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Chuck Hagel and Linkage

7:00 AM, Jan 15, 2013 • By MARTIN KRAMER
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cannot be looked at in isolation. Like a stone dropped into a placid lake, its ripples extend out farther and farther. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon feel the effects most noticeably. Farther still, Afghanistan and Pakistan; anything that impacts their political stability also affects the two emerging economic superpowers, India and China.

The notion that the greater Middle East would be a “placid lake” were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be regarded as extreme, even for someone in the grip of linkage fever. But Hagel, doubling down, extended the conflict’s baleful influence even beyond the world of the Arabs and South Asian Islam, suggesting that it “affects” India and China in a detrimental way, although he didn’t explain how.

That same year, Hagel made the most far-reaching claim for linkage. By this time, Americans knew considerably more about the complexities of the Middle East than they had known in 2002. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had demonstrated the salience of deep conflicts that defined the politics of the region, and that went back in time before there was an Israel. The great Sunni-Shiite divide, the region-wide Kurdish question, the rivalries of tribes, the chasm between rulers and ruled—all were sources of conflict and instability with long and autonomous histories. That’s what makes Hagel’s 2008 statement so striking: he was clearly aware that the linkage thesis looked shakier than ever, but he dug in his heels anyway:

The strategic epicenter of the Middle East [is] the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Why do I say that more than any other reason? It is the one issue, the one issue alone, the Israeli-Palestinian issue alone. Fixing that alone is not going to fix every problem in the Middle East. We understand that. We have religious hatred. We have centuries of it. We have regional, tribal issues. Yes, all complicated. But that one issue, the Israeli-Palestinian issue shapes almost every other issue, not just the optics of it, but the reality of it. It is allowed to—as it plays itself out to dominate relationships, to dominate the people who would like a different kind of world. I know that there is a lot made on the issue of—well it’s important, but it certainly doesn’t affect everything. It does.

In this remark, Hagel was clearly struggling to force all of the new and “complicated” American knowledge about the Middle East into his old template. He knew that his linkage thesis looked less plausible than it once did. How exactly could the Israeli-Palestinian issue “affect everything” and “shape almost every other issue,” not just the “optics” but the “reality”? Hagel couldn’t say how, except to assert that “it does.”

But Hagel, knowing his bald assertion might seem dubious, did something new. He invoked the authority of Middle Eastern leaders:

I don’t know any other way to gauge this, than you go out and listen to the leaders. You listen to Jewish leaders, and you listen to Arab leaders. You sit down with all the leaders with all those countries, and I have many times, different leaders, and they will take you right back to the same issue. Right back to this issue. Now I am not an expert on anything, and I’m certainly not an expert on the Middle East. Most of the people in this room, especially those that were on the panels tonight know a lot more about this issue than I do. But I do listen. I do observe. I am somewhat informed. That informs me that when the people of the Middle East themselves tell me that this issue has to be dealt with or there will not be a resolution to any other issue in the Middle East.

No other issue in the entire Middle East can be resolved until Israel and the Palestinians deal with theirs: this was Hagel’s long-standing belief, now placed in the mouths of authoritative interlocutors, those Middle Eastern leaders he met on his travels, and who always took him “right back to this issue.”

Meeting Arabs and Jews

On the face of it, this is a plausible assertion. It is often said that Arab leaders never miss an opportunity to browbeat American officials over U.S. neglect of the Palestinians. A senior American diplomatic once made this complaint: “Every American ambassador in the region knows that official meetings with Arab leaders start with the obligatory half-hour lecture on the Palestinian question. If we could dispense with that half-hour and get down to our other business, we might actually be able to get something done.”

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