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Daniel Pipes examines the Middle East, sees reasons for cautious optimism

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On June 12 Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, gave a briefing in Beverly Hills. Despite the generally dismal news out of the Middle East, Pipes’ analysis was not wholly negative.

He organized his talk around five “provocations,” focusing on five Middle Eastern countries that are especially consequential right now.

1. Turkey. Non-Arab Turkey is, in the long run, the most dangerous nation in the Middle East. (In the short run, Iran takes the laurel.) Turkey is militarily powerful and economically dynamic, but increasingly hostile to the West.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had a charmed political existence for the last ten years or so. However, his authoritarian nature has become quite clear, and many Turks have had enough. Indeed, when Pipes was in Turkey even secularists told him that the main problem with Erdoğan is not his Islamism, but his dictatorial tendencies.

Opposition to Erdoğan exploded this month, indicated that his authoritarian personality has finally backfired. Some of his allies in his AKP party, including the president and the deputy prime minister, have distanced themselves from him. Perhaps the AKP will ask Erdoğan to step down in favor of a less divisive figure. (Pipes saw a parallel with quite a different political leader: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, after years of triumphs, was rusticated by her own Tory Party.) If Erdoğan is simply replaced by another AKP politician with the same Islamist goals, Turkey will continue down the wrong road.

But if political instability continues and grows, perhaps foreign investment, which has fueled Turkey’s recent prosperity, will pull out. The resulting economic downturn could cause the majority of Turks to turn against the AKP’s Islamist project.

2. Iran. The mullahs are getting closer to the red line, whether that’s Israel’s line (the ability to build a nuclear weapon) or the Obama administration’s line (actually building a nuclear weapon). It’s inconceivable that Israel will let Iran pass its red line and wait for the U.S. to take military action.

The Iranian presidential election will be held in two days, but it isn’t that important, since Supreme Leader Sayid Ali Khamenei makes all the important decisions. Only a handful of candidates were allowed to run. Two have apparently emerged as frontrunners, a “hardliner” and a “reformer.” These labels are misleading, since all the candidates are in favor of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Pipes hopes that Saeed Jalili the hardliner wins—like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before him, Jalili would make it obvious that Iran is the bad guy, making it easier to maintain sanctions and other pressure on Iran.

3. Syria. Pipes believes that both sides in Syria’s civil war are awful. He therefore concludes, somewhat controversially, that we should support whichever side is losing, in order to prolong the fighting. Right now, Hezbolla is fighting al Qaeda in Syria—“it doesn’t get any better than that.” The more they kill each other, the less trouble they’ll cause us. Pipes saw a historical analogy in the Iran-Iraq war, from which both Khomeini’s Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq emerged weakened.

4. Egypt. Egypt is on the cusp of disaster. Historically the breadbasket of the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt now can’t feed itself. It imports more food than any other country in the world, perhaps more than any country in history. But everything it could use to buy the food, from manufacturing to tourism, has decreased since the election of President Mohamed Morsi. The amount of foreign aid to Egypt being considered is completely inadequate to address the problem.

Morsi is quite weak. He doesn’t control the military, the intelligence service and other important institutions. As a result, he is not making trouble for Israel, despite his open hostility and the hostility of the Muslim Brotherhood. He doesn’t need to create more problems for himself.

A crisis is unavoidable. Will it lead to starvation? Mass emigration? Anarchy? The situation is unpredictable, but extremely dangerous.

5. Israel. The Jewish state is strikingly different. It is doing very well by virtually every measure. For example, most Western countries have a birthrate that is below replacement value; but Israel’s population, both religious and secular, is growing. Israel’s economic growth rate—14.5%—is the highest in the world. A critic recently remarked that Israel is “a pocket superpower in classical music.”

Sure, there are dangers. The Middle East is in huge trouble and is very volatile. U.S. policy is weak, with Obama essentially playing the role of a bystander.

But there is a reaction, a repudiation of Islamism throughout the Middle East. It is possible that Islamism has hit its high point, and will recede.

After this presentation Pipes had several other thoughts in response to questions.

On the issue of Israel and the Palestinians, peace will come not through compromise, but through victory. One side needs to give up; and Pipes wants the Palestinians to give up their dream of eliminating Israel.

The White House is not engaged in Secretary of State John Kerry’s “clownish” attempt to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Samantha Powers, the new U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, will probably be less bad than her record would suggest, since in Washington, “where you stand depends on where you sit.”

There are three views of who the enemy is. (a) “Radical extremists,” which eliminates Islam and Islamists altogether. This is not an intellectually respectable position. (b) Islam—there’s no distinction between Islam and Islamism. (c) Islamism/radical Islamism, a political form of Islam with fascist roots that was invented in the 1920s, which is Pipes’ position. The killer question for those who chose (b), Islam, is: If there is no difference between Islam and Islamism, what’s your solution? You can’t kill all the world’s Muslims; can’t quarantine them. The only feasible answer is to change/modernize/liberalize Muslims. But once you admit the possibility of moderating Islam, you have the Islam/Islamism dichotomy.

Considering the limited fallout from Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, and the silence surrounding Israel’s destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, the reaction if Israel were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities would not be too damaging.

Anarchy is growing in the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, and Syria. The result may be the revision of the post-WWI map of the region imposed by the European colonial powers.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel has become ludicrous. Its obvious corruption makes it un-serious. While it’s important to fight it, the BDS-niks have not been successful in this country.

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