IS CHECHNYA MORE IMPORTANT THAN PALESTINE?….The spread of democracy in the Middle East, along with “winning Muslim hearts and minds,” are clearly big, complicated topics. But one grand truism that keeps popping up again and again is the need to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict before “real progress” can be made. On one level, there’s a lot to recommend this view: Arab dictators have dug in their heels so much on Israel as an excuse for avoiding reform, and pulling the issue out from under them would call their bluff in a big way and leave them with nothing to lean against?sort of like letting go of the rope in Tug-o-War. But it’s also true that a Palestinian state would hardly cure all that ails the Middle East or causes Islamic terrorism.

Anyway, I’m bringing this up after reading a (typically) excellent post by praktike of Liberals Against Terrorism, which notes that the Chechnya conflict might well be even more instrumental in producing Islamic terrorism than Israel/Palestine, and deserves much greater attention. That’s true, though I’d also add that it’s high time to start thinking more clearly about Chechnya than has usually been done. (I may be torching a few straw men here, but I don’t think so.)

For starters, it’s a bit facile to think that “solving” Chechnya is simply a matter of ending the brutal Russian suppression of the region, as the Boston Globe did yesterday. That’s part of it, but keep in mind that the 1999 war is essentially over, and though the atrocities of the past were truly horrific, Putin has largely tamped down Russian incursions into Chechnya. Since 2002, according to this Carnegie report, Chechen terror attacks in Nazran and Beslan have in fact killed more people than Russian forces. So this isn’t like Lebanon, where self-determination is the only remaining bone of contention. Indeed, I don’t know if liberation will solve all of Lebanon’s problems?in true pundit fashion, my somewhat shallow understanding of the country has been heavily influenced by reading bloggers like Michael Young or Tony Badran, who generally play down the possibility of sectarian conflict in Lebanon (and perhaps rightly so, I don’t know). But liberation certainly won’t solve the problems in Chechnya, which is by now pretty undeniably a failed, essentially criminal state. Cast blame at Yeltsin and Putin if you must (I do), but that doesn’t fix anything.

At other times the debate around Chechnya surrounds how and when to settle the question of the region’s autonomy. In the Los Angeles Times today, Raj Menon argues that “only a political solution can stop the bloodletting.” But a political solution alone won’t get rid of the scores of Chechen gangsters?like the infamous Kadyrovtsy?or the mujahideen pouring into neighboring Ingushetia and Dagestan. Even Aslan Mashkadov, the Chechen leader who was recently killed by Russian forces, might have been able to sign a truce with Russia, but he wouldn’t have been able to stop the violence.

So a more subtle approach is needed here, aided by the West, that does at least the following: increases development and aid to the region; isolates the extremists from the rest of the Chechens (perhaps by convincing Russia to offer amnesty to a wide swath of Chechen fighters); secures the borders in the North Caucus; and builds functional political institutions in Chechnya. Much of this will involve a mix of firm pressure and cooperation with Putin, though it seems that Bush could find common ground by explicitly putting the Chechen independence issue aside for now and focusing on other concerns. True, this isn’t classic Bush-style democracy-promotion?what is??but a deft touch is essential here, lest the problem continue to spiral out of control.

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