US Can't Run the Show in the Middle East
by Leon Hadar
It feels like
déjà vu all over again. US official leaves for a conference in East
Asia where he or she is supposed to discuss issues that affect the
interests of the governments and economies in the region. Instead,
the American representative ends up investing most of his or her
time and energy in trying to resolve another Middle East crisis.
was expected to be a Southeast Asian week for US Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice who was scheduled to fly to Malaysia for the ASEAN
regional forum and after concluding talks with officials from the
region, to return to Washington. But her trip to Kuala Lumpur would
probably be recalled now as nothing more than a short stopover in
between her extensive and more important efforts to deal with the
mounting violence in the Middle East.
On her way
to Southeast Asia, Ms. Rice spent several days of shuttle diplomacy
in the Middle East, followed by an international conference in Rome,
as part of an effort to bring a cease-fire in the war between Israel
and the Hezbollah that has already resulted in hundreds of casualties
and appalling destruction in Lebanon (as a consequence of Israeli
aerial bombing) and in northern Israel (caused by hundreds of missiles
launched by Hezbollah guerillas.
And on her
way back from Malaysia, the US chief diplomat held more talks with
Israeli and Arab officials as she tried to find ways to reach an
agreement that she insisted should lead to the release of Israeli
soldiers who had been kidnapped by the Hezbollah (the development
that ignited the current crisis) and to the disarming of its militias
in exchange for Israeli willingness to discuss the return of Lebanese
citizens it has been holding for several years as well as the fate
of disputed land on the border of Israel, Lebanon and Syria.
Most US allies,
including the ones that Ms. Rice met in Kuala Lumpur would like
to see an immediate cease-fire in the Mideast. But Ms. Rice and
her boss, US President George W Bush as he made clear during
a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday
in Washington seem to have given Israel a green light to
continue its assault on the Hezbollah until the Shi'ite group is
so damaged so as to force it to raise a white flag.
That this has
been a very long and grueling week of diplomacy for Secretary Rice
becomes obvious when one studies her body language during press
conferences. She looks like being under a lot of pressure. That
is not surprising when one takes into consideration the problems
she has been facing as she tries to juggle the many and contradictory
US commitments to Israel which the Bush administration and
Congress regard as a close US ally, to the fledging democracy of
Lebanon where Hezbollah is part of the cabinet, to the pro-American
Arab-Sunni regimes in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and to a Arab-Shi'ite
government in Iraq with close ties to Iran. The US has the ambition
of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians, isolating
and containing Syria and Iran, promoting political and economic
freedom in the Middle East, and securing access to the oil resources
in the Persian Gulf.
failure to fulfill all of these costly commitments and achieve these
many goals has less to do with her personal charm and diplomatic
skills and more with the fact that the United States is reaching
a point in which it seems not to have the power anymore to advance
its agenda in the Middle East that combines a Realpolitik drive
towards hegemony with a Wilsonian crusade for democracy.
To put it simply,
the United States has too much on its Middle Eastern plate and it
is clearly beginning to lose its leverage over the main players
in the region. As America's allies in East Asia are discovering,
that means that the US has less time and resources to devote to
other policy issues.
You don't have
to be a great strategic thinker to reach these conclusions. Just
glance at the headlines in your daily newspaper and watch the latest
news on television and you get the picture: The United States is
overstretched militarily in an Iraq that is experiencing a form
of a civil war that threatens to split the country and where the
rise of an Arab-Shi'ite-dominated government has helped Iran to
emerge as the main regional power in the Persian Gulf and as a source
of inspiration for Shi'ites in the entire region.
All that has
been happening as Washington tries without much success to force
Iran to end its plans to acquire nuclear military capability. The
Americans have succeeded in evicting Syrians from Lebanon but that
has created a military vacuum that helped to strengthen the power
of Hezbollah there. And the US has made little effort to revive
the Palestinian-Israeli process. In fact, the push for democracy
in Palestine has brought to power the radical Hamas movement.
That does not
mean that the US is a global power in decline like, say, Great Britain
and France were after World War II as they were gradually ejected
from the Middle East by the Americans (and the Soviets). But the
unilateral and hegemonic project that the US have been trying to
establish in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War and starting
with the 1991 Gulf War is probably coming to an end.
The kind of
challenges that America is facing now in Iraq, Israel/Palestine
and Lebanon, including the rising power of radical political Islamic
movements, growing ethnic and religious tensions (including between
Sunnis and Shi'ites), increasing number of failed states, and the
threats from military non-state actors, cannot be dealt with through
this Democratic Empire project.
There are limits
to Washington's ability to invest its economic and military resources
in such a project, especially if one considers the unwillingness
on the part of the American taxpayers to support a never-ending
military intervention in the Middle East.
On one level,
Washington cannot continue to pursue a policy of punishing and isolating
Middle East regimes with which it disagrees on either policies or
ideology. There is no way that Washington could encourage the creation
of a stable balance of power system in the Persian Gulf, including
Iraq, without negotiating with Iran.
And it cannot
help bring stability to Lebanon without dealing with its powerful
Syrian neighbor or for that matter with the powerful Lebanese-Shi'ite
community when many of its members support Hezbollah. Similarly,
no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be reached
through unilateralist Israeli strategy backed by Washington. Not
unlike the process that has taken place in Southeast Asia, the US
should be supportive of a formation of regional security groups
in which Washington will not play the leader; for example, a Persian
Gulf security organization, that includes Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia
and other Gulf states.
level, it is in the interest of the US to provide incentives for
other global players to play a more active role in promoting stability
and peace in the Middle East. In particular, the members of the
European Union (EU), and especially the Mediterranean countries
(France, Italy, Spain), Germany (which has special ties with the
Jewish state). Britain and Turkey should play a leading role in
this process of growing engagement in the Middle East, a region
that because of geographical proximity, economic ties and demographic
links is their strategic backyard what Mexico and Latin America
is for the US.
hegemonic strategy in the Middle East, the US has encouraged the
Europeans to take a free ride on the American policy. The message
from Washington has been: "We'll do the driving while you only
have to check the tires and replace the oil."
Germany could start doing some of the driving even if that means
that they will have more impact on deciding what policy route to
take in the Middle East. The current crisis in Lebanon might be
exactly such an opportunity for a growing European engagement.
backdrop of declining US prestige, France, Italy and Spain have
been playing an active role, mostly through back-channel diplomacy
with Israel, Syria and Lebanon, and indirectly with the Hezbollah
to fashion a peaceful resolution.
At the same
time, according to press reports, Germany has been also pursuing
behind-the-scene diplomacy involving Israel, Syria and Iran. The
EU has already announced that it would be willing to take the lead
in deploying peacekeeping troops to southern Lebanon; France, Italy,
Turkey and Norway have agreed to participate in such a force. And
the Europeans have also indicated their interest in playing a more
central role in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
the kind of European activism in the Middle East that American officials
should encourage, so that when another crisis blows up in the Middle
East, US officials would be able to participate in an ASEAN conference
without being distracted by a new mess in the Levant.
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.