At present, nearly every nation there is embroiled in an internal conflict that is shaking not simply the government’s power base but often the very foundation of the state itself. Many things beyond the United States’ control have happened to bring the Middle East to this point. But unless the United States changes its policies toward the region in a fundamental way, it will find itself in a never-ending quagmire, sapping its own energy and resources and seriously threatening its own national security while ushering in even greater regional upheaval of historic proportions.
I have just returned from an extensive trip to the Middle East, my 7th in 12 months, and find myself less hopeful than at any time in recent memory. Not surprisingly, most of the region’s leaders attribute the current high levels of uncertainty and fear largely to the Iraq war and the occupation, as well as to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For them the Iraq war and the Sunni-Shiite conflict that followed are catastrophic. They view America’s push for democracy in the region as self-serving and a dismal failure because it has precipitated more turmoil than stability. They accuse Washington of applying a double standard especially when dealing with Israel; their belief in this has caused American credibility in the region to plunge to an all-time low while making every US initiative suspect.
In Iraq the security situation is worsening, with the number of sectarian, execution-style killings increased dramatically in recent weeks from 100 to 200 daily. Previous efforts to reduce the carnage by flooding troubled neighborhood with thousands of American and Iraqi troops and conducting house-by-house searches had little effect. The new plan to seal off Baghdad by ringing it with trenches and setting up dozens of checkpoints will not fare any better. Hundreds of hidden depots of weapon and explosives inside Baghdad will supply insurgents for years. The situation is further aggravated by the Shiites’ drive to divide the country into autonomous regions. If successful, this will deprive the Sunnis of their rightful share of the country’s oil because western and north-central Iraq, where the majority of them reside, has little if any oil. To be sure, Iraq is already in a civil war. Rather than offering any solution, the administration’s policy of “staying the course” will only hasten Iraq’s inevitable violent disintegration.
Turning to Iran, the situation there is not encouraging. Iran may be living in a fantasy world, but the Iranian clergy absolutely believe in their divine power and destiny to dominate the entire region. Tehran continues to stall to gain for time in which to enrich uranium while exploiting any sign of weakness by the West. So far, the Iranians have successfully played Russia and China against the United States, and the EU to prevent the imposition of economic sanctions, and have defied an August 31 deadline set by the UN to suspend enrichment of uranium. For this behavior, it would seem that Iran was actually rewarded when Washington shifted its stand and offered to stop seeking sanctions if Tehran suspended enrichment--suspension for suspension. Meanwhile, Iran has been the main backer of the same Hezbollah that brought war and ruin to Lebanon. The Iranian government has also emboldened Hamas to challenge Israel, which it has done, precipitating nothing but destruction to the Palestinians. Iran continues to threaten Israel’s very existence which Jerusalem takes extremely seriously. And in every Arab capital, Iran’s behavior has caused anxiety and deep concern regarding its ambitions to develop nuclear weapons and the US failure to do anything about it. It is about time Iran is offered a stark choice between compliance to international norms of conduct or face unspecified crippling measures.
Saudi Arabia is probably more anxious about the war in Iraq and its consequences than any other nation in the region. The Saudi royal family feels particularly threatened by fears that a bloody conflict between Shiites and Sunnis will spill over into Saudi Arabia. Riyadh was extremely disappointed when Israel did not break the back of Hezbollah in the Lebanon war and thereby weaken Iran’s regional influence. The Saudis suffer constant terrorist threats, but Al Qaeda enjoys wide public support, even as the government sees no prospect of anything changing to alleviate the tight situation it finds itself in anytime soon. Exporting Wahabism to scores of Arab and Muslim countries is seen by Riyadh as an insurance policy offering some protection, but the government also knows that in itself will not prevent the gathering storm from becoming a hurricane that could engulf the kingdom. Saudi Arabia can do great deal more to stabilize the intra-Arab relations not only for its own sake but for the sake of regional stability.
As for Lebanon, the wide-spread destruction there in the wake of the war between Hezbollah and Israel has awakened the Lebanese to the bitter consequences of allowing Hezbollah to operate as a state within their state. The Lebanese now openly criticize Hezbollah for acting on behalf of Iran at an extreme cost to their own country. Outraged because of the destruction they have sustained, they also feel terribly vulnerable to future developments over which they have no control. The Lebanese economy suffered substantial losses, and meeting the cost of reconstruction, in billion of dollars, seems impossible. Moreover, that there is a growing Shiite community in Lebanon does not bode well for the Christian population. Lebanese Christians feel increasingly marginalized, and this adds to the omnipresent sectarian tension that is bound to explode. Unless the Lebanese government disarm Hezbollah in one form or another and eventually seek peace with Israel, the immediate past war will not be the last.
