Aug 27 2009

Why A Peace Agreement in the Middle East Doesn’t Matter

Two seemingly unrelated yet dramatic developments occurred this week. South Korea launched a rocket into space. Meanwhile, the Israelis and Palestinians announced the possible re-start of peace talks.

The satellite the Koreans were trying to put into orbit sadly fell back to Earth, burning in the atmosphere. The plucky Koreans are surely undeterred. You can depend on them to ultimately succeed.

As for the peace talks I mentioned, they will probably go nowhere fast, just like most recent efforts. But even if they do make progress, it really doesn’t matter. Real peace, not just fragile cease-fires pretending to be peace, will require a different kind of thrust than mere diplomacy.

Let us imagine that the latest announcement of a new beginning for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians leads to something really genuine. Further suppose that talks gather momentum, somehow breaking the perennial deadlock of settlements, borders and the status of Jerusalem. Finally, let us visualize, on the eve of the signing of this historic treaty, the leaders of all of the Arab states and Iran are swept up by this peace fever and line up at the UN to sign a 1000-year peace treaty with Israel.

It would not matter.

Treaties may get both sides to not shoot at each other (which for the most part, has already been achieved, even between Israel and the Arab states with which it is still formally at war). But a lasting peace in the Middle East will not come so long as terrorists (think Hamas and Hezbollah) or revolutionaries (a la the innumerable Islamist political opposition groups) threaten to overthrow the Arab regimes. The horrendous social and economic conditions of the Arab make it likely that any peace agreement that might be reached in the short term would be overturned by radicals aching to tear up those treaties the deposed regime made with the “Zionist entity”.

This is not to let Israel and its backers off the hook. Peace in the region is still a far greater guarantor to Israel’s security than it’s current military superiority. But to truly achieve something more than a decades-long ceasefire, radicalism among its neighbors must be squelched.

Anti-Semitism plays a part, but is certainly not the most important reason why increasing numbers of Arabs are turning to radical Islam. Syria, Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Iran and others just have too many young people, not enough jobs to go around, and no ability to change their situation so long as the thuggish regimes of the Middle East continue to hold sway. To drain the swamp of radicalism, these states themselves will have to open up their sclerotic political and economic systems, provide some measure of freedom and prosperity to their people and thus engender the kind of stability that can lead to true peace in the Middle East.

This brings us back to Korea. From a xenophobic and technologically backward hermit kingdom at the turn of the twentieth century, this place went on to be in turn an enslaved Japanese colony, a splintered yet liberated American protectorate, and finally a devastated war-torn mass of ruined villages and refugees the North Koreans left in their wake in the South. In 1950, this tiny country was broken, worse off even than the Arab Middle East of the time.

Sixty years later, South Korea is the 15th largest economy in the world, with an entrenched democratic political system and, despite the temporary setback of this week, an active space program. No one worries that South Korea, or a radical group within that country, will suddenly provoke war with it’s neighbor (which is particularly nice, since now we only have to worry about the North Koreans setting off a war along the most heavily fortified border on the planet). And Korea is merely one of the more dramatic examples of what a nation bereft of natural resources but willing to invest in its human capital can achieve within two generations.

But back in the Middle East, all of the Arab states, comprising a far larger population and geographic area than South Korea, have a combined GDP less than the country of Spain (at one time a Muslim outpost in Europe). Space program? The closest thing to an Arab astronaut we might see in the next while could only be a Hamas suicide bomber strapped to an augmented Ashoura rocket.

The point being, that for real, sustainable peace between Israel and its avowed enemies to take hold, extreme transformations must take place in the Arab world and Iran. Economic development alone is no guarantor of peace, since certain Arab states and Iran may simply continue to buy more weapons or fund terrorist groups. The transformation will be more about their young people getting trained to produce and sell the products and ideas that the rest of the world wants, rather than spending long hours considering the evil of Western influence and the extent to which Jews are biologically related to pigs and monkeys. It will be about political leaders focusing on building themselves up, not on the evils of foreign devils. These societies surely won’t change in order to make peace with Israel, but rather because this kind of development is what their people want. Peace could simply be a by-product.

With great resolve from the concerned nations of the Middle East to meet their internal challenges and defeat radicalism, “peace in the Middle East” can mean far more than just ink on paper .

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Why A Peace Agreement in the Middle East Doesn’t Matter”

  1. David Zeglenon 28 Aug 2009 at 12:30 am

    Of course, ROK paid a heavy price to achieve industrialization, having not been freed from dictatorship until 1986…

    Even in the pre-Joseon Dynasty period, Korean Confucian society placed the education of their children in matters of ethics, science and politics as the utmost virtue, valued more than land or monetary wealth.

    Gaza can’t become the Hong Kong of the Middle East, when there’s no education expenditures (and UNWRA hardly counts, as they supply the buildings and little else).

    Fund education initiatives to counter Hamas, and soon, you’ll have an educated youth like Iran, then revolution.

