Arabs on the threshold
Obama needs help and the Arabs can make gains if only they can get their act together, writes Hassan Nafaa
The year 2008 wasn't great for the Arab world. The region's many conflicts are still raging, threatening not only Arab national security but also the very future of the Arab people. Some of these conflicts entail a dangerous eruption of sectarian strife that threatens to spread like a contagion to other Arab countries. While some conflicts, such as that in Lebanon, have abated somewhat, the severity of others has increased. In one crucial case, Arab countries not only appear incapable of breaking the blockade against a million and a half Palestinians in Gaza, certain ones among them appear virtually complicit in that crime.
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Palestinian children light candles at a demonstration in Gaza against the Israeli blockade
Last year was supposed to have seen the creation of a Palestinian state in keeping with Bush's twice-made promise. Bush is now preparing to leave the White House without having made an inch of progress towards fulfilling that pledge. In an attempt to alleviate the awkwardness of their position, Palestinian and Arab parties that have fallen in with US policy have claimed that considerable progress has been made in negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. However, there is nothing to substantiate this claim. Israeli settlement activity has not only not subsided since the 2007 Annapolis conference, but all reports coming out of Israel indicate that its pace has picked up. Also, Israel has made no essential change to its positions on Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem. Moreover, references to Israel as a "Jewish state" -- and the implied corollary of population transfer -- became flagrant in 2008.
Not only was last year no ordinary year, it also marked a turning point between two eras. 2008 was the year that sealed the fate of the neo- conservative imperial project, at the heart of which lies their "New" or "Greater" Middle East project. Although the signs of immanent collapse had begun to be felt in November 2006, when the US electorate brought in a Democratic majority Congress, Bush adamantly refused to acknowledge defeat. In fact, instead of following the advice of Baker-Hamilton, he increased US troop levels in Iraq. Then he persuaded the Arab world to come to Annapolis in order to hear him pledge to create a Palestinian state before the end of his presidency.
Until the middle of last year, Bush remained fully confident in his ability to accomplish his policy objectives. He was encouraged in this belief by some progress in the security situation in Iraq after he obtained the support of a tribal alliance leading resistance to seemingly weaken with the resultant drop in US casualties. On the strength of this progress, he pitted all his energies into isolating Iran, together with Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Towards this end, he exerted every form of pressure on "moderate" Arab parties, notably Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to toe an aggressive anti-Iranian line. Throughout this period there loomed the constant spectre of a US or joint US-Israeli offensive against Iran, while pressures mounted on Hizbullah from the 14 March group and Hamas was subject to a brutal blockade. Syria, too, was the object of intense pressures as well as a bid to abort the Arab summit in Damascus. However, Syria ultimately succeeded in convening the summit on time, even though several Arab leaders refused to attend, and Hizbullah succeeded in turning the tables on 14 March forces, the US helpless to come to their rescue.
The more the Bush administration found itself incapable of delivering a strike on Iran, or of achieving a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the more it became obvious to all that this was a lame duck administration and that its project for the Middle East was on the verge of collapse -- if not collapsed already. However, the lethal blow to the neo-con agenda came from within the US itself. As the presidential campaign progressed, particularly after Obama won the Democratic nomination, it was clear that the American people were demanding change. Then when the mortgage bubble burst and the US economy reeled towards collapse, Americans realised how impossible it was to continue with the Bush administration's approach to crucial issues at home and abroad. It therefore came as little surprise that the polls vindicated the candidate that stood for change and brought an even greater Democratic majority in Congress than before.
These elections brought the world and this region to a new era. While the contours of that era are still vague, they are certain to be shaped by the move away from policies that have proven bankrupt. Domestically, the Bush clique promoted over-dependence on market mechanisms that worked to skew economic and social balances in favour of the rich. Externally, it launched an unprecedented thrust towards the realisation of US global hegemony. The brutal and illegal means brought to bear in this campaign eroded the foundations of international law and unleashed a wave of death and destruction. We can therefore expect the forthcoming phase to head towards a more rational and efficient management of the economy, whereby market forces are balanced by considerations of social justice; and secondly, towards a multi-polar international order that strikes a balance between security needs, in which the great powers will naturally play a greater role in view of their greater capacities to safeguard peace, and the need for a more democratic order based on broader participation in international decision-making processes.
The road ahead will be long and difficult. The powers benefiting from the status quo, whether inside the US or abroad, will resist change by every means -- legitimate or otherwise -- at their disposal. It is sobering to recall, in this context, that the tensions that eventually erupted into World War II began in the wake of the Great Depression. To some in the 1930s it seemed that war was the way out of the doldrums, the means for stimulating stagnant capitalist economies. Naturally, it would be sheer madness for anyone in this nuclear age to contemplate igniting World War III as a way to rescue the capitalist order. However, we cannot rule out the scenario of comprehensive chaos and the eruption of localised wars in various hotspots around the world. The Middle East with its vast reserves of oil and emotionally charged conflicts will remain the most explosive region in the world and the one that will determine whether peace or war prevails in the global order.
I am not sure whether the Arab world's political leaders and even the broader circle of its political and intellectual elites fully appreciate the precariousness of this juncture in the global order and the magnitude of both the challenges and opportunities it presents. Iran, Turkey and Israel have become the region's major powers. They know exactly what they want and, simultaneously, the limits of what they can do. The Arab world neither knows what it wants nor what it can do. Moreover, there is no common Arab vision on how Obama should change US foreign policy towards this region or on how the Arabs could help him achieve what he wants while obstructing designs to impede him and to harm the Arabs.
One of Obama's first priorities will be to address the international economic crisis. He will need considerable help from others, including Arab countries. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Arab social and economic summit in Kuwait is scheduled to convene on the very day that Obama is sworn into office in Washington. An Arab conference on social and economic issues against the backdrop of global economic crisis is no insignificant event. Major world players see the Arab world as their milk cow. Arab leaders must demonstrate understanding that it is their duty to provide milk to their own people first. If it is the Arabs' interest to help the US and the world out of its financial crisis then they had better start learning the arts of bartering and abandon that charming Bedouin custom of handing out free gifts.