Caught between Iraq and the hard guys (The Daily Star Lebanon)

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: (The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

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