Managing intractable conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia

The failure of successive U.S. presidents to sustain a Middle East peace process, and the inability of Presidents Clinton and Obama to promote normalization efforts in South Asia, demonstrates that, in these two regions at any rate, U.S. approaches to top-down diplomacy have not produced conclusive results—or worse—over the last fifty-plus years.

Sometimes strategic wisdom consists of expanding a problem, not narrowing it down. If a coalition can be reached on the larger threat, it might create the framework in which bottom-up and track two approaches might advance. This is especially true in the Middle East and Asia. In these scenarios, the parties might also discover that their cherished strategic positions are, in comparison with new, real threats, less important than they thought.

Neither unique nor exceptional, an “intractable conflict” is usually defined as having lasted for 25 years or longer, with no sign of resolution. Peter Coleman, Valman Volkan, and others have presented the theory that often, such conflicts are civil wars. They certainly have costs. A recent RAND study notes that Israeli-Palestinian peace could have a $183 billion windfall, and India-Pakistan normalization, with the restoration of trade to Central Asia, would yield even more. A Middle East peace would benefit directly nearly 13 million people, whereas the India-Pakistan dispute impacts about one-fifth of the world’s population.

Among the first disputes brought to the U.N. for resolution, these are now 50 years old. Except for periodic moments of crisis, and a few intimations of successful resolution, the world has grown weary of them.

One structural fact underpins each case. A lack of trust in the other side causes embedded hard liners to derail detente. As argued in “Shooting for a Century” (Brookings Institution Press, 2013), this perpetuates the India-Pakistan conflict, whereas in the Israel-Palestine case, it appears that even the status quo is unsustainable, as right wing Likudniks attempt to further diminish the Palestinian presence, while hardline Hamas cadres prepare for the next round of warfare.

Paving the way for diplomatic negotiations

Trusting the other side to uphold a diplomatic agreement is crucial to the success of negotiations—hence President Ronald Reagan’s still useful injunction, “trust but verify”, originally a Russian term. Thus, bottom-up methods that theoretically build people-to-people, business-to-business, and market-to-market ties, could create trusting relationships which pave the way for top-down diplomatic negotiations. These, alone, have regularly failed, but so have well-intentioned bottom-up efforts. The optimism of the foundations is as inexhaustible as their wallets—and they have poured considerable money into the assumption that if only Israelis and Palestinians, or Indians and Pakistanis, would just sit down—preferably with an American interlocutor at a five star resort—that they would realize the error of their ways and pressure the politicians to move down the path of peace. Such efforts are mostly a waste of time and money—excepting those that concentrate upon younger participants whose views have not been set into concrete.

There is, to our knowledge, no programmatic comparison of these conflicts (except one at the University of Karachi), let alone strategies, to resolve or ameliorate them. Here is a preliminary overview:

  • Both disputes involve many issues and other states; Kashmir was identified as the core India-Pakistan issue by Clinton and Obama, but it is more than a territorial issue and involves China; similarly, the West Bank is an element of the identities of Israelis and Palestinians, but so is the status of Jerusalem and the right of return; and Muslims everywhere have taken up the Kashmir cause as they once took up the status of the Palestinian territories. 
  • Each has an element of civil war in which two closely related peoples are in a mostly zero-sum struggle.
  • All four states see themselves as the victim, surrounded by threats, a vulnerable minority still haunted by apocalyptic visions with paranoia baked into the political culture.
  • This allows such states to do unacceptable things in the name of fighting for their very existence.
  • Rarely will one of these four parties take a first step; never a second or third, hence the term “intractable.”
  • In both, there is an ultimate absence of trust; all sides have resorted to “other means” when diplomacy has run its course. 
  • In both, there is a notable decline in social and cultural interaction between the parties; both regions had greater mobility and economic integration under the Ottoman and Mughal empires than they do now.
  • There is a “peace process” in each case—more realistically, a normalization process—using open trade relations, the movement of people, a low expectation of war, and cooperation in restraining those who would disrupt the process.
  • All four states have “blockers,” that try to ensure that normalization does not lead to an unfavorable peace.
  • Determined Israeli settlers and Palestinian hard-liners who seek a one-state solution at the other’s expense, Pakistan Intelligence Service (the ISI), and Modi’s ultra-conservative base are South Asia’s leading blockers; so is India’s Congress Party, which, except for Mahatma Gandhi, assumed that Pakistan would collapse, and whose leader, Indira Gandhi, used force to vivisect Pakistan, thus ensuring permanent Pakistani paranoia—and an “Islamic” bomb. 
  • As for the armies and intelligence services in all of these states, they are paid to be skeptical and they duly earn their salaries.

The role of democracy and the United States

Democracy seems to play less a role than the existence of “created” minorities. The identities of all four states are severely defined by a partition. As the scholar Itty Abraham has written, “geopolitics and partition created natural enemies within the state, and natural allies outside of it; partition multiplied insecurity, it did not end it.”

