Compared to this, Heracles had it easy with the Hydra

This morning, I forgot it was Sunday and turned on my radio. It was tuned to a talk station, and the show on was one of those typical Sunday early morning shows — a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a bar discuss matters theological and temporal, but from a religious perspective. As a good agnostic, I started to turn it off, but something one of them said triggered a thought.

She was discussing the elevation of a woman to the head of the Episcopal Church, and compared it to Islam. Islam, she pointed out, has no hierarchical structure. There is no Muslim Pope or Archbishop or other formal leader. In fact, there is very little formal organization in Islam, with no recognized authorities or councils.

It’s similar to the structure of terrorist groups, especially in Iraq. There is no single enemy, no leader, no overarching governing body to confront. And in a situation like the ongoing fighting in Iraq, it is a decided strength for them — it deprives us of a clearly-defined victory point, when that leader or leadership dies or surrenders. It also prevents a negotiated settlement, as there is no single individual or body who can make a peace and guarantee it will be kept.

It also has its weaknesses. It is a strategy aimed not at winning, but not losing. Its very strengths that let it prevail tend to leave it incapable of properly enjoying and implementing victory. Suppose the United States does pull out of Iraq — what next? Who will rush in and fill the power vacuum our departure would create? And how long would it survive?

Nearly the whole Middle East suffers from this attitude. Almost without exception, the countries are made up of thugocracies. Some veil it in religion, some in monarchy, some take on some of the trappings of democracy, but they are all variations on the same tune — the “strong man” school of government. Nowhere else in the world is Mao’s observation that “all political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” more true than in the Middle East.

The big question is HOW do we change that. How can we possibly change such an ingrained attitude and belief?

But before we consider that one, there is one even more important that must be addressed: SHOULD we try to change it?

I think we have no choice. For good or ill, the Middle East is essential to the world’s survival. It is the center of three major faiths, the crossroads of three continents, and holds the lion’s share of the lifeblood of modern civilization, readily-accessible oil. We simply can not afford to ignore that region.

But that leaves us the question of how. And so far, we’ve made great progress in that, in the sense of finding numerous ways that don’t work. (Thomas Edison, after inventing the light bulb, said he had not had 999 failures — he had discovered 999 ways to NOT make a light bulb.) We’ve tried accomodation, we’ve tried backing our own strongmen, we’ve tried quiet pressure. Right now we’re trying the select application of force in Iraq, and despite what others might say, it is still unclear if it will work or not.

But I have to give President Bush for trying, and trying something new.

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