February 28, 2006
The visit to the Middle East last week by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice brought with it another reminder that American Middle East policy is firmly wedged between Iraq and the hard guys.
There were never any easy answers to the Middle East morass, complicated further by the recent outbreak of sectarian violence in Iraq. Washington’s drunken lurching in search of easy answers, however, 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 policy-makers – he recognized that without the infrastructure of democracy – a flourishing civil society, well-developed opposition parties, an independent media – elections come down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Which is pretty much where U.S. policy-makers also sit in the wake of the Hamas victory and the Muslim Brotherhood’s sharp gains in Egypt’s parliamentary elections late last year, seen by many domestic and foreign observers as a carefully stage-managed affair that put President Hosni 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 between Damascus, Tehran, and Hamas (not to forget Hizbullah) creates linkage between three of the region’s thorniest issues. Moscow’s flirtation with each side further complicates the equation. Arabs don’t want to see Iran get nuclear weapons any more than Washington does: Gulf leaders last 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 nuclear weapons.
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 Shiite 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 television channel Al-Arabiya, then quickly dropped out of sight after the Egyptians reminded the Saudis they were playing with fire, demonstrated 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 middleman in Palestine, Lebanon and even, occasionally, Iraq. Which is why Hosni Mubarak, in this regard, has the U.S. by the neck. Egypt may be the largest recipient of American aid outside Israel, but, as Rice was reminded again last 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, Ayman Nour, is back in jail serving a five-year prison sentence. Recently, Parliament passed a measure putting off local council elections. In the grand scheme of things the move seemed 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 Americans need Mubarak right now more than he needs them, especially with the Russians nosing around. Which brings us back to that uncomfortable spot between Iraq and those hard guys. The Bush administration’s appetite for instant gratification – rewriting the map of the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq; the sudden evangelism for democratic change – paved the road to this dead-end.
“Transformational diplomacy” is Rice’s latest formula to get America out. For Arab and Muslim audiences, there’s nothing “transformational” about moving a few diplomats 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-sound bite may work for the domestic audience, but it gets lost in translation in the Middle East.
What does have an effect are the long-term programs aimed at structural change, such as the tens of million of dollars in U.S. Agency for International Development monies 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 sound bites but has the potential to yield real change.
Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Commentary/Feb/28/Caught-between-Iraq-and-the-hard-guys.ashx#ixzz1gMbJRbxI (The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)