Time to say no
To continue kowtowing to the US administration's demands over Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine would be suicidal, writes Hassan Nafaa*
Gaping wounds in some of the most sensitive areas of the Arab world, most notably in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, have begun to suppurate. The current American administration, headed by a clique of anti-Arab Islamophobes, will stop at nothing, out of deference to Israel and commitment to the Christian-Zionist preaching in which they believe so fervently. This same administration believes the fact that neither the president's nor the vice-president's running for re-election gives them greater freedom of movement, at least until the electoral campaigns officially kick-off in February a year from now. Until then they will steamroll through measures in an attempt to complete an enterprise refuse to admit they have failed. And such is the catatonic stupor into which Arab regimes have fallen that they are prepared to allow the same doctor who caused the disease to treat their wounds.
Two factors forced Bush to re-adjust his policy and plans for Iraq and the region. The Baker- Hamilton report, drafted by a joint Democratic- Republican commission, concluded the administration's policy was a fiasco and demanded changes. Then, the Republicans lost their majority in both houses of Congress just as the growing anti-war movement was reminding the American public of the failings of the Vietnam era. In response, Bush dug in his heels. Instead of cooperating with Iran and Syria to restore an element of calm in order to pave the way for an honourable withdrawal, as the Baker-Hamilton report recommended, he did the opposite, ordering 20,000 more US troops to Iraq, two aircraft carriers to the Gulf, and furnishing his friends in the neighbourhood with anti-missile defence systems. Such moves were obviously in preparation for a military strike against Iran and the tightening of the siege around Syria, yet Bush was confident of his allies' support. Just in case, though, he sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on another tour of the region.
Here was the envoy of supposedly the greatest democracy on earth appealing to foreign friends in order to tip the scale of American public opinion back in favour of the executive after Congress had won the first round. The close observer might have detected Rice's inward sneer as she discovered how immeasurably more malleable decision-makers in this part of the world are than lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Certainly she shed no tears. Quite the opposite: she was delighted, full of confidence, pleased to see eight Arab foreign ministers climbing over one another in Kuwait to declare their support for America's "new" plans for Iraq and for the region. She had grounds for her confidence. She knows, after all, that she is the only person capable of getting this number of Arab foreign ministers to meet in any place she designates, in the Arab world or abroad, at the snap of her fingers. Perhaps, too, she felt a measure of malicious glee as she watched them fight to win her favour, in the full knowledge that while each and everyone of them is a member of the Arab League they would never come together on their own initiative in order to develop an independent policy to further their common interests.
When the rush of Arab governments to support an American policy that American society itself deplores stirred angry reactions among sectors of Arab public opinion, various diplomatic quarters tried to stem the damage. Some Arab foreign ministers, for example, tried to convey the impression that their support was qualified, that it was contingent upon results on the ground.
It was hardly convincing. Governments generally formulate policies on the basis of considerations and expectations that have not yet been put to the test. When other governments come out in support of those policies they are committing themselves, as partners, to working for its success regardless of what the future may bring. And just as they anticipate sharing the fruits of the policy, should it succeed, they must also be prepared to sustain their share of losses should it fail.
The Bush plan entails actions hostile to both Iran and Syria. To support it is to side unequivocally against these two countries. The same applies to the fact that the plan is opposed by the majority of the American people, not to mention powers such as China, Russia and the EU.
Bush's reckless adventurism is well known and the tide of opposition to his policy will swell further, both at home and abroad. While this makes failure even more likely it will not forestall the disasters that will undoubtedly be inflicted on Arabs and Muslims. So certain is the prognosis that it is only possible to wonder at the considerations upon which Arab regimes base their support of US policy. The most obvious premises for their behaviour are probably the right ones: first, they think Iran's expansionist designs more dangerous than the Zionist version, and second, they believe the need to placate the US in order to sustain their strategic relationships with Washington outstrips all other regional and international considerations.
Without underestimating the potential threat to the Arab world of Iran's growing power and influence, it is impossible to accept this presents a greater peril than the Zionist enterprise. The best way for the Arabs to confront Tehran's regional power bid is not to fall in with US-Israeli plans to strike Iran but to establish a unified Arab policy towards Iran. This would involve opening a dialogue with Tehran, to which end they would have to rely on Syria. A strike against Iran, by the US and/or Israel, may weaken Iran temporarily but it will not strengthen the hand of any Arab power. It could easily plunge the entire region into a state of chaos, triggering any number of local civil wars if not a full-fledged regional war.
Arab leaders who believed the claims that ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein would eliminate one of the greatest impediments to regional stability should look at what has in fact been eliminated. It is Iraq as a state that has been destroyed. And who, apart from Iran and Israel, has gained from the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq? Does it not also follow that the sole beneficiary of any war against Iran will be Israel, for whom the destruction of Iran would come as the most crucial step towards realising Israel's dream of re-organising the Middle East into disparate sectarian-based statelets as it transforms itself into the engineer of their multi-farious rivalries and alliances?
As important as the strategic relationship with the US might be, Arab leaders should realise that Bush and his gang of neo-conservatives are not synonymous with the United States. They are a band of thugs bent on steering the world to unmitigated disaster, a fact grasped by the majority of the American people upon whom it has dawned that this administration is no less fanatical and racist than Hitler and the Nazis. Nor can a strategic relationship be founded upon handing over the determination of the fates of our peoples to the White House, regardless of whether its incumbent is a Democrat or Republican, an extremist or moderate. The US is a mighty power and acts as mighty powers mostly do: it respects the strong and crushes the weak once it can dispense with their services. When will Arab rulers open their eyes to the reality that their current weakness and disarray is hastening the day when the US finds them too much of a burden and drops them? When will they realise that they will never be able to make the transition from a dependent to a partner or build a strategic relationship that is truly mutually beneficent until they demonstrate their ability to effectively play what few cards they have left to their advantage?
Would it be excessive to suggest that the current crisis offers Arab countries that are on good terms with the US a rare opportunity to regain some of their forfeited leverage? I don't think so. This is one of those paradoxes of the current situation though to capitalise on it the ruling elites -- contrary to what they seem to believe -- must summon the resolve to convey to Bush a resounding no, and then enter immediately into talks with Iran, Syria and, perhaps, Turkey. Such a dialogue would seek to promote a range of interrelated objectives: an end to the internecine bloodshed in Palestine, the creation of a national unity government and the immediate lifting of the economic blockade on the Palestinian people; an end to the Lebanese crisis by pressuring rival parties to return to the negotiation table with the purpose of resolving their differences and safeguarding Lebanese independence while simultaneously ensuring Syria's security requirements; a reconciliation between rival Iraqi factions so as to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity and set in motion a new political process that will lead to a government that represents Iraqis regardless of sectarian affiliations; establishing channels of communication and dialogue with US leaders opposed to Bush's policies in order to generate pressure for an international conference, in which all concerned parties take part, the purpose of which is to resolve, in tandem, all the interconnected crises in the Middle East, and to establish agreed-upon systems for collective and humanitarian security so as to ensure the settlements are acceptable regionally and internationally.
It is mistaken to believe that what is happening in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine are civil wars or even the beginning of civil wars. They are political conflicts fuelled by the US-Israeli drive for regional hegemony.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.