U.S. Middle East policy: Between Iraq and the hard guys (Daily News Egypt)

First Published: February 23, 2006

This week’s visit to the region by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brings with it another reminder that U.S. Middle East policy is firmly wedged between Iraq and the hard guys.

There were never any easy answers to the Middle East morass. Washington’s drunken lurching in search of exactly that has only made matters worse.

Like American consumers, those at the top of the U.S. policy food-chain want instant gratification. It’s not going to happen. The rush to democracy proved that.

“The election of Hamas wasn’t really an example of democracy because there are no democratic institutions in place,” an American diplomat in the region told me the other day. It came off as a classic example of diplomatic double-speak – and double-standards. That’s certainly how Washington’s official pronouncements about Hamas’ stunning victory are being heard by Arabs and Muslims.

But the diplomat had a point. As someone who knows the region. Unlike many Washington decision makers, he recognized that without the infrastructure of democracy; a flourishing civil society, well-developed opposition parties and an independent media, elections come down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Which is pretty much where U.S. policymakers also sit in the wake of the Hamas victory and the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, seen by many domestic and foreign observers as a carefully stage-managed affair that put Mubarak in a position to say to Washington, ‘There’s the alternative to me; Is that what you want?’

Rice and other U.S. officials are likely to keep mouthing platitudes about democracy, but it won’t be with much enthusiasm. Their maneuvering room is shrinking by the day, with hard guys on every side: ‘ours,’ ‘theirs’ and others still up for grabs.

The reinvigorated axis of Damascus, Tehran and Hamas creates linkage between three of the region’s thorniest issues. Moscow’s flirtation with them further complicates the equation.

Arabs don’t want to see Iran get nukes any more than Washington does – Gulf leaders this week were speaking openly about the issue of contamination if something goes wrong (unspoken was the other worry: nuclear blackmail by an Iran seeking to restore the Persian Gulf to its previous status as an Iranian lake). But they also remain frustrated by Washington’s refusal to press Israel to even sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, much less get rid of its nukes.

The Saudis, for whom the Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood election successes provide a respite from U.S. pressure for democratic reform, are spooked by federalism in Iraq, the rise of a hard-line Shi’ite regime on their doorstep and the prospect of regime collapse in Damascus. The House of Saud’s brief dalliance with former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, who gave a high-profile interview to the Saudi satellite TV channel Al-Arabiya, then quickly dropped out of sight after the Egyptians reminded the Saudis they were playing with fire, demonstrates how the Saudis, too, are flailing about in this dangerous new equation.

The Egyptian intervention underscores the pivotal role the Mubarak regime plays in Arab politics, serving as middle-man in Palestine, Lebanon and even, occasionally, Iraq.

Which is why Hosni Mubarak has the U.S. by the short-and-curlies. Egypt may be the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside Israel, but, as Rice will be reminded again this week, Washington’s annual $2 billion-plus in aid buys it precious little leverage.

Let’s recap: Egypt held both presidential and parliamentary elections last fall, to much fanfare about democracy taking hold. Today, Mubarak’s chief rival in that contest is back in jail serving a five-year prison sentence. This past week, parliament passed a measure putting off local council elections. In the grand scheme of things, the move seems pretty obscure. But it effectively means that if Mubarak dies or for some reason steps down in the next two years, his party’s candidate – likely to be his son – will run unopposed. Meanwhile, four judges who accused other judges of election fraud were reportedly hauled in for questioning. The U.S. response to all this: Lukewarm expressions of concern.

The reality is that the Bush administration needs Mubarak right now more than he needs them, especially with the Russians nosing around. This brings us back to that uncomfortable spot between Iraq and those hard guys.

The Bush administration’s appetite for instant gratification; their rewriting the map of the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq and the sudden evangelism for democratic change paved the road to this dead-end.

“Transformational Diplomacy” is Secretary Rice’s latest formula to get America out. For Arab and Muslim audiences, there’s nothing “transformational” about moving a few officers from Berlin to the Hindu-Kush if they’re pushing the same discredited policies.

Political reform in the Middle East is a long and gradual process. Government-by-soundbite may work for the domestic audience, but it gets lost in the translation out here.

What does have an effect are the long-term programs aimed at structural change, such as the tens of million of dollars in USAID money aimed at reforming education, fostering the rise of an independent media and creating a political and policy infrastructure. It’s a slow, sometimes tedious process; One that produces few soundbites but has the potential to yield real change.

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