Coalition of the Unwilling
The Economist/October 19, 2006
THE Middle East is no stranger to doom and gloom. The most enduring conflict of the past century, between Israelis and Palestinians, drags on drearily today. The first wars of the 21st century have also unfolded there, in Afghanistan, Iraq, western Sudan and Lebanon.
This being so, the West has a long history of espying new spectres in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s it was Nasser, Egypt's passionate pan-Arabist leader. In the 1970s it was Palestinian terrorism; in the 1980s Khomeini's Islamic revolution; since the turn of the century, al-Qaeda-style mayhem; and now again revolutionary Iran, newly expansionary and perhaps, some day, armed with nukes.
Some of these imagined threats to the global order have been leftist and nationalist, some reactionary and religious, some radical and violent. Yet all have drawn their mobilising power from a single source. They have all been, in essence, resistance movements, inspired by a seemingly unquenchable popular urge to challenge the dominant perceived injustice of the day, whether it be European colonialism, Zionism, American hegemonism or the grip of local governments charged with selling out to the West.
The most reliable populist cry today remains “resistance”. Sudan's strongman, Omar al-Bashir, blasts the proposed deployment of UN troops in Darfur as the spearhead of a new Western crusade. The Shias and Sunnis in Iraq may be fighting each other for dominance, but the call to “resist” the American occupiers and the weak (though elected) government they sponsor wins passionate followers to both camps. Hizbullah rouses region-wide cheers for bloodying Israel's nose. Clearly, although times have changed, this dynamic has not.
What has changed is that the call to resist now inspires unprecedented enthusiasm, galvanising many disparate political streams at once, secular and nationalist as well as Islamist. The religious element, boosted by the great revival that has swept Muslim societies across the globe, adds a scriptural drumbeat to the call. And lately the impulse to resist has also been strengthened by the failing prestige of traditional countervailing forces—America, the moderate governments in the region and the liberal-minded minority of their citizens.
The most obvious sign of the renewed attraction of resistance is the strengthening of a rejectionist front built around the alliance between Iran and Syria. The bond between these countries' very different regimes—one ostensibly secular and Arab nationalist, but in fact an insular, sectarian dictatorship, the other a Shia theocracy—goes back a quarter-century. It was forged in opposition to their mutual neighbour, Iraq, then under the belligerent fist of Saddam Hussein. But the scope of this odd couple's shared interests widened over time. It came to include such goals as keeping Lebanon under Syria's thumb, undermining peace moves between Israel and the Palestinians so as to pressure Israel into disgorging the Golan Heights, occupied in 1967, and making sure America burned its fingers so badly in Iraq that the superpower would not think of similar adventures elsewhere. The Syrian-Iranian alliance also embraces smaller clients who share these goals, such as the main Islamist parties championing “resistance” in Lebanon and Palestine, Hizbullah (the Party of God) and Hamas (which means “zeal”, but is, revealingly, an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement).
Not so long ago, this ungainly partnership was faring poorly. In 1997 Iranians elected a liberal-leaning president, Muhammad Khatami, who seemed intent on shedding his predecessors' confrontational stance. In early 2000, Syria came close to making peace with Israel. (Very close indeed: the actual area of the Golan Heights that remained disputed was a 150-metre-wide strip.) Though hailed as a victory by Hizbullah, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon that spring put into question the need for continued resistance by Lebanese guerrillas. At Camp David that summer the Palestinian issue looked set for a resolution that would have rendered quaint Hamas's stated aim of destroying the Jewish state.
The past few years have reversed all these trends. The collapse of the Camp David summit and the eruption of a second, far more violent intifada radicalised the Palestinians, with the result that elections in January of this year produced a landslide for Hamas. Disappointed by the failure of American peace brokerage and America's drift, under the Bush administration, into ever more solid support for Israel, Syria reverted to putting pressure on its Israeli adversary by other means, such as supplying huge numbers of rockets to its Lebanese client, Hizbullah, and offering political sanctuary to Hamas. Radical conservatives in Iran, meanwhile, outmanoeuvred fractious liberals to secure the election, in June 2005, of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner, as president. The supreme leader of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who masterminded this coup, quickly proceeded to accelerate the country's nuclear programme.
But it was, above all, American policy that boosted the rejectionist alliance. Seeking targets to retaliate against after September 11th, the Bush administration chose to focus on what it labelled “state sponsors” of terrorism. It also lumped together groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas, whose chief agenda was local and nationalist and did not threaten America, with the global terrorist network of al-Qaeda, which had not only declared war on the superpower and on “Jews and Crusaders”, but had also launched hostilities in the most dramatic fashion conceivable.
