The Big Casino

Michael Totten looks at the mechanics of how minorities survive in the Middle East. Although the Jews are the best known of those minorities, the Druze are in their own way, subject to the same Darwinian requirements of existence. They too have to make and break alliances, gauge the direction of the wind and generally follow the prevailing breezes. His exploration of the dilemmas of Walid Jumblatt, now up at his site, illustrates very clearly why it is important to be the Strong Horse in the Middle East to have any hope of being a force for good. One of the ironies of statecraft is that peacemaking requires the ability to inspire fear. Not charity but wariness keeps the wolves at bay.


His description of Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt’s decision to mend his fences with Hezbollah to follow the lead of  “the international community invit(ing) the rogue regimes in from the cold” is a classic illustration of how Barack Obama’s foreign policy is being perceived in the region.

The Druze minority communities in Lebanon, Israel, and Syria have worked out a survival formula that works better than most. They’re weathervanes. They calculate. They, more than other Arabs, side with the strong horse. … In Syria, the Druze support the Baathist regime of Bashar Assad. Israeli Druze are fiercely loyal to the state and fight harder than most against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah in elite IDF units.  …

Lebanon’s Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently abandoned the anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah “March 14” coalition and declared himself politically neutral. … He believes, correctly, that Lebanon can’t effectively take a hard line while the international community invites the rogue regimes in from the cold. … “Do you think the long term interests of Syria and Iran are in harmony?” … “I think the interests are too interconnected between the Syrian regime and Persia,” Jumblatt said, “and I think Persia is now stronger.


But is Jumblatt right? “Persia” for its part is despite its recent convulsions, taking a hard line with Obama. Bloomberg reports that “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ruled out negotiations on his country’s nuclear program … the Iranian president said, “we are ready to discuss world issues with the U.S. president in the presence of mass media. The time of hidden agreements is over, and television debates are the best way.” A lot has changed since Jumblatt realigned and Iran may have calculated that weak though they have become, Obama because of the health care debacle, may have fallen even faster in political strength. This perception may underlie Hugo Chavez’s solicitude towards the US President. In a Reuters story Chavez actually said that Obama needed help.

VENICE (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy who once called George W. Bush “the devil,” said on Monday he hoped to be able to work more closely with President Barack Obama. … “With Obama we can talk, we are almost from the same generation, one can’t deny that Obama is different (from Bush). He’s intelligent, he has good intentions and we have to help him.”


That other famous Middle Eastern minority, the Jews, were placing — and hedging their bets about who will come out on top. The government of Israel recently approved the construction of 455 settlement units on the West Bank which is being portrayed as both a concession to and defiance of US policy. The WSJ writes:

Jewish settlers scuffled with Israeli peace activists in the West Bank on Monday hours after Minister of Defense Ehud Barak approved plans for 455 housing units in the territory, adding to the tension surrounding what has become the most contentious issue of the Obama-led peace process. … The denunciations from both sides of the Israeli political spectrum underscored the difficulties Mr. Netanyahu faces as he attempts to appease demands by the U.S. and the Arabs with an agreement to partially freeze building. It is expected within days. The premier had sought to placate hard-liners by approving the new units before agreeing to a cap on construction of future units. … But this delicate balancing act puts Mr. Netanyahu in jeopardy of alienating all sides and pleasing none. In addition to local criticism, the Obama administration rebuked Israel for the new approvals on Friday.

Everybody is trying to have it both ways.  When the Wheel of Fortune comes to a stop, as it periodically does in the Middle Eastern casino, history will record the winners and the losers. But however that may be, the odds are that the game will going. That part of the world has seen off the Romans, the Ottomans and the British Empire. It will probably outlast Barack Obama.


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