Restoring Order in the Middle East

The Congress of Vienna succeeded, after several tears of negotiating, in restoring order within a Europe that had been battered by the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t perfect, and the peace that followed it didn’t last forever, but it was hailed by historians, and still is, as a turning point that led out of exceeding turbulence into calmer waters.

The Middle East, defined roughly as the region from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush, is at least as turbulent these days as Europe ever was in Napoleonic times. The whole region is riven by differences along ethnic, sectarian, and regional lines that criss-cross national boundaries in a cauldron of conflicts. Iraq is lurching toward civil war while the Israel-Palestine tragedy festers. Terrorism, narcotics, and nuclear proliferation issues demand the world’s attention, while the prospect of a global oil shortage and access to Middle East reservoirs sits in the background like the proverbial 800 pound gorilla.

All these problems and others are being worked over and negotiated in one way or another, in hundreds of forums and locales, by assorted diplomats and other specialists. What is missing is a serious effort to tie them together into some regional framework, where concessions become fungible. Is it possible, for example, that a resolution of the current impasse over Palestine, or a way out of the disintegration of Iraq, might be easier to achieve if available options included trade-offs involving third and fourth parties with other items at the tops of their agendas? It seems likely that this is the case. And this is precisely the sort of exploratory diplomacy that would be facilitated if responsible representatives of the major nations and international institutions and other concerned parties were brought together with a mandate to get outside their own little boxes and think about the basic ground rules needed to usher in a new measure of stability for the region.

I leave it to others to decide how and when such a congress or conference should be organized, and under whose auspices and for how long and so forth. I have one small suggestion, however, as to where. From a purely acronymic standpoint, the central purpose of Restoring Order in the Middle East, like the ancient roads, points to Rome. And Rome has other assets, like a fairly accessible location, and a relatively neutral position on many of the region’s conflicts. Best of all, it has the ambience and the abundance of fine food and libations that can keep diplomats happy, and more disposed to compromise than to pack up and leave in a huff. Hapsburg hospitality helped ensure the success of the Congress of Vienna. May Roman hospitality have a similar outcome, if this modest proposal should come to pass.

Carl Coon 3/1/06

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