From Turkey to the Arabian Sea and from the Levant to China, the content of this issue of Middle East Policy ranges wide in space and time. Most of the topics are contemporary, though two of the book review essays are historical — filling in gaps that the news media have no interest in or know little about, like the history of U.S. policy on Jerusalem or how Arab civilization took shape. The world's most-cited thinker, Noam Chomsky, has contributed an analysis of Gaza: An Inquest into her Martyrdom, by Norman Finkelstein (p. 155). It has been a long time since our Chomsky interview of fall 1984. The iconic Yasser Arafat was still available to sign away most of Palestine and at least try to make peace with Israeli leaders (whom we naively considered hardliners back then). As you know, that didn't happen. Finkelstein was just entering the politico-academic fray, having spun off part of his Princeton PhD dissertation into the takedown of a notorious fraud regarding immigration to Palestine. Thanks to Google, I don't have to recount the travesty for you here.
The even harder hardliners now running Israel have obliterated what were long thought to be the boundaries of a reasonable agreement with the Palestinian people. A new Basic Law makes Jews the only ethnic group with top-tier political rights in the state, and Donald Trump recently declared Jerusalem its official capital, moving the U.S. embassy there to certify it (see Schmierer's essay on American Presidents and Jerusalem, p. 159). Done and done, or so it was assumed. But wait, not every stakeholder had been heard from. King Salman of Saudi Arabia, speaking also for his Arab allies, reiterated a principle of long standing: "No Arab leader can concede on Jerusalem or Palestine" (Reuters, July 29). There had been talk over the past few months that the hotly anticipated Jared Kushner (U.S.) plan for a comprehensive peace would sweep all before it, but the king is not so easily moved. He remains committed to the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002: the 1967 borders (with land swaps) and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. He also compensated the Palestinian Authority for the aid that had been promised by the U.S. government but withheld by the Trump administration.
Saudi Arabia is in transition, a fact of interest to the foreign-policy aware and the business class, but few specialists have penetrated the mysteries of the cultures of the Arabian Gulf. It was enough to grasp their traditional ways, leaving unexplained how consultation and consensus operate. And, led by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, there are new players now, who need to be heard and taken seriously. In the West, the one issue that captured the public imagination was the right of a woman to drive. Every American can relate to that, a superficial topic, but not enough for serious readers. Therefore, we bring you "State, Citizens and Institutions: Policy Making in the GCC," by Mark C. Thompson and Neil Quilliam, who surveyed a wide range of practitioners in the field: "The shift in power has appeared far-reaching, as in the case of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, which has led to the creation of many new dynamic institutions" (p. 124). Of course, as they conclude, citizens still have to "lobby for further engagement"; nowhere in the world is authority ceded voluntarily. Torgeir E. Fjærtoft, a senior adviser to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foresees a positive outcome in his essay, "The Saudi Arabian Revolution: How Can It Succeed?" The region needs a local role model, and he offers ideas on how to "build supportive forces" toward that goal (p. 131).
The challenge from across the Gulf — Iran — has been ratcheted up following the perceived "victory" of the Assad government in Syria. The Trump administration has unilaterally exited from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the subject of our quarterly Capitol Hill conference (p. 5). "Improving" the nuclear deal for the neighborhood surrounding the Islamic Republic will not be easy, the preferred means being to tighten the sanctions noose. This is, essentially, a cold war. The population will likely grit their teeth and back Supreme Leader Khamenei, the relatively moderate President Rouhani and Major General Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (see Hashim's "Civil-Military Relations in Iran," Sohrabi's "Clerics and Generals," and Baghat's "The Brewing War between Israel and Iran").
The Syria war is far from over; unspeakable suffering continues. A military campaign there was considered too risky by the Obama administration, and a reason to commit for the long haul was missing. No "slam dunk" could be generated to persuade the public — or the Pentagon — such a war would yield value or even prevent harm to the United States. Arguments from moral premises were tainted or even cooked. We went partway in, inadvertently helping al-Qaeda while fighting ISIS, but we had been burned in Iraq. To recall how bad it got after the mission was supposedly "accomplished," take another look at the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker. The cost in U.S. military personnel maimed and killed has scarred the nation's psyche. In Syria now, the Kurds fight on, feeling betrayed by Washington but hoping for some continued U.S. protection and a bit of autonomy in a new Syria (see Salt's "When Soft Power Turned Hard" and Kanat and Hannon's "The Manbij Roadmap").
Speaking of long wars, news flashed in July that the Taliban and U.S. interlocutors have been conferring unofficially since fall 2017 in Qatar, home to the Afghan group's representatives. The Pentagon had been insisting that American forces would stay for a while in Afghanistan (until something like a "win" is achieved?). Apparently, the Taliban are not against some U.S. bases remaining — to thwart ISIS. A catastrophic suicide bombing on August 3 of a Shiite mosque in the eastern city of Gardez was a reminder that there is still a militant enemy at large, and that the Taliban are a part of the Afghan tapestry who have to be included in a political solution. For some insight into the complexity of the country, see our article on China's interests there, including the minerals under its rocks and mountains (Chaziza, p. 143).