During the Bush Administration I would often criticize the neo-conservative ideology suggesting that it was, in many ways, a secularized version of fanatic and fundamentalist Millenarian Christianity. Both shared a Manichean world view characterized by the belief in the inevitable clash between good and evil. Both were absolutist, seeing compromise as a sign of weakness and surrender to evil. As a consequence both saw violence as necessary and desirable. And both believed in an apocalyptic end in which, despite the damage done, good would be victorious and evil would be vanquished.
Guided by this ideology, the neo-conservatives, rejecting compromise, proceeded to dismantle the architecture of diplomacy that had been evolving since the end of the Second World War In particular, they cast aside the post-Cold War efforts made by former Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton who used limited force only when absolutely necessary, and who otherwise built coalitions in an effort to negotiate solutions to regional conflicts.
Across the Middle East the consequences of this neo-conservative ideology were devastating, especially in Iraq and Lebanon and in the effort to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
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This “neo-con” absolutist approach to politics, of course, wasn’t unique to the United States and didn’t end with the passing of the Bush Administration. It remains alive and well in America and across the Middle East and is at work today prolonging conflicts in Egypt, Syria, Israel-Palestine, and Iran. The notions that violence is the first resort, that negotiations are equivalent to surrender, that compromise is weakness, and that what is identified as evil can and must be destroyed are on display in each of these settings. As a result, actors on all sides have overreached and the conflicts in which they are engaged have been prolonged and aggravated.
The lesson that should have been learned from past tragedies is that the victor/vanquished scenario is a destructive fantasy with only religious fanatics or the ideologically-minded still believing that the fight must go on until the enemy is ultimately eliminated. That is why groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, despite repeated catastrophic failures, continue to reject peace negotiations and insist on the use of violence until the final victory is won. It is why the regime in Damascus has, from the beginning, refused to consider the concerns of their opponents and now dismisses them all as “terrorists”. And it is why hard-line Israelis continue to maintain that their dispossession of Palestinians and control over all of the land of Mandatory Palestine is right and will ultimately be victorious. It is also why Iran’s religious leaders long insisted on maintaining their meddlesome and messianic export of revolution. And it is why the Muslim Brotherhood overreached in their efforts to consolidate their control over all the reins of state power and their drive to Islamize Egypt.
But it is also true of those who refuse to see that negotiations with Iran, if successful, can be beneficial to the region’s security, or those who reject national reconciliation as the way to advance Egypt’s new democratic experiment, or those who reject participation in Geneva II as a necessary step to ending the horrific bloodbath that has become Syria.
In each case, parties on all sides continue to overreach operating under the illusion that through the application of more violence the “other side” can be destroyed once and for all – with good triumphant over evil.
In reality, what recent history has taught us is that there is no ultimate victory, just an exacerbation of tensions. Each new dose of violence only adds fuel to the fires that continue to rage. Fifteen long years of civil and regional proxy war in Lebanon resolved nothing. Similarly, decades of Israeli and Palestinian conflict neither ended the occupation, nor defeated the resistance to the occupation. And the same is true of the conflict that has torn Syria asunder.
The way forward out of the messes created by the absolutist fantasy of victor/vanquished is to recognize that as long as violence is seen as the first resort, conflicts will continue without resolution. Negotiations are necessary and compromise is the only way forward. Efforts like: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, Geneva II, and efforts to achieve national reconciliation in Egypt – all should be supported. Pressure, when necessary, must be applied. And compromise is a must. The solutions reached will neither be perfect nor will they resolve all differences. But at a minimum they will stop the hemorrhaging, end the waste of human life and treasure, ease tensions, and provide the space for needed change to occur.