Small world: Got the answers? So, what then?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Major conflicts threaten the peace of the world. From the South China Sea to the Black Sea to the Sea of Galilee, nations large and small seek advantage over their antagonists. And, I’m sure you have noticed, it is often the small states that suck in and push around their larger, more powerful friends.

One feature is common to most of these conflicts: Any fair-minded and neutral observer who has paid attention to the issues involved can lay out a solution that should restore peace and allow normal life to resume without further clash and casualties.

Then, why doesn’t it happen? Why doesn’t a great power declare, “Here’s the answer that you guys must accept or endure worst punishment. This is what the international community demands of you; comply or face the unpleasant consequences of isolation and hostility.”

That’s the way it used to be when the United States was a truly great power — or so we think now (but didn’t always succeed as we tried in vain to get others to heed our instructions). But, we are still plenty potent; why can’t we have our way with the world?

The first part of the answer is that what seems clear and fair to the outsider, often seems destructive in opposite ways to the parties directly involved. Thus, the answer to the Israel-Palestine dispute is plain in broad outlines to everyone — except to those inside who have staked their political and ideological futures on much more for their side. For example, the 1967 boundary between Israel and Palestine territory must be the border — with mutually agreed modifications — of a two state solution. Palestinians want more but will settle for that; Israel wants more and, holding it all now, won’t easily give it up.

The reverse is true with refugees: Palestinians say they must return to their homes; Israel “no way,” a position accepted by outsiders.

The United States could declare, “1967 border, it will be” but, wait, there is an important domestic lobby — fans of Israel — that must be accommodated or there will be electoral consequences. Americans who proclaim themselves strong patriots (what we call nationalists) quail before that threat. America First? Well, maybe not always.

And so it goes with the other elements to a peace solution — Jerusalem, security. Israel holds the horn; it calls the tune.

The same principle applies in the Ukraine crisis. Plainly, even for the non-expert the solution is clear: Ukraine is bifurcated between a west that is pro-Europe and an east that is pro-Russia. Language, religion and economic divisions also figure. If there is not to be partition — which nobody wants — there must be autonomy for the differing communities. Russians understand this as do most (reasonable) Americans. But both sides have their hard-liners who want the whole pierogi. Well, maybe some autonomy, but not very much says the bunch, which holds power in the capital.

Belligerent voice is given to threats to order to appease those toughs in the back ranks. Again, it is political courage that is lacking. Those with the power to act yield to those with the power only to impede.

Spin the globe to China. It seems obvious to fair-minded outsiders that the dispute over resources in and under nearby waters might be handled by dividing between the disputing parties investment responsibilities and income generated. In the old days of gentlemanly stalemate, this would mean an international roundtable and deals done face to face. Hard to imagine now.

Back to the Middle East and Syria where neither Russia and Iran nor, on the other side, the United States and Saudi Arabia, will back away from their clients. So, the killing goes on. A reasonable and fair solution would be for Assad to withdraw and a technocratic/respected government to be formed by outsiders and imposed on insiders to reconstruct the country and its politics. A conference was tried and failed. What is needed is for Russia/Iran to dump Assad and the United States/Saudi Arabia to abandon its clients in the oppositions (some of whom are as frightening as Assad).

The mind of man clearly is able to come up with answers. The problem is to cultivate the guts of man to stand up for those answers.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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