Where the Past Is Not Prologue

Turmoil is a constant in the Middle East, but the region is strengthening

Yasser Arafat’s body has been exhumed for investigation, bringing back memories of the unpredictable Palestinian leader and the Middle East in which he operated. That news broke just as a conventional wisdom began to take hold that the Middle East today is much more dangerous, unstable, violent and anti-American than before. Let’s take a look at the facts.

In the 1980s, the newly empowered, radical Islamic Republic of Iran unsettled the Middle East with its promise to spread its revolution to the rest of the region. The other powerful players were  despots like Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad, backed and supplied with arms by the Soviet Union. Lebanon was in the midst of a bloody civil war that engulfed not only itself but also the Palestinians and Israel. Iran and Iraq fought a gruesome war with over 1 million casualties. Hizballah attacked U.S. armed forces directly, forcing a humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon. A CIA ­station chief was captured and tortured, and U.S. secrets and interests compromised. And that was just in one decade!

Consider those days from Israel’s point of view. During the 1980s, Jerusalem faced well-armed regimes in Iraq and Syria, leading members of the rejectionist camp that urged permanent hostilities against Israel. No Arab regime other than Egypt would speak openly of peace with Israel. The official charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization called for the destruction of Israel and its replacement with a Palestinian state. Arafat’s chief tactic was terrorism against Israelis, Euro­peans and Americans.

Today the Soviet Union has collapsed, Saddam is gone, and the regime of Assad’s son Bashar is tottering. Israel has grown to become a regional military superpower. Its defense budget is larger than those of all its neighbors put together; its technological advantages put it in another league. The Palestinian Authority affirms Israel’s existence and works with it regularly. Iran remains a real threat, but it is isolated, sanctioned and contained like few other countries in history. It is roiled by discontent at home and facing the combined opposition of the secular Arab states, Israel and the Western powers. The U.S. is the only outside force with any clout in the region.

In a recent Washington Post column, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that Syria’s chaos could ­upend the Middle East and threaten U.S. interests as a result. Syria is indeed in chaos. But it is most problematic for Iran, the Assad regime’s primary and perhaps only sponsor. Tehran faces multiple problems in Syria. It is propping up a regime that is in slow-motion decay, it is suffering the political embarrassment of supporting a cruel dictator in an Arab world that is moving away from such regimes, and it is bleeding cash to keep Syria afloat. From a brutally realpolitik perspective, a Syria that is bleeding and unsettled keeps Iran stuck in its own quagmire.

Syria’s chaos has produced a humanitarian nightmare, however, which must be addressed. It is also causing some regional instability. The Kurds of Syria, in particular, are fleeing and joining up with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. But the chance that this will lead to the redrawing of borders is remote. Most nations have strange and artificial borders, many drawn by former colonial masters. (Just look at Africa.) But they are rarely redrawn.

Amid the disorder, there is a ­broader contest for regional power. ­Israel has by far the most powerful economy and military, but it lacks any political power for obvious reasons. Turkey has economic and military power as well, and it also has growing regional clout. The Turkish model—an elected government that combines democracy with a pious outlook—is extremely attractive in the Middle East. But Turkish diplomacy in the past year, most notably over Iraq and Syria, has been arrogant, emotional and unsuccessful.

Egypt, meanwhile, is the natural leader of the Arab world, but at the moment is not in a position to dominate: Its economy is a shambles, its military second rate and under pressure from its people, and its democracy still very fragile. President Mohamed Morsi’s recent power grab is worrying, but the public response and opposition to it has been reassuring.

The Middle East today is a complex region that is changing fast. Grand generalizations about it are likely to be undone by events. But it is a more vibrant, energetic and democratic place than it was a ­generation ago.