MANAMA, Bahrain One of the most telling but little-noted ironies of the U.S.-sponsored peace summit meeting in Annapolis, Md., was who on the Arab side didn't attend. Syria, a country we barely talk to, was there. Saudi Arabia, which never meets with Israelis, was there. No, the two no-shows were the two Arab countries liberated by U.S. troops from the grip of Saddam Hussein: Iraq and Kuwait.
That's right Iraq and Kuwait, the two Arab countries hosting the most U.S. troops, and the two Arab countries with probably the most active elected parliaments were both absent. The Kuwaitis asked not to be invited, and the Iraqis were invited but declined to come.
Don't get me wrong, I think Annapolis was useful. But when you toil for a year to throw a party and some of your worst enemies RSVP, but the two people whose lives you've once saved don't show up, it's beyond rude. It's interesting.
It actually reveals the core problem we're facing in the Middle East: All of these countries are deeply internally divided, some with active civil wars Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan and some with latent ones. These divisions date from when these states were shaped by colonial pens, with boundaries that rarely reflected either shared ethnicity or a shared desire to live together. For decades, they were held together by colonial powers, the Cold War, oil wealth or iron-fisted military dictators and monarchs.
But lately the lids have started to loosen, and in those places with real parliaments like the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait they tend to expose the depth of lingering divisions rather than express, or forge, a new consensus. These are divisions about basics, like the line between religion and state, the rights of women and minorities, and the role of citizens.
Kuwait's parliament has a liberal minority and an Islamist majority, which does not like Israel (and doesn't like Palestinians much, either). The Lebanese and Palestinian parliaments are both paralyzed by discord. And Iraq? Sitting down with Israelis was only one of many things Iraqis can't agree on, which is why the U.S. military surge has not yet produced an upturn in national reconciliation.
On Thursday, The Associated Press reported that a shouting match erupted in the Iraqi parliament when a top Shiite lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji, said he had evidence that a leading Sunni politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi, had branded Shiites "heretics" and had called their murder legitimate. We're not talking Democrats and Republicans here.
What we are trying to do in Iraq is unprecedented: We are hosting the first real horizontal dialogue in modern Arab history by the constituents of an Arab country on the assumption that if Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds could actually write their own social contract, it would mean that something other than top-down, iron-fist politics was possible for this part of the world. It is hugely important and next to impossible.
Each of the Arab countries and Israel has "its own Gaza," said Mamoun Fandy, director of Middle East programs at London's International Institute of Strategic Studies. "That is, an anti-peace, fundamentalist, xenophobic faction, which wants to hold back any reconciliation. Until each country confronts its own Gaza, it will have problems."
Including Iran. I'm in Bahrain, just across the Persian Gulf from Iran, for the institute's annual conference. A big Iranian delegation was scheduled to attend, alongside a big U.S. team. The Iranians canceled at the last minute. Internal fighting.
"All these countries are like unfinished novellas," said Stephen P. Cohen, author of the upcoming "Beyond America's Grasp," a history of the modern Middle East.
Indeed, if you looked at just the key players Israel, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Egypt and Saudi Arabia "their leaders who went to Annapolis were all embroiled in struggles with domestic opponents," which limited their room to maneuver, he said. Each one, he added, has a "Party of God" back home "that believes it doesn't have to pay attention to what the government says because it doesn't recognize that government's legitimacy to make big decisions."
That's why these days big decisions get made by iron fists or they don't get made. Power has become too fragmented. So unless there is more reconciliation within these countries, it is hard to see how there will be more reconciliation between them.Which is also why, I thought, that instead of Annapolis, the peace conference should have been held, symbolically, at Appomattox Court House, Va., where on Palm Sunday, 1865, Gen. R.E. Lee surrendered to Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant, ending the American Civil War and reunifying our country. Admission is only $4 and President Bush probably could have gotten a group rate.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.