  2. jnarveyon 28 Aug 2009 at 2:21 pm

    Hey, David. Just wanted to address a few of your points.

    First off, dictatorship was not the price of industrialization. Plenty of countries have industrialized while their political systems opened up. Their autocratic political system was a function of the threat from the North and not-too-subtle emulation of the Japanese Imperial system (which ordinary Koreans hated).

    Next, it’s kind of silly to say education was valued more than land or monetary wealth. Rather, education was seen as a means to pass civil service exams so as to be eligible for grants from the state of land and wealth. It’s the same thing in any society today — education is the key to success.

    As for Gaza, I’m not sure I get your point. Gaza isn’t poor because of lack of education funding (although that doesn’t help). Gaza is and probably always will be dependent on the generosity of larger patrons to survive. As part of a larger state, the area one day be viable, but no one knows how that will turn out.

  3. David Zeglenon 28 Aug 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Jonathon, I appreciate your responses.

    I don’t understand why you’d say “dictatorship was not the price of industrialization, and then acknowledge that “plenty of countries have industrialized while their political systems opened up.” Reducing the legacy of Korea’s authoritarian rule to a response to the North seems to completely overlook the fact that rulers like Park Chung Lee were directly responsible for Korea’s unprecedented rate of growth because he stifled all forms of free speech, and tortured anybody who dared form anything resembling a labor union. His motto for laborers was “go to work under the stars, return home from work under the stars.” Because the peasant ajummas and ajesses that were breaking their backs to build the nation put nearly all their earnings (pithy though they were) into securing an education for their single child, were uprisings like Gwangju able to occur. Despite my hyperbolic remark, my intention was that quality education in Korea has had a long a profound influence on how their society has been structured, and it directly influenced their rapid ascent in the latter half of the 20th century.

    The comparison between the Middle East and South Korea is an odd one, given that freedom was not the cause of South Korean economic prosperity after the Korean War, and I think you’re leaving out a crucial part of Korean history to support your argument. Furthermore, I think the historical comparison obfuscates the importance of the question on how exactly South Korea did develop so rapidly, as I take contention with this remark – “From a xenophobic and technologically backward hermit kingdom at the turn of the twentieth century.” Xenophobic, maybe that’s a bit extreme, but accurate of their psychological mentality, but hardly of their trade relations. Technologically backward, I don’t think so. By 1904, Seoul was the first city in East Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, a water system, telephones, and telegraphs all at the same time. Furthermore, all the companies that supplied these services were American firms. Japanese colonialism did nothing but stop an already progressive force that was well underway before Occupation. To take the position that Korea was decrepit and backward at the turn of the century makes it all the more difficult to understand Korea’s position in the world today.

    There’s a logical gap I left out in my mention of Gaza, but without going too much into detail in this post, Hamas makes it impossible for an alternative education in Gaza, as demonstrated by their torturing and firing of thousands of public school teachers across the Strip, and subsequent replacement with Hamas Jihadists. Since there’s no education alternative, the problem grows worse by the day, making it harder for them to revolt against Hamas themselves. In this I agree with you that there’s a deficiency of democracy in the Arab countries with little alternative for change which fuels radicalism. So I suppose I’d ask you how the leaders of the Arab world are given the incentive to transform themselves.

  4. jnarveyon 28 Aug 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Hey David,

    Great comments. Very insightful. But I think in parts we’re sort of talking past each other.

    For instance, I’m not denying that South Korea endured a dictatorship. It’s a historical fact. But I inferred that you were of the impression that the dictatorship was somehow a necessary trade-off for industrialization to happen, when there was nothing at all inevitable about it. I think we’re both agreed that the country would have been better off with a more free political system to begin with.

    Whether or not Seoul had telephones and trolley cars at the turn of the century is a also a bit moot, I think. The hinterland — basically, everywhere in Korea except central Seoul, was not particularly developed. Korea was a virtual non-entity in the global economy at the time, basically a pre-industrial state. It’s not unrealistic or demeaning to Korea to point this out, particularly given the dramatic progress it made in the last century.

    As for it’s later political development, I’m not saying that democracy is a necessary precursor to economic development. China is proof that this is not the case, at least to a certain level of development. But a democracy governed by rule of law is an inherently more stable form of government, which is always good for business.

    The point of the article was not to show that the Middle East could precisely follow South Korea’s model of political and economic development to get out of the rut it’s in. We both know the Arab world and Iran will have to find it’s own way. On the other hand, these regimes could certainly do worse than emulate the way that South Korea managed to mobilize its people and policies to pull themselves up.

    As for the incentive of why they might wish to do so, it’s only partly to do with providing a better life for their citizens. Even more to the point, the nations of the Middle East must open up their political and economic systems if they wish to avoid seeing the kind of chaos and wanton bloodshed we typically associate with apocalyptic sci-fi films.

    Thanks for coming by! Looking forward to your input in future.

  5. David Zeglenon 28 Aug 2009 at 10:29 pm


    Thanks for the clarifications on your points. I enjoyed the dialogue.
    I look forward to your future posts.

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