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Belmont Club

A Double MacGuffin With Cheese

March 4th, 2012 - 3:03 pm

Concerns over a nuclear Iran have finally overtaken the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process as administration’s main focus in the Middle East.

Peace talks with the Palestinians dominated President Barack Obama’s meeting last year with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but will barely warrant a mention at their White House session Monday or in speeches to a powerful pro-Israeli lobby. Iran is now the issue commanding urgent attention.

Not that the administration is going to do anything about it, according to Robert Joseph, an undersecretary of state for arms control and international security from 2005 to 2007: “the Obama administration has essentially acquiesced to a nuclear Iran.”

Nor should it be a given that Iran is Israel’s top problem. Egypt, according to Lee Smith writing in the Weekly Standard, is “is ungoverned, one Israeli energy executive told me, and on the verge of ungovernable.” Top officials are ripping off one of the few sources of foreign currency, their natural gas exports to Israel while at the same time are unable to keep the pipeline from being frequently blown up.

Late last week Spanish authorities announced that they’re extraditing Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem, a close associate of former president Hosni Mubarak. Salem is a central figure in the post-Mubarak narrative of the regime’s rampant corruption. He has already been sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison by an Egyptian court for his alleged role in selling natural gas to Israel at below market rates. The problem with that narrative is that Israel pays top dollar for Egyptian gas. How that cash was distributed within Egypt is an entirely separate matter…

In the 13 months since the uprising, there have been 12 attacks on the pipeline that supplies Egyptian natural gas to Israel (and to Jordan). The first occurred during the midst of the anti-Mubarak protests and the most recent was February 5, leading to a three-week disruption in service. In the last year, there were 245 days during which no gas flowed. When it did flow, the gas came in quantities substantially smaller than what had originally been contracted.

The issue, according to the Israeli executive, is not that it takes that long to repair the pipeline. The delays rather are due to the political uncertainty in Egypt. Ruling authorities from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces are afraid to make decisions that might land them in jail or force them into exile, like Salem and other Mubarak associates.

In other words, they are fighting over the money, and the less of it remains, the harder they fight over the scraps. When they finally run out scraps then a new phase begins.

The country’s economy is bottoming out. Maiman notes that between the lack of tourism, a steep drop-off in workers’ remittances from neighboring Libya, the flight of capital and a lack of foreign direct investment, the country desperately needs money. Egypt is going begging to the Arab states, the IMF and World Bank, while it is sitting on natural gas that it refuses to profit from for political reasons. And if Egypt fails to meet its contractual obligations to Israel, it is difficult to see investors taking further risks in a political climate dominated by Islamists.

The recent shift away from the “Palestinian problem” to the Iranian nuclear breakout and the lack of concern from developments in Egypt typifies what might be called the MacGuffin theory of diplomacy. A MacGuffin, according to Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term,  is a plot device that is “nothing at all”, but which helps fix attention on a narrative.

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so desirable. A MacGuffin, therefore, functions merely as “a plot element that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction”.

The long-running fiction that the key problem in the Middle East was the Arab-Israeli problem, rather than what it now appears to be, the rivalry between Sunni and Shi’a power centers, which may or may not have culminated in September 11 ought to have been detected by the media early on. But it was not. It remained for events to bring the main problem to the fore.

The Arab-Israeli MacGuffin went away simply because the scriptwriters made it go away not because any of the movie critics noticed. So nukes in Iran matter after all?  They went from not being there, not being seriously there, being deterrably there to finally being inevitably there without anyone remarking upon the strange shifting of stories.

Like the President said, “I’m not bluffing”. Or is that a bluff too?

Another MacGuffin has appeared in the shape of the five Americans who burned Korans at a base in Afghanistan. They may now face a “disciplinary review” for an something the President has already apologized profusely for.  The matter is apparently far from closed.

The Western official confirmed earlier reports that extremist inscriptions were found inside the texts, including notations apparently scribbled by detainees exchanging messages. He said that after the writings were discovered, two Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to go through the library materials, and 1,652 items were removed and placed in boxes.

A decision was made to dispose of the material because of a lack of storage space and the notes inside, but a group of three soldiers on a garbage detail removed the books before that could be done properly, the official said. He said the soldiers had no idea what they were throwing into the burn pit and insisted none of the material was destroyed before it was removed by Afghan workers.

However, Maulvi Khaliq Dad, a top Afghan religious leader who was on a different panel appointed by President Hamid Karzai to investigate the incident, claimed the burning was intentional.

Like the “Palestinian problem” the supposedly infamous behavior of the five Americans has nearly nothing to do with anything. The troops may not even have known what they were burning. Will it save them? Not if they are the designated MacGuffin for the current narrative, which whatever it is about, is more important for what it obscures.

What is the administration’s real endgame in the region if it doesn’t seriously intend to challenge the Iranians, if it is oblivious to the growing chaos in Egypt? What is the administration’s actual goal in Southwest Asia, besides preventing the burning of more Korans?

It’s like a Hitchcock movie without an ending.  But maybe we can ask ourselves where it all began.


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