In May 2002 the administration added Syria to its “axis of evil” (originally Iran, Iraq and North Korea). This seemed odd at the time, since Syria was providing America with useful counter-terrorism intelligence, and Iran had played a helpful role in the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2003 America rebuffed a back-channel Iranian effort to start a dialogue, and later that year slapped sanctions on Syria. “We would have been happy to play the game with them,” sighed a Syrian official at the time. “But they wanted all our cards with nothing in return.”
America's invasion of Iraq, meanwhile, produced a cascade of responses that bolstered the resistance front. The intrusion threatened to drive a physical wedge between Iran and Syria, and so reinforced their mutual need. It emboldened Iraq's Kurdish minority, so raising fears of unrest in Syria's and Iran's own oppressed Kurdish regions. Yet it also empowered the long-disenfranchised Shia majority, a natural bridgehead for Iranian influence. And obviously it removed Saddam Hussein's army, the main military obstacle to the projection of that influence farther afield.
Far more important, the invasion massively buttressed the old rejectionist thesis that America's aim was to divide and rule the Muslim world, to control its oil and to impose Western culture. Here, stirring faded memories, was a Christian army overrunning a Muslim land, in pursuit of what George Bush once carelessly called a “crusade” against terrorism. And here, on the ground, was “resistance” in action, visibly humiliating the intruding warriors.
In this potent narrative of victimhood Israel, of course, has been held up as a prime example of Western malevolence. But Israel's recent war with Hizbullah added rich fuel. Hizbullah may have provoked the war, but that counted little to the Arab world's television audiences. The tenacity of Hizbullah fighters in defence of their villages added to the lustre of resistance. America's foot-dragging diplomacy, and the hypocritical aloofness of the “moderate” Arab leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who clearly hoped privately for Hizbullah's defeat, seemed to substantiate charges of complicity in the killing.
So entrenched now is the idea of an American-led assault on Muslims that virtually any new development is immediately enlisted as further evidence. The fact that terror attacks on Westerners, carried out in the name of Islam, may have raised some hackles goes without mention. So does the fact that countries such as Syria, under the cloak of resistance to the West, continue to promote agendas in Lebanon and elsewhere that have nothing to do with anti-Americanism, but with cementing their own regional influence.
Even high-minded Western initiatives now arouse suspicion. The effort to deploy a tougher peacekeeping force in Darfur, where some 200,000 people have been killed and perhaps 1m displaced by a government-assisted slaughter of Darfuris, is widely seen as a subterfuge. The head of the Egyptian lawyers' union, a group which might be expected to defend the rights of the weak, recently declared that the true target of UN peacekeepers was Egypt: Sudan was simply “the next stop after Iraq on the road to the heart of Cairo”.
The manner of the ceasefire in Lebanon aroused scepticism, too. To many, the insertion of a UN peacekeeping force was aimed at recouping by diplomacy what Israel had lost by fighting. A recent poll found that 84% of Lebanese believe the war was “a premeditated attempt by the United States and Israel to impose a new regional order in the Middle East”. As for the international siege of the Palestinians until they renounce terrorism and accept the right of Israel to exist (see story), the popular perception is that the West, having claimed to support democracy, is now punishing Palestinians for having elected Hamas in a fair vote.
In the popular mind, attempts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions also mesh neatly with the narrative of Western powers holding back Muslims, or applying double standards. Why can't Iran have nukes if Israel can? Iranian diplomats ably exploit such doubts. So do a growing number of fellow-travellers in regional politics, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist group whose ideological offshoots include Hamas and the main opposition movements in American-allied Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and Yemen. “Any country should have the right to obtain nuclear technology or even nuclear arms for deterrence, especially if it is being threatened by another nuclear country,” says the Brotherhood's deputy leader, Muhammad Habib.
Such overt support from the most influential Sunni political grouping is telling. Clearly, Iran's vociferous backing of resistance movements has done wonders—outside Iraq—to heal the age-old rift between the two main branches of Islam. Elsewhere, the example of Hizbullah has—among ordinary citizens, at least—largely dispelled looming fears, first voiced by Jordan's King Abdullah, about the emergence of a “Shia crescent” from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf where Iranian mullahs might call upon millions of minority Arab Shias to rise up against Sunni Muslim dominance. Lebanon's Shia resistance has provided what one senior Western diplomat calls a new political paradigm: “an Arab party that actually means what it says and does what it promises.”
Khamenei with Kalashnikov
Ayatollah Khamenei, brandishing a Kalashnikov and speaking in his fluent classical Arabic in a Friday sermon on October 13th, put the matter more bluntly. Blasting critics of Hizbullah as “cringing hirelings of the Great Satan”, he said that the Iranian-funded militia's victory had made the group so loved that Muslims everywhere felt they had participated in it. The claim is not far-fetched. In far-off Brunei, by the South China Sea, the sultan issued orders for the obligatory performance of special prayers for Israel's defeat. In Egypt, a solidly Sunni country ostensibly allied to America, the two most popular politicians, according to a recent survey, are the Hizbullah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran.
