The juxtaposition of images of the 1963 March on Washington and the carnage in Syria has prompted melancholy thoughts. The heyday of the civil rights movement came with sustained focus, great leaders, and an abundance of nonviolent foot soldiers. The most famous motto of the US civil rights movement was “Keep your eyes on the prize.” Fifty years later, leaders are too diminished, hemmed in, and easily trapped to seize prizes. Violence dictates agendas, especially in the Islamic world.
Syria is a heartbreaking distraction. The Prize in this part of the Muslim world is reaching an accord with Tehran that constrains Iran’s nuclear program. If President Obama has his eyes on this Prize, he has to be willing to absorb truncheons of punishment from US and Israeli critics, and defend his handiwork with the tenacity of civil rights leaders in the 1960s.
This assumes, of course, that Obama has a partner in Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who also has his eyes on the Prize – in his case, the revival of Iran’s economy and its re-integration into the international community.
The Syrian detour lying ahead could lead them far astray. Iran’s proxies and advisors within and outside of Syria will have ample opportunities to act as spoilers in the weeks and months ahead.
Other spoilers are hard at work to foreclose other prizes. The Prize on the subcontinent is reconciliation between India and Pakistan. A new Prime Minister in Pakistan has been elected with an impressive majority, promising to increase trade and normalize relations with India. He and his Indian counterpart declare readiness to resume dialogue and make plans to break bread in New York at the margins of the UN General Assembly. Lo and behold, a platoon of jihadi foot soldiers crosses the Kashmir divide into India and starts shooting. India fires back and the Line of Control then lights up along various sectors.
Pakistan’s story is that its soldiers cannot control what happens everywhere along the Line of Control and that it would be folly to have two hot borders when its national security establishment is preoccupied with Afghanistan. The violence along the Line of Control is, however, highly choreographed, and will die down. And no Pakistani commander worth his salt is unaware of what’s going on within his sector.
The usual gambit has produced the usual result: Pakistan’s Prime Minister has been reminded to take the Army’s interests into consideration in his dealings with India, while the Congress Party in India is distracted by economic woes and a strong challenge from the more muscular Bharatiya Janata Party in next year’s national elections. Progress and dialogue between Pakistan and India have been temporarily suspended, and there will be no meal between the Prime Ministers in New York.
The leaders of the United States, Iran, Pakistan and India are in the same bind: When violent foot soldiers are on the other side of the fight, and when focus is lost, the Prize will have to wait for another day, another year, or another decade.