Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2008
Issue No. 902
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Regional diplomacy filling the vacuum

The incompetence of US policy in the Middle East is creating new realities on the ground, says Amr Hamzawi*

The Middle East is having to adjust itself to two political realities: US inefficacy and the growing diplomatic activity of regional parties. This extends beyond the Doha agreement that engineered a truce between Lebanese factions and the indirect Syrian- Israeli negotiations mediated by Turkey, in both of which the US was absent as an operative factor. There are other regional actions of varying origins and aims all intended to promote the peaceful management of the crises and conflicts that have beset the region and to restore equilibrium after the upheavals of recent years.

Many colleagues, notably Hassan Nafaa and Gamil Matar, have discussed at length, on the pages of Al-Hayat, the causes of the failure of US Middle East policy, placing particular emphasis on two major phenomena: the extremely costly occupation of Iraq and its enormous strategic reverberations, as epitomised in the rise of Iran's regional influence and the expanding scope of its operations; and, secondly, the decline in Washington's ability to promote a two-pronged agenda consisting of a security component (the war against terrorism) and an ideological component (a coalition of moderates versus an axis of evil) and which, in its extreme simplicity, does not intersect with the intricate realities of the region and, hence, fails to contribute to the creation of a realistic departure point for a drive to control the various crises in the region that would simultaneously serve to protect US interests. While I thoroughly concur with this analysis, I would like to raise three additional factors that explain the failure of Washington's Middle East policy.

Firstly, the Bush administration marginalised a key instrument that the US had always depended on in the exercise of its role and implementation of its policy in the Middle East: diplomacy, with both its incentive and punitive dimensions. Instead, this administration threw all its weight behind confrontationist and containment strategies, and their combative instruments, notably the military machine, arms pacts and security/intelligence activities. By the time the Bush administration, yielding to the pressures of Washington's Arab allies following the war against Lebanon in 2006, rediscovered diplomacy and invested some real effort into reviving the Palestinian- Israeli negotiating strategy, it was too late. Too little time was left for it to achieve sufficient inroads to generate qualitative shifts, and the regional parties had, in all events, lost faith in the ability of the American diplomacy to deliver.

Secondly, the occupation of Iraq, as recent congressional reports have stressed, brought such an unprecedented increase in the financial and human costs of US Middle East policy as to hamper the manoeuvrability of this superpower on the ground in regional conflicts and crises, hence, undermining its efficacy. The deployment of US naval units to the Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean and veiled threats by US officials of possible military strikes against their adversaries in Iran, Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas no longer elicit the fear and panic they once did due to the sapping of US military energies in Iraq and the repeated warnings of US military brass against the folly of another military engagement.

Finally, Washington's failures and growing incompetence have heightened its allies' scepticism towards its policy, and spurred them into exploring alternative strategies that are not solely dependant on superpower might. This trend, naturally, contributed to exacerbating Washington's crisis in the Middle East. Perhaps the most important development in this regard is that America's allies have become increasingly wary of, if not outspoken against, the Bush administration's incessant rashness and insatiable lust for propelling tensions in the region to critical mass. Washington's allies in the Gulf now refuse to treat Iran solely as a source of threat and instability that needs to be contained, testimony to which can be found in Riyadh's cautious overtures to Tehran, regional coordination with it over the Lebanese crisis, and other regional efforts to explore opportunities for negotiation and cooperation in order to dispel the spectre of war from the Gulf and the Middle East and, simultaneously, in the hope of controlling Iran's regional influence. In addition, Egypt has stepped up diplomatic activity aimed at calming the security situation in Gaza, promoting a truce between Israel and the Palestinian factions, and paving the way for a national dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Egypt's unwillingness to exclude Hamas contrasts starkly with the White House strategy as reiterated by Bush during the Global Economic Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh when he referred to Hamas as a terrorist organisation that had to be fought like the Nazis. Indeed, even Israel, which ardently supports military confrontation against Iran and just as ardently refuses to speak with Hamas, has made overtures to Syria via an indirect negotiating track mediated by Turkey. Neither Ankara nor Tel Aviv, the US's most important allies in the region, paid great heed to Washington's disgruntlement at having been left out of the loop.

Clearly, then, the current diplomatic activity in the Middle East is, in many areas, superseding US policies and strategies at a time when the American role has become palpably ineffective. In retrospect, we might point to the war on Lebanon in 2006 as the major turning point in the realisation by regional parties of the dangers of the vacuum created by American policy failures and of the absolute need for a cool and rational exploration of pragmatic agreements and undertakings in order to put if only a partial and interim end to the disruptions that followed the occupation of Iraq. Yes, countries in the Gulf are apprehensive of Iran's growing influence and have an effective interest in containing it. Nevertheless, the capitals of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries -- Riyadh above all -- know full well that it will be impossible to realise stability in Iraq, safeguard the security of the Gulf and help Lebanon overcome its current crisis without coordinating with Tehran and, hence, without offering Iran certain incentives in exchange for excepting certain restrictions on its actions in the region.

For their part, the ruling establishment in the Islamic Republic of Iran is certain that any rash attempt on its part to exploit the advantages it has won from the American occupation of Iraq in violent and combative ways will turn the Arab governments and peoples completely against it and that it would stand to lose much more from this in the long run than anything it might gain from an aggressive move in the short run. Riyadh and Tehran amply demonstrated their spirit of constructive pragmatism in the intelligent and successful way they mediated between the Lebanese factions. Saudi Arabia encouraged the 14 March forces to accept the settlement proposal, while Iran, together with Syria, used their influence with Hizbullah and its allies to ensure a positive response and a commitment to implement the provisions of what became known as the Doha agreement. Other regional parties have shown a similar spirit in other conflict zones. As mentioned above, the Egyptian mediating efforts between the Palestinian factions (in spite of the current stall) and the Turkish mediating efforts between Syria and Israel reflect a subtle non-exclusionist approach to complex problems that prefers to steer clear of simplistic "moderate" versus "extremist" and "winner" versus "loser" dualities.

There may just be more than a glimmer of hope in this ebbing of an intelligent and constructive Middle Eastern diplomacy that seeks to offer an alternative to the Bush administration's confrontationalism and that is acting relatively independently from the superpower. Perhaps it will succeed in gradually opening the doors to long-awaited negotiated solutions, for which there exists no real alternative.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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