Syria also finds itself in a difficult position: it wants to be engaged in regional matters but was shunned by the United States and Israel and so has become dismissive of Western efforts to promote regional peace. The troubles caused by Syria’s weak economy, rusting military hardware, and growing public restiveness have been aggravated by the Bush administration’s desire for a regime change in Damascus. Damascus may have played with fire by supporting Hezbollah, but as long as Syria’s special interest in Lebanon and its desire to regain the Golan Heights are not addressed--and the government remains under the cloud of regime change—the present leadership feels it is rightfully protecting the country’s national interests. This, of course, may include supporting unsavory groups that will do whatever it takes on Damascus’ behalf to keep the Syrian agenda alive. Syria, along with Israel and the United States must admit that their policies toward each other have failed and must now fashion a new policy that can end once-and-for-all the Israeli-Syrian conflict and prevent another senseless war.
Squeezed in between the two most troubled areas in the region, Iraq to the east and the Palestinian territories and Israel to the west causes tremendous anxiety throughout Jordan. Thanks to Jordan’s King Abdullah’s diplomatic skills in maintaining good relations with his Arab neighbors, his adherence to the peace treaty with Israel and his close relations with the United States that kept Jordan economically afloat and politically stable. But the King’s diplomatic skills may not be enough in the future. The raging civil war in Iraq which could spill over into Jordan, the growing strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and the continuing violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, (65 percent of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian origin), could change the picture dramatically overnight. Unless the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is settled and Iraq becomes governable again, Jordan will remain on a shaky ground and a prey for Islamic militancy.
What of Israel? The war in Lebanon has once again changed the political landscape in Israel, with many moving to the right of center. Most Israelis are reeling from the war, furious over its indecisive victory. That Hezbollah was able to fire nearly 200 rockets into Israel’s urban centers until the last day of the war is viewed as due to a terrible failure of both the political and military leadership. The Olmert government is clinging by its fingernails to power. Polls show that if elections were held today, the Kadima party will lose: it may actually disintegrate altogether, with Likud winning by enough of a relative majority to form a new government. Olmert’s plan to withdraw from most of the West Bank has been abandoned. Most Israeli political pundits predict that the Olmert government will not last, especially once an independent commission of inquiry into the war is formed. Olmert may not be able to prevent that from happening after the General Accounting Office issues its interim finding, which is generally expected to be damning of the government. Such a finding will lead to the forming of a national commission of inquiry by the Supreme Court. Whatever prospects the Olmert government may face, this or any future Israeli government must find the courage to bring an end to the dehumanizing occupation and instill hope rather than despair in the hearts and minds of the next generation of Israeli and Palestinians.
Palestinians, too, find themselves in a worse situation than before. The rivalry between the security forces of Hamas and Fatah is manifested by the continuing lawlessness in Gaza; meanwhile, the entire area appears on the verge of total economic collapse. Land is being expropriated by gangs, families and militia groups; even the security forces themselves are breaking the law with no one brought to justice. The formation of a Palestinian unity government is being taken with a big grain of salt, since it increasingly appears that renewed funding by the West is apparently the driving force behind its creation. The United States, Israel, and to a large extent the European Community still insist that the three benchmarks--recognizing Israel, forswearing violence, and accepting prior Israeli-Palestinian agreements--must be fully accepted by any new government. Hamas, however, insists that there be no recognition of Israel and that it has the right to continue its armed struggle, which make the prospects for renewed meaningful negotiation highly doubtful. It is time for the Palestinian people to forge a national consensus and insist on the two-state solution that will provide the only assured way to ending the conflict and live at a minimum in a calm atmosphere.
Finally, Egypt, which rightfully sees itself as the leader of the Arab world, is biding its time. Although very involved in trying to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians, and on more than one occasion succeeding, Cairo faces serious internal challenges, such as the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, growing poverty and illiteracy, and a lack of social services. Despite the apparent calm and non-violent atmosphere in the streets, Egypt could actually explode and, if so, drag much of the Middle East with it. There is a lot of talk about political reform, and many Egyptian intellectuals find in such reform the panacea for the nation’s social and economic ills. But this view is oversimplified and requires serious review and analysis. Egypt is a unique case, and there is no easy solution to its problems. The introduction of political reforms without parallel social and economic development will only lead to political unrest. And if Egypt collapses under the weight of Islamists, this could have a domino effect on the entire region, with the prospect of Islamists taking over many Arab states a real possibility.
I should end by noting that my intention here was to offer a brief summary of the present troubles in the Middle East. In future articles and essays, I hope to fill in the picture country by country with greater detail and depth. Suffice to say, at this juncture that while the United States is not the cause for all the Middle East’s malaise, and may have pursued its present course with the best of intentions, for it to stick to the same failed policies is to pave the way to unthinkable disaster.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiations and Middle Eastern Studies.