June 26, 2008

We”€™re all familiar with this cliché-ridden story line. A successful husband dumps his middle-aged and supposedly feeble wife for a younger woman. The estranged wife’s friends are worried that after so many years of being dependent on her spouse, she won”€™t be able to make it in the real world as a single woman. But to the surprise of everyone, she goes to college, gets a degree and then opens a small but profitable business. And after dieting and working-out in the gym, she looks great and starts dating attractive and successful guys. In fact, her life has become much better now that he husband isn’t around anymore. 

In a way, many of the doomsday scenarios that try to envision what would happen in the Middle East if the U.S. were to decide to withdraw its military troops from and end its diplomatic engagement in the region, assume that being dumped by the powerful American superpower, the region, starting with Iraq, and continuing with Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt, would degenerate into an all-out and never-ending war between nation-states (Iran vs. Saudi Arabia), ethnic groups (Arabs vs. Kurds), religious sects (Sunnis vs. Shiites), and tribal groups (you name them).

In a Middle East sans America, we are being told by the members of Washington’s Foreign Policy Establishment, the pro-U.S. regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would instantly collapse and Iran and its proxies would emerge as the ultimate winners. Oil would cease to flow from the region which would eventually draw in other global players, like China, Russia and the European Union (EU) that would start fighting over its resources and divide the region between them. Everyone would then recall the good, old days of Pax America in the Middle East and would wonder. What were we thinking when we bashed American interventionism in the region? There was no way that the Middle East would have been able to survive without U.S. wise guidance and effective protection. Right?

Wrong. A counterargument would start by drawing attention to the devastating consequences of American diplomatic and military intervention in the Middle East during the first eight years of the twenty-first century. The ousting of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq that destroyed the balance of power in the Persian Gulf and strengthened the power of Iran and its Shiite proxies in the region, not to mention the humanitarian and economic costs of this American disastrous misadventure, including the death and destruction in Iraq, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and rising oil prices (and we are mentioning here the huge costs for the American people).

And lest we forget, a somewhat bizarre mix of an American crusade for democracy and an ambitious strive for hegemony brought about the election of Hamas in Palestine followed by an effort to isolate and punish it and the Palestinian people who elected it, and the strengthening of the power of the Hezbollah in Lebanon followed by Washington giving a green light to Israel to bomb Lebanon back to the stone ages.. The result of the American policy has been more bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians, growing instability in Lebanon, and rising tensions between Syria and Israel, and the never-ending chatter about the U.S or Israel strikes against Iran.

If we apply our earlier analogy, we could argue that it is the wife (the Middle East) that has concluded that the time has come to dump the husband (Uncle Sam), and not the other way around. It is from this perspective that we w need evaluate some of the dramatic developments that have been taking place in the Middle East as some of the leading players in the region, operating based on their interests, have decided to disregard U.S. guidance and embrace independent action.

First, the Shiite controlled ruling and opposition parties in Iraq have all strengthened their ties to the Shiite regime in Tehran while raising objections to continuing American military occupation of their country. Indeed, it was Iran, and not the U.S., that played a critical role in mediating a cease fire between the government of Nouri al-Maliki and the forces of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The liberated Iraqis, it seems, are trying to liberate themselves from American rule and get closer to the Iranians (who according to Washington, are trying to destabilize Iran).

At the same time, the Saudis who have been harshly critical the decision to topple Saddam Hussein and recognize the constraints operating on U.S. power in the region are using their economic and diplomatic power to strengthening the Sunni regimes in the region while trying to appease Iran, hoping to create a stable balance of power in the Persian Gulf.

The sidelining of American power in the Middle East has been even more evident in the Levant, where leading American allies”€“Israel, Egypt and Turkey have been pursuing policies that run contrary to stated American policy.

Hence, while the Bush Administration and its neoconservative ideologues have depicted the secular Ba”€™ath regime in Damascus as an unofficial member of the Axis of Evil and part of the Islamo-Fascist threat, Turkey and Israel have been raising strong objections to this American dogma by arguing that the Syrian current partnership with Iran is tactical and not strategic and that Damascus is interested in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel and could be co-opted into a moderate pro-western bloc in the region.

Despite strong American opposition, the Israelis have decided to start to negotiate with the Syrians under Turkish auspices—and both sides have expressed satisfaction with the first phase of the talks in Turkey. Filling the vacuum that has been created by the American refusal to support the Israel-Syria talks has been France, with President Nicolas Sarkozy inviting Assad, together with all other Mediterranean heads of states, including that Israel, to attend the inaugural meeting of the “€œMediterranean Union”€ in Paris on July 13. The French leader is hoping that Israel and Syria would become part of a new “€œMediterranean Union”€ to complement the EU.

France could also play a constructive role in dealing with another consequence of the U.S. policy in the Levant. The Americans have been critical of the recent deal, backed by Syria and Iran, that was reached between the Lebanese government headed by Fouad Seniora and the Hezbollah movement that seemed to strengthen the power of the Shiite group. Sarkozy whose government has had maintained historic ties to Lebanon and Syria and could help facilitate a détente between the two countries that reflects the new balance of power in the region.

And finally, after President Bush’s visit to Israel during which he bashed diplomatic negotiations with rogue regimes and terrorist groups as “€œappeasement,”€ Israel has agreed to finalize a deal with the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, mediated by Egypt, which could create the basis for a long-term cease-fire between the Israelis and the radical Islamic group which the Bush Administration has refused to engage and vowed to diplomatically isolate.

While some experts in Washington are suggesting that the Americans should support and even take part in the negotiations between Israel and Syria as well as between Israel and Hamas. In fact, one reason that these diplomatic engagements proved to be successful, has to do with the American disengagement from these processes which tend to provide incentives for the Middle Eastern players to take care of their respective interests.

Indeed, one could imagine the noisy opposition that an American involvement in talks with the Hamas and Syria would have ignited on Capitol Hill and other centers of political power during this heated election season and lead to the collapse of those talks. Moreover, the Syrians, the Palestinians and the Israelis would have probably tried to extract diplomatic and financial goodies from the American in exchange for their “€œpainful”€ concessions that they would have had to make anyway.

There is a certain lesson that the new American president could draw from these recent developments when he considers reassessing American presence in Iraq. A gradual U.S. disengagement from that country “€“ and from the entire Middle East—could actually put pressure on the main political forces in Mesopotamia as well on the other governments in the region to work together to protect their strategic and economic interests by ensuring that Iraq doesn”€™t disintegrate and the balance of power there remains stable. Indeed, these Middle Eastern players might all surprise Washington by doing better without American military interventions and futile “€œpeace processing”€. Indeed, dumping the Middle East “€“ could end up being a great bargain for the both the Middle Easterners and the Americans.


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