Secularism is fragile in both parts of the world, thus, U.S. values do not always sit well in Pakistan or Israel, or even in India, where some in the BJP would welcome an Islamic Pakistan, if they could get a Hindu India; in the Palestinian territories, Hamas has turned out to be an extremist religious party, while Fatah is more moderate, and the two have an uneasy relationship.

The role of the United States is mixed: it is intermittently engaged in each pair, but its main role has been to contain conflict or prevent the states from going nuclear. (Yet, even in this, it turned a blind eye to both the Israeli and Pakistani nuclear programs, and normalized relations with nuclear New Delhi as soon as it could). America still has not committed itself to a position either on Jerusalem or Kashmir, Gaza or the West Bank. Unusually, it did declare that the Kashmir Line of Control (forcefully violated by Pakistan in 1999), was tantamount to an international border, but it has failed to turn this into policy. President Obama asked his staff about Kashmir just before his recent visit to New Delhi: They quickly dissuaded him from talking about it like President Bill Clinton, who called Kashmir “the most dangerous place on earth.”

Two paths to normalization

There are theoretically two paths to normalization. “Top-down,” artfully described in the European context by the American scholar Charles Kupchan. This involves consensus among the strategic leadership, followed by a progressive opening up, so that two societies, nations, and economies become intertwined and therefore mutually dependent. “Bottom-up” first involves trade, people-to-people diplomacy, and cultural ties, with the assumption that this will persuade leaders to normalize. Realistically, both approaches have to be present, but none have brought either dispute to a resolution. Nor have the participants tired, the grievances and fears of the past have mostly been transferred from generation to generation.

Sometimes outsiders can induce or force an agreement. In South Asia, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, brokered by the World Bank but conceived in America, was a milestone. It is now significant because it was the last major successful agreement between India and Pakistan. Both sides regret having signed it, and despite later agreements, there has been nothing that led to a reciprocal negotiation process. Even the 1971 Simla agreement between Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a failure. It supposedly led to a settlement in Kashmir and a new set of rules for both sides, but in reality it led directly to the Pakistani nuclear weapon and gloating in New Delhi that Pakistan had finally been put in its place.

In the Middle East, there have been summits aplenty, most of them promoted by America—notably the Camp David meetings—but these have been followed by a hardening of positions in Israel and among Palestinians. The disappearance of a liberal Israeli government, and the rise of a militant PLO, Hamas, and Hezbollah, has brought Israel and the Palestinian territories back to square one. The United States is content with supporting low-level initiatives, valuable in themselves, but hardly a strategy. For example, USAID-funded the venerated Near East Foundation to support its Olive Oil Without Borders program, that links olive growers in Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Israelis allow this, because it does no harm and placates American liberals; similarly, the U.S. government and foundations support several “Track Two” dialogues, although some of these may be endangered by a tougher Indian line on support for “sensitive” (e.g. anything that is not under government control) security programs. It is hard to be optimistic about a resolution of either dispute. Studies such as that by RAND about theoretical future benefits cannot overcome the passions of the moment and the memories of the past.

Yet, the current situation in the Middle East and South Asia suggests a third approach: a regional context. Besides the classic realpolitik top-down approach, and the good-intentioned bottom-up, it may be the case that if both parties agree on a shared threat that a sustainable agreement could be achieved.

The threat of chaos and Islamic radicalism

In both regions, that threat is now a combination of chaos and Islamic radicalism. This has already brought new contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and has generated a Chinese interest in Pakistan that goes beyond the latter’s obvious role as balancer of India.

The United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, China, and most Pakistanis and many Palestinians and Israelis, as well as every European state, do not want to see either region succumb to a genuine revolutionary Sunni Islamic movement. This provides a common ground, a shared set of interests. They are evident most clearly in Afghanistan, where no one (including most Afghans) wants to see the Islamic State (or ISIS) replace the Afghan-centric Taliban.

Iran could be a partner in such an agreement; can the United States after the recent nuclear agreement bring itself to work with Tehran to counter Sunni extremism that threaten Iran and the West? The proper model here is how the United States worked with Stalin’s USSR to defeat the Nazis in World War II. Washington worked with Iran after 9/11—but that was before President George Bush’s assertion that they were part of the axis of evil.

While the U.S. government must put more emphasis on bottom-up peace-building efforts, it should also understand the reason why these two conflicts are also intractable, and that a combination of approaches—not one alone—will take time. In both regions an ironic opportunity to start a sustainable process may be at hand because of the emergence of new and greater threats.

A further irony is that conservative leaders often try to forge peace deals (Nixon and China, Begin and Sadat, and Vajpayee and Musharraf). In these cases, hard-liners support the conservative initiative, while the doves would be hypocritical not to support it; conversely, when doves try to make peace, the hawks block it.

We observe that when a nation’s identity is formed around a single external enemy only a newer and greater threat can refocus attention in another direction. We also observe that in some of these countries (notably Pakistan and Hamas), internal developments and reform take second place to the external bogey man, and it looks to some outsiders that these countries do not want to normalize because their internal issues would cause their stability to implode. Here is an opportunity for leaders in the Middle East and South Asia to use the larger threat of chaos and extremism to justify their entry into a process that might not yield an idealized and unreachable “peace” but might bring about more normal relations.