Where the Past Is Not Prologue

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

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

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.

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