Roger Cohen wrote today in the NY Times about an ordinary Israel, as opposed to an exceptional Israel.

I found this column significant in many ways. It captured something that had been the subtext of almost every international discussion of Israel and its actions beyond its legal borders in the last few years.

 As human beings, we usually have clearly defined perceptions of ourselves. In most cases, we are unaware or choose to be unaware of how we are perceived by the world around us. So unfortunately, we end up interacting with the world on the basis of how we see ourselves or how we wish to be seen. Nations do the same. They have national narratives that are sometimes manufactured for social cohesion, sometimes over-idealized versions of real events, sometimes just plain bogus. And unfortunately any external messages directed at them have to get through the thick fabricated glass windows.

Israel, Roger Cohen says in his piece “does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism”. So it can have nuclear weapons while demanding that the US help prevent Iran from getting them. It can refrain from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while demanding that NPT signatories like Iran live up to their obligations. Basic notions such as fairness do not factor in these types of talks because there is the view of “we are rational, THEY are not!” and therefore it follows that “we can be allowed to do things THEY can never be forgiven for doing.”  Now, Israel unlike many other nations on this earth was born out of a tragedy. A great tragedy. But as Cohen rightfully observes, that does not mean it should refrain from  ”deal[ing] with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.”

As Cohen quotes in the piece, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has often said that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is “for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened .” So what if the US as part of its Iran Strategy tried to convince Israel to go the way of South Africa and get rid of its nuclear weapons as a way of persuading the iranians that their security will not be compromised by not developing a bomb?

The Israelis would never agree to it, of course, but let’s imagine that they did for a second.
Because one important way and I believe the most important way to look at this Iran Nukes conundrum is through the lens of regional control and regional security. Israel has been the “Big Boy” of the Middle-East for the past forty years or so. Egypt reared its head for a bit in the days of Nasser and Sadat. But they were quickly smacked in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. They then decided it was best to sign a peace treaty, get a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat in the bargain and move on. Then Iraq rose slightly with a little help from the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations. They quickly lost their power when Saddam picked a fight with the Ayatollas to start the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war that drained them financially and otherwise. The American invasion of 2003 took care of whatever power was not erased by the UN sanctions that preceded it. The Gulf states (Bahrain, Koweit, Qatar, UAE, Oman) have as much military strength as five African bees.  Yet Israel with a lot of US financial and military help has remained strong.

So now the Iranians look to be on the rise again, paranoid and fearful. They do have valid reasons to be fearful. From Tehran, the Mullahs look to the east and they see NATO troops in Afghanistan (including nuclear armed nations like the US and the UK) and further east, they see Pakistanis with nukes. Indians with nukes. Further west, they see Israelis with nukes. In addition to being in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has a presence in the Gulf States. If you couple this with the constant threats of bombardments as enunciated by both US and Israeli officials, it is no wonder the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons as a way of preventing an externally-imposed regime change.

Some will argue that Iran is not governed by “rational leaders” and therefore cannot be held to the same standard as other nations. I disagree. And I am not alone in this view. Many decades of Iranian peaceful co-existence with its neighbours back me up on this. So does the NY Times’ Roger Cohen in the piece I quoted at the start of this post. “Iran makes rational decisions,” he writes. “Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly [and] understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

So in many ways, the road towards Obama’s nuclear-free world and therefrore a nuclear-free Middle-East, goes through Tehran as much as it goes through Tel Aviv.

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What are Western soldiers doing in Afghanistan? Is it to “reconstruct” the country as some of our leaders keep telling us? Is it to root out Bin Laden? Does it matter still? Is it in preparation for the impending takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban? Is it to act as a potential shield given the tensions between the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and India and their WMDs?

Listening to recent pronouncements from our leaders, one wonders.

First President Barack Obama admitted to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in a recent interview that a “win” in Afghanistan (I am paraphrasing here) meant preventing the country from becoming a launching pad for attacks on the US and its allies. That is a very scaled down version of the lofty goal of George W. Bush which was among other things transplanting democracy to the Land of Burqas and Poppies.  

Then this week-end, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN said: “Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency! ” Now that is as blunt as anybody can get. Then there are the increasingly reluctant European allies who view this mission as similar to that other doomed one in Iraq.

So why is the West in Afghanistan given all these parameters?

I will venture some explanations here although as a word of caution, I don’t accept these as valid reasons for stationing thousands of troops in a foreign country. I simply think this is what is guiding our leaders’ decisions. So here goes…

I think first there is the WMD factor. India and Pakistan are at loggerheads over Kashmir and other recent entanglements including the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is increasingly shaky given the military’s power over the executive branch and the Intelligence services’ links to insurgent groups. So since the worse case scenario of this situation is either a nuclear Pakistan leaking secrets to insurgents or a nuclear Pakistan going after a nuclear India, the West deeems it necessary to be present and ready to intervene. Here’s why this does not work however: preventing any conflict between these two countries is a matter of diplomacy. There is no military deterence for nuclear armed enemies. The presence of foreign troops in either of these countries has in the past only served to rally the population againts the foreigners viewed as “invaders”.

2- The perenial “let’s get them there so we don’t have to fight them here” argument: The Taliban is based in Afghanistan & Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other affiliate terror groups are also based in the Middle-East. So if they were to be fought and destroyed as units there, they will cease to be a threat to the West in the West. This argument works if one assumes that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and all the other groups that hold a deep hatred of Western societies are units that once destroyed in a specific geographic location can essentially be eliminated and prevented from threatening societies anywhere. Ever. This assumption however ignores centuries of colonial adventures that prove the exact opposite. Nihilistic organizations or ones that view their mission as their people’s overarching cause tend to be very loosely structured. The guiding principle being their message. Once it catches on, leaders can be killed or jailed, bases can be ransacked, the message lives on. It becomes like a virus that can only be completely destroyed if all the infected victims are located, except as more are located, more are infected.  Think of the FLN in Algeria in the 1960s or the Mau Maus in Kenya in the 1950s or the ANC in South Africa or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Insurgencies work because of their knowledge of  the terrain, of the language, of the culture and customs and their overall ability to hide or resurface depending on the conditions on the ground.  The history of Afghanistan is the blatant proof. That is perhaps why Stephen Harper recognized that they cannot be defeated in their own countries. So one has to wonder: why risk resources and lives trying when there are more pressing problems at home?