Commentary: Avoiding a Middle East apocalypse

The Miami HeraldAugust 23, 2010 

Predictions of doom for the Middle East have kept people awake since back when the Bible first made its way up the bestseller list. Thousands of years later the tradition lives on, this time centering on Iran's nuclear program and what Israel or the United States may or may not to do stop it.

As the experts expound on a host of different scenarios, each one scarier than the last, a curious disconnect has quietly developed. Amid all the predictions of the disaster that a nuclear Iran would wreak or the catastrophe that military action against Iran could unleash, Israel, the place that so many people believe will suffer the worst consequences no matter what course of action the world takes, is confounding the experts by thriving.

Opinions vary widely and passionately on the issue of Iran. If the nonmilitary approach fails, the world faces some extraordinarily difficult choices. A nuclear Iran, even one that does not detonate its weapons, would spawn calamitous consequences, fortifying extremists everywhere, arming terrorist groups, sucking the life out of progressive liberals in the Muslim world, triggering a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, a place that is already a tinderbox called home by extremist groups with vast expertise in mass-casualty suicide bombings.

On a global stage, the entire system of nuclear nonproliferation would fall apart, and with it the influence and moral authority of the so-called international community -- whose authority Iran has been ostentatiously flouting. The global order would forever change. The Middle East, already the most dangerous part of the world, would see the balance of power shift sharply and ominously in favor of extremists.

But attacking Iran could launch yet another devastating Middle East war. That scenario predicts that an attack on Iranian nuclear installations -- whether by Israel or American forces -- would immediately activate simultaneous attacks on Israel by Iran's allied militias Hamas and Hezbollah. While Iranian forces squeezed the Persian Gulf strangling the flow of oil to the West, Israeli cities would come under attack from Hezbollah in Lebanon, as they did in 2006.

Hezbollah, the Shiite militia created by Tehran inside Lebanon, has already amassed at least 40,000 rockets with the sole purpose of striking Israel. And it now says it has all of Israel's major population centers, even its main international airport, within rocket range. At the same time, Hamas would step up the rocket attacks targeting Israeli civilians in the south. And the threat of terrorism could materialize across the globe. This doesn't even count the participation of national armies.

It all sounds like the most depressing case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. For Israel, it looks like a choice between disaster and catastrophe. At least in the view of the experts.

It seems, however, that not everyone believes the experts. If disaster were truly inescapable, the Israeli economy would be in free fall by now. After all, at least one such expert, John Bolton, predicts an Israeli attack in a few days, in time to prevent Russia from loading nuclear fuel into an Iranian reactor.

The Atlantic Monthly's cover story predicts Israel may attack by the end of the year unless the nonmilitary approach produces results. Responses to that article, including one from Martin Indyk of the Clinton administration, and another from Elliot Abrams of the Bush administration, argue it's likely Obama will decide to attack Iran even before Israel does.

While that debate rages, however, the Israeli economy has surprised another set of experts -- this time, economists -- posting powerful growth figures for the second quarter. The Israeli economy is growing, its unemployment rate is dropping, its stock market is beating U.S. and European bourses, tourism is booming. What gives?

If we believe in the so-called wisdom of crowds, the theory that large numbers of individuals working independently can make more reliable predictions than experts, the future may look much brighter than it seems.

Perhaps Obama's so-far-unsuccessful efforts will ultimately work. Or, perhaps Iran and its allies are more militarily vulnerable than they seem and an attack would not create the feared havoc.

If the crowds really are wise this time, imagine how much brighter the region's prospects would shine if this apocalyptic cloud left the horizon. Without the threat of a nuclear Iran, might the Middle East surprise us, becoming a land that flows with milk and honey?

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