead.  The war parties in Israel and the United States are lusting to launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  No doubt for Iran this is the Rubicon.  An attack will provoke a military response and in all likelihood will lead to Iran’s playing its trump card– closure of the Strait of Hormuz.  No less a folly than the war in Iraq, an attack on Iran will unleash hostilities that are as destructive and far reaching as they are unpredictable.

The mantra in the west is that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon is “unacceptable.”  Unsurprisingly, the way in which generals, pundits, and politicians in Israel and the United States draw their “redlines” reflects their particular strategic perspectives. Those who are wary of escalation, like the Obama administration, define the red line as serious evidence that the Iranian government is actually building a weapon or actually possesses one.

On the other hand, the Likud and neocons who are hell bent on a military attack have a much more flexible idea of the red line. They define it as achieving “nuclear capability”: the Iranians have learned all they need to know to do build a warhead in no time at all if and when they decide to.  Knowing how crosses the red line. Whether Iran intends to go for a bomb let alone whether it is actually building one is irrelevant.  “Nuclear capability” is a politically convenient casus belli because it is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Iran will be deemed “nuclear capable” when the war party decides it is opportune to attack Iran.

The current situation is dangerous and unstable.  Setting aside the bellicose rhetoric and political machinations swirling around Washington and Tel Aviv, two structural, objective features of the situation make it intrinsically volatile.  The first factor is uncertainty about Iran’s intentions.   The second is Israel’s military superiority and stockpile of nuclear weapons.  The uncertainty legitimates attack on Iran; the latter makes it feasible. The principal constraint on an Israeli attack is the opposition of the Obama administration which is obviously not protection on which Iran can rely.

There is, however, a simple, sure fire way to eliminate the uncertainty and the instability which arises from it and eliminate the dominance which pushes Iran toward developing a nuclear arsenal. The United States and Russia have a ridiculously large store of nuclear warheads. If these nuclear powers were to give twenty or thirty warheads to Iran, uncertainty about its intention or ability to produce one would be taken out of the strategic equation. The risk of military escalation would be sharply reduced.

A donation of warheads would establish the arrangement that prevailed for fifty years between the United States and the Soviet Union: mutual assured destructions, lovingly known as MAD in those days.  The hawks of the cold war proclaimed the rationality, wisdom, and effectiveness of nuclear parity.  For good or for ill, the great powers played out their rivalries with the assurance that neither would launch a nuclear attack.

The acute problem in the Middle East is that Israel has nuclear weapons and Iran does not. Iran cannot leap from zero bombs to twenty (or whatever number establishes strategic parity) in one fell swoop.  If Iran were supplied with a small arsenal, an attack of either nation on the other would be as unthinkable as it was for the United States to threaten an attack on the Soviet Union.

So, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, my modest proposal is for the United States to make a charitable contribution to peace in the Middle East by supplying Iran with a nuclear arsenal.  Since nuclear weapons degrade over time, Iran would still have to develop its nuclear capability in order not to be dependent on the United States for protection.  But building its own bomb would threaten no one because nuclear parity is already in place.

Arming an enemy is, of course, a preposterous idea. But so too is the idea that an attack on Iran’s well protected facilities would lead to anything but greater instability and violence in the Middle East.

Michael Teitelman lives in New York City.  He can be reached at mt258@columbia.edu

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