Fires only go out when the fuel or oxygen is cut off. Life-threatening diseases end only with effective medication or surgical intervention. Wars are no exception to this rule, especially the types of war that Biden has called “forever wars.”
These drag on and on with no end in sight and, even if the hostilities subside, the chance of another round of fighting continues to loom and peace remains elusive. There is a difference between a protracted state of war punctuated by bouts of military hostility, as in the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and protracted hostilities marked by successive battles.
But in general, wars tend to last until the belligerents reach a point of fatigue that opens them up to the prospect of negotiations and a peace that is beneficial to all. We will exclude the first and second world wars when victory was decisive and surrender was unconditional.
Bear in mind, however, that the terms of surrender in the first were so harsh that they led to the second at the end of which humankind was somewhat wiser, enabling surrender without humiliation. On the other hand, there is another alternative that we should not rule out. I call this the “Sadat moment.”
This occurs when a political wise man has the power to change a hostile environment in such a way as to make peace preferable to continuing a war.
The Sadat moment has certain identifiable properties, the most important of which is that afterwards the world is not the same as it was before, even if, chronologically speaking, it is just another point in time. They say that the century and a half of the British Empire was a mere blink of an eye in the larger scheme of history.
But there is more to that empire’s existence than its rise, expansion and eventual fall. After all, it launched the first industrial revolution and gave the world economic and political systems that remain international benchmarks. The eleven years in which president Anwar Al-Sadat governed Egypt were also more than a blink of the eye, because he took two decisions of war and peace, and both contributed historical landmarks with worldwide ramifications.
The decision to go to war was not just about liberating occupied territories and reversing the humiliation of an earlier defeat. It proclaimed the awakening of a nation, the decisive role of Arab oil in international relations and, more importantly, the subordination of arms to political ends. It was the decision to go to war in 1973 that made the second decision, the decision to go to Jerusalem to sue for peace, possible.
The Sadat moment is not a purely Egyptian phenomenon. It was preceded in the Indian subcontinent by Mahatma Gandhi’s actions to win India’s independence from Britain, even if that meant granting independence to Pakistan. In the end, both Gandhi and Sadat shared the same fate: assassination.
Turning to the central conflict in the world today, is it not time for peace in Ukraine? The hostilities are in the middle of their second year since Russian forces entered Ukraine.
If their aim was to conquer the whole of Ukraine, they succeeded only in controlling some areas in the south and east. These were annexed to Russia after a sham referendum, after which Russian forces assumed a defensive posture.
Ukraine, for its part, withstood the onslaught, saved the capital Kyiv and, with intensive Western assistance, waged a counteroffensive in September that managed to liberate several key cities, such as Kherson, the strategic city at the mouth of the Dnieper River and gateway to the Black Sea.
It also managed to secure Odessa and keep that vital port open to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean beyond. At the start of this summer, Ukraine launched a full-scale counteroffensive. In the months since then, it has made no significant progress against Russia’s formidable defenses while it has sustained a high cost in lives and equipment.
It is too early to say whether, from a purely military standpoint, the two sides have reached the stalemate that could lead to serious negotiations. Have Russian forces reached that point of fatigue, especially after the shock delivered by the Wagner mutiny? Can Ukrainian forces overcome the obstacles impeding their progress? We need to keep an eye on developments on the ground.
Meanwhile, however, the two sides have already accumulated some experience in successful negotiations, which resulted in prisoner exchange deals and in the Black Sea grain initiative. To these can be added the Chinese peace initiative which is based on two main principles: opposition to Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory by force and opposition to NATO’s attempts to threaten both Russia and China.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have contributed to the efforts to halt hostilities and, more recently, African nations, driven by economic and food crises, have tried to bridge the differences between the belligerents.
The new Saudi initiative, in collaboration with Turkey, appears to be pursuing a more comprehensive and effective approach than its predecessors.
Above all, it is taking advantage of shifts in the international order, possibly towards more than a tripolar one. In addition to the US, China and Russia, other influential nations will be asserting their weight due to their demographic, military or economic strength, as well as their membership in the G20 or BRICS.
These nations have been termed “middle powers” because they do not depend on either of the main powers and because, by virtue of their strength, they have the ability to influence the main powers.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, Brazil and South Africa could have the power to break the resistance to negotiating and set in motion the search for a solution to a war that has lasted far too long. The world may be on the threshold of a major Sadat moment.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 10 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly