Lost in the Middle East
The Economist/August 10, 2006
“STUFF happens,” said a nonchalant Donald Rumsfeld, as looters trashed Baghdad. “The birth pangs of a new Middle East,” claimed Condoleezza Pollyanna Rice last week as Hizbullah's rockets slammed into Israel and Israel's aircraft pulverised Lebanon. This week America was conspicuously resisting calls for an immediate Israeli withdrawal. Whatever else is going wrong for America in the Middle East, the Bush administration shows an unmatched ability to put its case in ways that make its friends squirm and its enemies fume with rage. Beyond the tin ear, however, is American policy really as malign, muddle-headed and incompetent as its critics say?
The short answer is that America does not have a single policy for the whole Middle East. Some of the so-called neoconservatives believe that one idea—spreading liberal democracy to the Arab world and Iran—should guide all America's actions across the region. But for all their influence, the neocons have never quite got their way. Nor should they. The Middle East is a large and complex place in which America is engaged on many fronts. These include putting out the fire in Lebanon, blocking Iran's march towards a nuclear bomb, saving Iraq from utter collapse and ending the conflict in Palestine. And though all are connected, each deserves a careful policy of its own.
What is true is that on none of these fronts is America showing success. Lebanon this week was still in flames, despite Ms Rice's shuttle diplomacy (see article). Iran continues to defy the Security Council's instructions to stop enriching uranium. Iraq has descended into a dark night of violence; this week's eviction of the pro-war Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Democratic primary is a sign that more and more Americans see staying on as a road to perdition. In Palestine the moderate leadership has been pushed to the margins and the rejectionists of Hamas, who now run what is left of the Palestinian Authority, cheer on the Hizbullah missiles falling on Israel.
America's wider democracy project looks more threadbare by the day. One of its prize exhibits was a Lebanon free of Syria; now there is talk of inviting the Syrians back to impose order. Ms Rice has given the odd stern lecture on the virtues of democracy—but Egypt and Saudi Arabia know they matter too much to pay much attention. In short, the Middle East is in an unhappy state. But how much of that is America's fault?
Note first that America is by no means as powerful as its friends and enemies think. Since seeing off the Soviet Union, it has become the strongest external force in the region, but that does not make it all-powerful. America is not a colonial power like Turkey, France and Britain, which were able simply to order the locals around. Its “clients”, such as Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are independent actors who often do what they want. Even in Iraq, America defers to the elected government. Allies from the cold war, such as Turkey and the shah's Iran, are now cool (Turkey) or actively hostile (Iran). And American interests are nowadays challenged by strong indigenous forces. These are both ideological—the rising tide of Islamism—and political. Recent months have seen the knitting together of an improbable but remarkably strong anti-American coalition consisting of Syria and Iran plus Hamas and Hizbullah, militias drawn from the previously separate streams of Sunni and Shia radicalism.
In circumstances like this, it is no surprise that America has failed to remake the Middle East just as it pleases. The interesting question is whether, after September 11th, it made things worse. On one analysis, America is paying for self-inflicted mistakes. George Bush stands accused of invading Iraq for no reason, picking a needless fight with Iran, conspiring with Israel to destroy Lebanon, seeking naively to foist American values on the Arabs and neglecting the suffering of the Palestinians. Above all, a depressing number of Muslims well beyond the Arab world believe that America's war on terrorism is merely a cover for a war on Islam. In a quarrel with dictators, fanatics and terrorists, America has somehow contrived utter defeat in the all-important battle for hearts and minds.
Part of the indictment is fair, but most is too simple and some bits (the war on Islam) sheer nonsense. The invasion of Iraq may have been a mistake—opinions still differ—but it had a reason: a widespread belief that Saddam Hussein was arming himself with nuclear or chemical weapons. Pace Connecticut, there is still a strong reason to stay (see article). By the same token, America's anxiety about Iran acquiring a bomb is shared by many, not least Iran's near-neighbours. It was clumsy of Mr Bush to consign Iran to an “axis of evil”, but since then he has co-ordinated his policy with Europe and Russia and offered Iran rewards for abiding by the rules.
As for favouring democracy, what was the alternative? America cannot ram this idea down Arab throats. But the days in which it was clever to cosy up to dictators have passed. It was surely right and not naive to push Syria out of Lebanon after the pro-democracy “cedar revolution”. It was right in Iraq to organise elections rather than impose a strongman. It was right to have pushed for elections in Palestine—and to have insisted afterwards on the new government accepting the principle at least of making peace with Israel. The only thing that was naive was the failure to predict how hard the dictators and Islamists would push back when America pushed democracy. And they have lost no time in exploiting America's chief vulnerability in the region—its instinctive defence of Israel.
Apart from the debacle of Iraq, the one vast strategic error Mr Bush has made has been his sin of omission in Palestine. Preoccupied by September 11th, fixated on Mr Hussein and bored by the complexities of the West Bank, he decided not to try again where Bill Clinton had failed, preferring to put the Palestine issue on hold by means of the ever-winding “road map”. In Lebanon, this mistake has come back to haunt him.
Faced with a choice between the cedar revolution and its longstanding ally, America showed this week that its prime sympathy was still with Israel. Arab leaders who trekked to New York hoping for a Security Council resolution ordering the Israelis straight back across the border did not get their wish. Around the world went up a wail of protest: America was once again allowing its protégé to get away with murder.
That is not quite fair. From the moment it started, this war looked like ending in stalemate. If Israel hoped to knock out Hizbullah, it has failed. If America hoped that by knocking out Hizbullah, Israel would help America to weaken Iran, it will be disappointed. America should have called a halt earlier. But even if it were not Israel's special friend, it would be a mistake for it to push Israel back in circumstances that let Hizbullah return to the border and renew its provocations. The idea that the feeble Lebanese army on its own can control Hizbullah is absurd. And for Israel to gain nothing from its fight would be an abject humiliation. Better to call for an immediate ceasefire, followed by whatever international arrangement can ensure that Hizbullah does not attack again.
So long as America seems so indifferent to the Palestinians' plight, Arabs will, however, treat such reasoning with suspicion. The solution is not for America to abandon Israel, but to guide it to peace with its neighbours, applying pressure on both sides. Peace in Palestine would not just make it easier to achieve America's wider aims in the Middle East. It would also be the best favour America ever did the Jewish state.