A reluctant Middle East

A reluctant Middle East

As far as Washington is concerned there are four aspects to the crisis in the Middle East.
Firstly, it is exacting an enormous political price — especially the US military presence in Iraq — in terms of military expenditure, loss of life and the daily attrition on the US army.

Secondly, the US, in its capacity as a superpower striving towards universal hegemony and keen to secure its vital interests in the Middle East, is no longer able to manage regional conflicts in a manner that furthers the pursuit of its aims and curtails the threats to its interests. After two Bush administrations, which sought to redraw the map of the Middle East in order to eliminate or marginalise forces antagonistic to its policies in the region, Washington is incapable of controlling conflicts in Lebanon, in Palestine between the PA and Hamas and between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and in Iraq. Nor has it been able to settle its multi-tiered problems with Iran. On every front in the region it is encountering increasing competition from states opposed to the US or from resistance organisations.

Thirdly, US policies in the region are in the grip of a severe credibility crisis. I am not talking about the campaign to spread democracy, to which the Bush administration had hardly adhered before the Hamas victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and that it abandoned entirely afterwards. Rather, I am speaking of the conventional role that Washington has played since the end of World War II, which is to protect its allies — Israel above all — and to steer the collective security arrangements in the Gulf in order to safeguard the flow of oil. Many of America”s allies have begun to question the efficacy of Washington”s polices and, in some cases, now believe these policies cause more problems than they solve. Such reactions are closely connected with the Bush administration”s military adventurism and its poor, if not negative, results, as well as with the administration”s unbounded bias in favour of Israel to the detriment of Arab interests.

Fourthly, in spite of the unprecedented magnitude of the US military presence in the region, America”s manoeuvrability and available pressure tools have declined. Of course, Washington remains a leading player in Iraq, the Gulf, Palestine and Lebanon, but it can no longer move independently. It would be wrong to think that only Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah are acting outside of the framework of US policies. Long-term allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are exploring courses of their own in order to buffer themselves against the negative repercussions of US policies. The upshot is greater relative autonomy for regional parties, whether for or against the US, growing lines of confrontation, and an increasingly complex map of political interplay and interwoven interests.

The Bush administration sidelined the carrot and stick diplomacy on which Washington once relied, opting instead for confrontation and containment, bringing to bear its military machine, arms deals and security-intelligence. By the time that the Bush administration, under pressure from its Arab allies, rediscovered diplomacy in the aftermath of the war on Lebanon in 2006 and tried to revive the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating track it no longer had time to achieve the necessary breakthroughs. Regional parties, in any case, had already lost faith in the ability of US diplomacy to deliver.

The failure of US policies and the decline in Washington”s influence drove its regional allies to search for alternative strategies less dependent on the superpower. This has exacerbated the crisis Washington faces in the Middle East. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this development is found in its allies” reluctance, if not outright refusal, to fall in line with the Bush administration”s incessant drive to — indeed obsession with — pushing tensions in the region towards perilous confrontations in the hope of producing decisive victories. Today, Washington”s allies in the Gulf refuse to treat Iran solely as a source of threat and instability that can only be contained by force. Instead, as Riyadh”s attempts to coordinate with Iran over regional concerns such as Lebanon indicate, they are seriously exploring ways to work with Iran so as to avert the spectre of another war in the region and, simultaneously, regulate Iran”s regional aspirations. Egypt, for its part, has stepped up diplomatic efforts to bring the security situation in Gaza under control, to maintain calm between Israel and the Palestinian factions, and to promote a national dialogue between the PA and Hamas. It is a course that contradicts the American premise that Hamas is a terrorist organisation that needs to be eliminated. Indeed, Israel, while encouraging confrontation against Iran and still refusing to deal with Hamas, has entered into Turkish-mediated negotiations with Syria. Neither Tel Aviv nor Ankara, Washington”s two key allies in the region, seem overly concerned with the disgruntlement this may have caused in Washington.
The burst of diplomatic activity that the Middle East has witnessed in recent months seems frequently to deviate from Washington”s policy guidelines, underscoring the decline in American influence in the region. The war in Lebanon in 2006 was a key turning point, reinforcing awareness among regional parties of the dangers inherent in the vacuum generated by a shrinking American role. All parties in the region appear to have come to the conclusion that conflicts and crises are best handled by a rational search for compromises and pragmatic solutions that will either end, or alleviate the consequences of, the upheavals precipitated by the occupation of Iraq.

The governments of the Gulf are wary of the expansion of Iranian influence and have a clear incentive for seeking to limit that influence. But GCC members are also aware that it is impossible to bring stability to Iraq, to safeguard the security of the Gulf and to help Lebanon out of its current impasse without some level of coordination with Tehran. While this channel offers Iran some incentives it also imposes limits on Iran”s regional manoeuvrability. The tone of recent rhetoric and actions suggests that Tehran has realised that its impetuous and aggressive exploitation of the advantages gained from the American occupation of Iraq has incited Arab governments and peoples against it and that, in the long run, Iran may lose more than it gains. Pragmatism on the part of Riyadh and Tehran has already been successful in mediating between the Lebanese factions. While Saudi Arabia encouraged 14 March forces to accept the proposed settlement, Iran, together with Syria, used its influence with Hizbullah and its allies to ensure that they would respond positively to and abide by what has become known as the Doha Agreement. The same constructive pragmatism appears to be making inroads in other areas, notably in Egyptian mediation efforts with the Palestinians and the Turkish brokered talks between Syria and Israel. This spirit, with its balanced, inclusive approach, is clearly what is needed in order to overcome a mindset that acknowledges only mutually exclusive antitheses, such as moderates versus extremists and winners versus losers.

Regardless of who will be the next incumbent in the White House, the new administration will have to deal with the Bush administration”s legacy. Naturally the priorities of a McCain administration, obsessed as it would be with Iran, Iraq and the war on terrorism, will differ from those of an Obama-led Democratic administration that will want to devote itself to resuscitating the economy and curbing the attrition on American resources in the Middle East. The Democrats, as a consequence, will seek to rely more heavily on diplomacy than on confrontation. But whoever wins, the administration will need to study new and more constructive strategic and tactical approaches to handling the various issues of the Middle East.