Saturday,24 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Saturday,24 February, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The shifting diplomatic arena

Amid the pushes and pulls of politics and war, the decision maker ultimately has but one weapon: strategy, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Is it possible to understand what is happening in the Middle East and the Arab world? Is there a way to connect the dots to produce a clear map that gives us a sense of the direction things are headed, or that helps us formulate a theory to explain what has happened and why it happened, or why it could not have happened otherwise?

Perhaps we can begin from a perspective or plane of analysis that holds that there are certain issues or questions that existed prior to the current time and that will continue afterwards. Such things are endowed with a certain sustainability, as though driven by an internal perpetual motor that may cause them to slow down or speed up, but never to vanish.

For example, no one will dispute the fact that oil is a continuous determinant. Whether its prices rise or fall, oil is an intrinsic part of the strategic web of this region. The same applies to the crucial maritime passages, from the Straits of Hormuz to the Bab Al-Mandeb through the Suez Canal to the Straits of Gibraltar.

Tensions around them have variously flared or subsided, depending on the conditions and nature of successive international and regional orders, but these passages will remain a crucial constant.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a third perpetual factor. The conflict might have paled in intensity compared to those days when it was the central cause, but no one can ignore the results of the last Israeli elections or the Palestinian Authority’s recent membership in the International Criminal Court.

A fourth factor is nuclear proliferation or, more generally, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, be they nuclear, chemical or biological. This spectre existed well before the Iranian negotiations with the P5+1 and will continue to exist after the recent framework agreement and the final agreement expected in June.

The “Arab Spring”, in spite of its relative newness, has emerged as a fifth constant that persistently rears its head, even if it has long since been succeeded by events and even if many wish that it would consign itself to history.

A sixth constant is terrorism, part of the story of which dates back to the birth of the Muslim Brotherhood, another part that dates back to the first Afghan war, and a third part that had its genesis in the bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York. Unfortunately, whatever names they go by  Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State  it looks like terrorist organisations will be around for a long time to come.

A seventh permanent feature is the Arab state. This entity has endured many tests. It has grown stronger at times, crumbled at others, and come under the glare of criticism regarding its wisdom, or lack of, at yet other times. But it remains present, an object of yearning for those who now miss it and an object of loathing for those who find it too brutal and domineering.

There could be more such constants, but available space here does not permit a complete listing of them. However, the items we have already mentioned shape the environment for two new issues. The first is the war against the Houthis and their allies and the terrorists in Yemen. The second is the Iranian-Western/Russian framework nuclear agreement.

In the war in Yemen, the Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the US and Islamic nations are aligned against Russia, China, Iran and the pro-Iranian Arab camp (Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah). In the framework agreement, Russia and China are aligned with the US and Western nations while Arab countries are wary.

There are many similar intersections on all the issues, and at each intersection there are discrepancies as well as various shades of the same colour. In addition, ghosts from the past keep rearing their heads. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that they can still assert themselves to such an extent.

A case in point is the Sunni-Shia divide, which still exists for some players in the arena. Other ghosts are almost comical, such as the sudden re-emergence of Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom the Gulf Initiative saved from imprisonment, exile or worse, and who is now working to turn the Yemeni clock backwards.

In physics there is a law that matter can neither be created from nothing nor destroyed. In the sciences of the Middle East there is a law that no one goes, but there will always be things that come.

Under such circumstances, decision makers are not in an enviable position. Life just isn’t as simple as it used to be in the days of the Cold War, when the world was divided into a Western and Eastern camp, and what counted most was to factor in the calculations of the camp that historical circumstances had landed you in.

Nowadays it is no longer that easy to chalk everything down to the Arab-Israel conflict and its colonialist origins in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. As hard as some of us might try to attribute everything to vague notions that go by such names as the “Greater Middle East” or “creative chaos” or other imperialist projects of one sort or another, the people who are responsible for making decisions do not have it easy.

If there is any advice we can offer, it is to bear in mind the following points: first, heed the political principle that holds that violence or war is an extension of politics by other means and, conversely, that politics is an extension of war by other means. In other words, warfare generates new political circumstances.

In the Yemeni context, this means that warfare necessitates a military project designed to clip the wings of the Houthis, to eliminate terrorism and to protect the Bab Al-Mandab. But it also needs a parallel political project for the future of Yemen, for the future of that country’s relations with its neighbours and the countries of the Gulf above all, and in both cases, for the future of relations between Sunnis and Shias.

Second, there no longer exists a theory flexible and pliable enough to embrace all issues and crises. There is no one master key to open all the doors. Nor is it possible for any single policy to encompass all alliances or to contend with all adversaries. Every case has its own context and considerations, even if the resultant policy appears contradictory to others.

Contradiction has become a way in life; in fact, the trait has always existed but it appears that we have overlooked this axiomatic fact. All nations, like all individuals, are different and their interests are multifarious. Look how Kerry and Lavrov stood with respect to negotiations with Iran, and look how they stood in negotiations over Syria.

Each instance has its own makeup and the astute decision maker is the one who is capable of managing the varying compositions in alliances, adversaries and other alignments. Cooperation, conflict, neutrality and silence are all essential alternatives in a field where the weight of numerous constants remains enormous and where the impact of the new and unanticipated is powerful.

Third, lucky is the one who can build and sustain an alliance of parties with will and determination. The power in such an alliance is intrinsic and the glue of common interests is at its strongest.

But such an alliance is not produced by good intentions or pretty slogans mouthed every now and again. Rather, it is built by factors that can resist the vicissitudes of time, factors that have to do with tangibles, capacities, aims  or, if you will, strategy.

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