Understandably, such evidence of a powerful mood-swing on the Arab “street” dismays and alarms pro-Western Arab leaders. It is not simply that the governments of countries such as Egypt and Jordan, which long ago settled their own problems with Israel, fear renewed public pressure to resume “resistance” (ie, war), which is what the Muslim Brotherhood promises if it comes to power. These American allies are hostile to Hizbullah because the group provides a dangerous example of a potent non-state actor armed and supported by neighbours. They abhor the Syrian regime, blaming it for meddling (and murdering) in Lebanon and for undermining efforts to persuade Hamas to recognise Israel. They are spooked by Hamas's electoral success and the possibility of Islamist encroachment much closer to home. The Muslim Brotherhood made impressive gains in Egypt's parliamentary elections last year, and is expected to do equally well in Jordanian polls scheduled for 2007. Morocco, another American ally, also faces elections next year, with analysts predicting a shoo-in for the Islamist opposition.
As for Iran, Egyptians have never forgiven its revolutionary leaders for naming a Tehran street after one of the assassins of their peacemaking president, Anwar Sadat. Lebanon's shaky governing coalition, now in a stand-off with Hizbullah, sees Iran as the main obstacle to a deal under which Hizbullah might focus on being a political party and give up its arms. Gulf states feel a more direct threat, since many of them host American military bases.
The rulers of archly Sunni and conservative Saudi Arabia, in particular, have long viewed Iran as a dangerous rival. In the 1980s they blamed it for stirring unrest among the kingdom's large Shia minority, and in response helped bankroll Saddam Hussein's war against the Islamic Republic. During the recent Israel-Lebanon war, when some Saudi youths made the mistake of sticking posters of the admired Mr Nasrallah on their windscreens, Saudi police promptly arrested them.
The Bush administration has belatedly tried to rally its allies and to bolster such beleaguered figures as the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq. But the response has been half-hearted. This loose collection of accommodationist governments is finding it hard to gain traction against the resistance ideal. One problem they face is Israel, whose increasingly harsh operations against Palestinian fighters in the West Bank and Gaza have made it more toxic than ever. Israeli and Arab moderates both want to cool temperatures over Palestine and Lebanon and to contain Iran. But Arabs are uneasy at any hint of an alliance with the Jewish state.
America's own refusal to engage directly with the resistance block has polarised and complicated the situation. Discomfort with America grew particularly acute over the Lebanon war, when countries such as Saudi Arabia were forced, by public outrage at Israel's crushing response, to back away from their criticism of Hizbullah for having started the war.
Yet, although it may lack the rejectionists' unity of purpose and their popular appeal, the accommodationist axis of American friends is not entirely toothless. Gulf countries now have plenty of oil cash with which to win goodwill by, for instance, rebuilding Lebanon and shoring up the Palestinian economy. Such largesse could prove persuasive, too, in trying to coax Syria away from its tight embrace of Iran, since Syria's economy relies on oil reserves that are fast running out.
They might also make progress, with those on the Arab street who are still willing to listen, by posing the question of whether ordinary people really want to sacrifice lives and treasure in an endless fight against Israel. The answer of large numbers of Lebanese during the recent war was a resounding no. Raghida Dergham, a columnist for the Saudi-owned daily Al Hayat, writes sarcastically that if what she calls the axis of extremism is resolved on war, “we hope it is ready to liberate Palestine and not exploit the Palestinians as a tool for the ideology and hegemony of others.”
This comment pricks at both Iran and Syria. Few Muslims elsewhere are aware that Mr Khamenei, aside from being supreme leader of the revolution and running the powerful intelligence services, also styles himself Leader of the Islamic World. This suggests a much wider agenda than simple “resistance”. As for Syria, while it champions Islamist liberation movements abroad, mere membership of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the country remains a capital crime.
Arab moderates may be able to convince the Bush administration that the best way to ease tension would be for America itself to be more flexible. That would be wise, because the rejectionist front may not be as intractable as it appears. Syria's president has repeatedly signalled that he would shift his position if only some reward, such as a chance to recover the Golan Heights, were offered. Recent polling among Palestinians shows a similar openness to persuasion.
It is also clear that a powerful sector of Islamist opinion is so fundamentally rejectionist that it will never change. The best the West can do may be to ensure that it does not push more moderates into that camp. It could start by remembering that people choose to “resist” when they feel threatened.