Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 February - 3 March 2004
Issue No. 679
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On the Greater Middle East

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed wonders whether widening the Middle East facilitates the control of its numerous conflicts or the opposite

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Nearly a decade ago, I was invited to take part in a seminar in Hungary on an issue that differed from the usual talk in countries that once belonged to the Eastern Bloc. The Soviet Union had collapsed and the main issue discussed was which of the two regions was more likely to attract the West's attention in the following period: Eastern Europe or the Middle East? In other words, would the West focus on ending all remnants of the bipolar world order or on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict? Would relations between Eastern Europe and the Arab world be conducted via Washington rather than Moscow, or would they acquire altogether new features in the context of the changes underway at the global level?

Today this question could very well be raised from the perspective of the United States itself. During the Cold War, Washington's military and diplomatic strategy was singularly focussed on containing and meeting the threat posed by the Soviet Union. To that end, a huge continental army was deployed in Europe to defend Western Europe. With the disappearance of the threat, the focus of western strategic thinking has shifted. Addressing a conference held in Prague last October, the United States' Permanent Representative to NATO Nicholas Burns said: "NATO's mandate is still to defend Europe and North America. But we don't believe we can do that by sitting in Western Europe, or Central Europe, or North America. We have to deploy our conceptual attention and our military forces east and south. NATO's future, we believe is east and south. It's in the Greater Middle East."

The question is, however, whether there is such a thing as a greater Middle East extending beyond the traditional geographical boundaries of the region. And, if so, what are the common features shared by the different countries now identified as parts of a body that would extend from Pakistan in the east to Morocco in the west? Take, for example, the call for the creation of an independent Arab state in Palestine. Does it follow that there should be a similar call for an independent Kurdish state or for an independent state in Kashmir? If all these countries are parts of one entity, should there not exist similar solutions for similar problems?

Actually, the Middle East region has been defined in different ways over the years. For a long time, it was identified as the arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the aftermath of the October 1973 war, after Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, after the convocation of the Madrid Conference and the beginning of negotiations for a comprehensive settlement of the conflict, the region came to be described as the New Middle East. But with peace negotiations stalled on both the Palestinian and Syrian tracks and tensions running high throughout the region, it was clear that the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict continued to dominate the New Middle East. Then came the dramatic events of 11 September in New York and Washington. Bush accused Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qa'eda of carrying out the attacks and declared war on Afghanistan, where Bin Laden was said to be hiding under the protection of the Taliban regime. After overthrowing the Talibans, Bush came forward with the theory that the main issue was not Palestine but Iraq and its alleged stockpile of banned weapons of mass destruction.

His theory was not favourably received by all the other great powers, who differed over which issue deserved to get most of the attention. Before the war on Iraq, the Security Council split into two groups. One group, led by Bush and Blair, insisted that an immediate war was necessary because they had conclusive evidence that Iraq possessed WMDs. Another group, led by France and Germany, argued that the UN weapons inspectors should be granted more time to search for WMDs, and that the war option should not be resorted to unless and until they had found them. The disagreement over whether war should be launched at once or not was symptomatic of a deeper and more significant disagreement over whether the Iraqi issue should take precedence over any other.

Neither of the two sides emerged victorious in the confrontation. The American/British side had to concede that the coalition's casus belli, namely, Iraq's alleged arsenal of WMDs, did not exist, while the French/German side could not reap the fruits of the failure of the opposite group because military might was disproportionate to the advantage of the latter. According to Nicholas Burns, the US military budget for 2003 reached the colossal sum of $376 billion, while the military budgets of all 18 US allies taken together amounted to only $140 billion. The feeling of failure on both sides led to the emergence of a new equation. With each unable to impose its conditions on the other, both realised they had to reach some sort of compromise. That is what Washington hopes to achieve with its Greater Middle East project.

The expansion of the geographical boundaries of the region dilutes the importance of the Palestinian problem and demotes it from its central position on the political stage of the Middle East to a marginal position as just one of several "hot" issues plaguing a much wider region. Moreover, given Washington's fixation on terrorism, it could well use the new rationale to classify the Palestinian struggle for nationhood as just one more example of the terrorism that is widely propagated throughout the greater Middle East.

Such a view would also blur any distinction between Osama Bin Laden and Yasser Arafat and, taken to its logical conclusion, would regard the Oslo Accords as invalid for having been concluded with a terrorist, not the leader of a liberation movement! The whole rationale of the Greater Middle East project is the exact opposite of the stand adopted by Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when he tried to convince the Arab parties that his war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was not a war against Muslims as a whole, but only against terrorists.

Moreover, if it is true that the struggle of the Palestinians is not a legitimate resistance movement consecrated by international law and the UN Charter but random terrorism, then Israel is justified to use any means at its disposal to protect itself, including killing innocent civilians, demolishing homes, building a separation barrier, and occupying land in defiance of UN resolutions. As to its systematic physical extermination of Palestinian activists, this would come to be seen as legitimate self-defence, not state terrorism, and as part and parcel of the global confrontation with the terrorist threat.

Finally, identifying the Palestinian struggle with terrorism undermines its character as an ideological issue and turns it into a purely subversive movement. This could be used to tarnish the image of Islam and try to confirm the truth of Huntington's clash of civilisations' theory, which holds that a confrontation between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world is unavoidable.

The logic of a Greater Middle East proceeds from the premise that the threat of terrorism is no longer limited to acts that can be predicted in advance, such as hijacking planes. The attacks of 11 September, in which several passenger planes were used simultaneously as bombs, prove that terrorism can now take advantage of numerous loopholes in the present world system to come up with ever more ingenious and unpredictable scenarios. The success of the 9/11 attacks will make terrorists even more daring and encourage them to step up their activities. To counter-balance this new dimension of the confrontation, new types of weapons better adapted to confront the challenge of terrorism will have to be invented. This will stimulate the economy, a very welcome development for the US president in a year of presidential elections.

The Middle East used to be dealt with as just one region among many. Today it is regarded as a mainstay of world terrorism and the justification for the continued existence of a world military pact, NATO. Indeed, it has come to personify the continuing confrontation between the forces of good and evil. The New Middle East was meant to portray the Middle East as a region that could pass from war to peace. Now the Greater Middle East seems to indicate that the region is plagued with the continued threat of unmanageable violence.

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