What Jimmy Carter Can Learn from the Erdogan Outburst

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word

Reza Aslan, a California-based academic, has been speaking to Jimmy Carter about the Middle East. It is the kind of interview which all politicians dream about. Aslan bolsters rather than challenges Carter, leading him to his favorite topics and themes with dutifully worded questions. Two of Carter’s answers actually commence with the words, “That’s exactly right.”

But even in soft-focus, Carter’s answers are deserving of critical scrutiny. Much of the interview is taken up with a discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, presumably because Carter has just published his second book on the subject.

Substantively, Carter does not depart from his established positions. Israel, he says, has set up a system of apartheid in the West Bank and peace will only come to the region once Israel withdraws from the West Bank (interestingly, he doesn’t discount the possibility that this could happen under a Netanyahu government.) The parochial idea that the road to regional peace runs through Jerusalem is one to which Carter energetically subscribes.

In doing so, he both obscures and distorts. Obscures, because his excessive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian track means that other critical regional questions fade from view. Iraq is mentioned only in passing by Carter, while Afghanistan is not mentioned at all. Yet the presence of US troops in these countries, the question of oil ownership and dividends in the case of Iraq, the proximity of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and the resurgence of the Taliban in the case of Afghanistan, mean that both states, at least in strategic terms, are far more important than Palestine. Whether a two state solution is arrived at matters not one jot in Mosul or Waziristan.

Distorts, because overemphasizing Israel and the Palestinians deemphasizes other considerations. Here’s what Carter has to say about Iran. “The best way to constrain Iran’s potential movement towards nuclear capability,” he tells Aslan, “is to have peace in the Middle East, peace between the Israeli (sic) and the Palestinians. To end the official war that still exists between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon.”

There are two problem with this view. Firstly, as the late Conor Cruise O’ Brien astutely observed, “a negotiated solution – being by definition an outcome that offers some satisfaction to both parties – will be inherently distasteful to terrorists and their admirers, accustomed as these are to regarding one of the parties…as evil incarnate.” Hamas, Hezbollah and their Iranian sponsor are not engaged in violence because of frustration at the failure of the two-state solution to come about. One of their principal aims is to prevent a two state settlement. Just as one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, so one person’s solution is another’s sell-out.

What Carter doesn’t seem to understand is that a negotiated agreement won’t spell the end of the conflict. He might reply that such an agreement would weaken the revanchist currents among the Palestinians, but that’s a very risky assumption to make. Nothing in the behavior of Hamas or Hezbollah suggests that they will fall into line once an agreement is inked. In fact, as Iran’s strength is boosted they have less reason to do so.

Which brings me onto the second problem. Iran’s nuclear program is not a reaction to the failure of the peace process. It is not defensive. Rather, it is a bid for regional dominance. It is aggressive. Which means – contra Carter – that even limited success in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations could accelerate rather than retard these ambitions, positioning Iran as the key confrontation state against the machinations of Israel, the US and the conservative Arab regimes.

Arguably, Carter’s biggest defect is his tin ear when it comes to ideology. Those in the Islamic world who cry “No Surrender” have lots of strategic reasons to maintain their position, but what holds it all in place is their belief system. Like some of the academic realists who write about the Middle East, Carter either ignores what they say or doesn’t take them at face value. Nonetheless, their words are both toxic and pervasive, and you cannot sensibly discuss the Middle East without acknowledging this fact. The sight of a furious Turkish Prime Minister, someone traditionally regarded as a model of how Islamists can engage with the political process, presenting a crackpot antisemite as an authority in front of an elite audience in Davos, should give Carter pause for thought.