Birthpangs of a Post-Bush Middle East

Not now, Condi, we’re busy

I’ve marveled for some time now at the abundance of unmistakable evidence to the contrary, so much of the mainstream media in the U.S. appears to feel dutybound to parrot Condi Rice’s giddy fantasies about processes underway in the Middle East, and her Administration’s central role in shaping them. For months now we’ve been fed this pile of manure about the U.S. orchestrating a “realignment” in the region, with moderate Sunni Arab states joining with the U.S. and Israel to isolate and confront Iran, Hamas and others Washington dubs “extremists.” Then, last week, as she set out on her umpteenth “Looking Busy” tour of the region, we were served up grand accounts of how Condi was choreographing a complex diplomatic dance aimed at reving the “peace process” (a word that, like “gold standard”, has survived in the media’s lexicon despite the institutions and practises it describes having long passed from the scene).

I wrote on this at length this week at the excellent web jounral TomDispatch (thanks for having me, Tom!), measuring the spin transmitted by mainstream news outlets against the real processes occurring in the region. And wondering why Washington-based correspondents seem to take Condi’s fantasy narrative a lot more seriously than their counterparts in Israel and the Arab world.

But as the week wore on, it became blatantly obvious that Rice’s efforts, and her perspective, are largely irrelevant to events now unfolding, and what much of the media appears reluctant to tell its readers — perhaps for fear of offending Condi and her handlers? — is that even those Arab leaders considered closest to the U.S. have taken to ignoring the advice and injunctions of the Secretary of State and the Administration she represents.

The bubble finally burst in Riyadh this week, when King Abdullah — who has already blatantly ignored failed U.S. policies of trying to isolate both, by engaging extensively with the Iranians on regional tensions in Lebanon and elsewhere, and by brokering a Palestinian unity government that put President Mahmoud Abbas into a power sharing arrangement with Hamas, against the express wishes of the Bush Administration — rhetorically slapped down the U.S. occupation of Iraq, calling it illegal, and also demanding an end to the U.S. led financial siege of the Palestinian Authority.

It was left to the Middle East-based correspondents of many of the major outlets to explain to their readers what had happened. My friend Scott MacLeod at TIME noted that “the Saudis, along with the other Arab states, have concluded that Washington’s policies are neither wise, effective, or in long-term Arab interests, and they are signaling their intent to take greater control over their own destiny.” Hassan Fattah of the New York Times explained that Abdullah was slapping down Rice’s hopelessly naive hard line on the Palestinians, and demanding that if Washington is serious about pushing a Mideast peace program, it had better start putting pressure on Israel to talk peace with the Palestinians rather than demanding that the Arabs jump through more hoops.

What’s interesting about the sudden public break from Washington and assertion of political independence by the “Arab moderates” that were supposedly the vanguard of Bush Administration Middle East policy Version 7.4, is that it is a profound vote of no-confidence in U.S. policy. The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians could simply no longer sit back and watch the U.S. wreaking havoc throughout the region, because the resulting catastrophe would sweep away their regimes, too. It was as if Abdullah had given George W. Bush five years to pursue his fantasy of remaking the region through force, and now had to call time on the Bush era before it was too late for his own regime.

As I wrote in the Tom Dispatch piece:

Rather than a patient plan crafted by the U.S. Secretary of State as some miraculous alchemist of grand strategy, the latest flurry of activity reflects the maturing of a range of crises in the Middle East that have festered dangerously, while Condi fiddled. These include:

* The fact that the Bush administration has only exerted itself — and then just symbolically — on the Israeli-Palestinian front when it was desperate for favors from allied Arab regimes on other fronts, notably the roiling crises in Iraq and Iran. With the U.S. struggling unsuccessfully on both fronts, its vaunted ability to influence events in the region is in precipitous decline.

* The fact that the Arab regimes most closely allied to the U.S. face mounting crises of legitimacy at home, damned not only by their authoritarianism, but also by their paralysis in the face of U.S. and Israeli violence against Arab populations. Delivering the Palestinians to statehood is now seen by those regimes as essential to their own domestic political survival.

* The fact that an Israeli government, which came to power promising peace through unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, having fought a disastrous war in Lebanon and facing a never-ending struggle in Gaza, is seemingly disengaged from itself, its policies in tatters. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is drowning in a sea of corruption, scandals, and recriminations over the strategic and tactical incompetence he demonstrated in last summer’s Lebanon war. With his own approval ratings at an astonishing 3%, he desperately needs a new idea to persuade Israeli voters that there’s any reason to keep him in office.

* The fact that the Palestinians are experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian and political breakdown. All factions of the Palestinian government share an overwhelming incentive to get the financial siege lifted from battered, strife-torn Gaza. President Abbas’ political future and legacy rest solely on completing the Oslo peace process; while for Hamas — at least for its more pragmatic political leadership — allowing President Abbas to pursue that course (particularly when it carries pan-Arab blessing) makes a certain sense. Hamas’s political choices have always reflected a keen sense of Palestinian popular sentiment. By maintaining a distant and ambiguous stance towards Abbas’s diplomatic efforts, it can plausibly deny complicity if the outcome proves unpopular on the Palestinian street.

But in order for this process to go anywhere, the crucial component is for the U.S. to accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders as outlikned in the Arab peace plan. The problem is not only that the current Israeli government has shown no inclination to do so (Olmert, after all, is the inheritor of Sharon, and the vision of unilateral “disengagement” that left Israel in control of much of the key land captured in 1967), but also that President Bush himself has shown no inclination to do so either. As Ron Suskind has reported, President Bush came to power announcing a tilt back to Israel inside the Administration’s policy chambers, and bluntly backing Sharon’s efforts to find a military solution thte Intifadah.

Frankly, though, it’s not only Bush. So powerful is the grip of AIPAC on mainstream of both parties that it’s hard to imagine any U.S. government for the foreseeable future pressing Israel into territorial compromise. And it’s equally hard to imagine Israel getting there on its own, the fracturing of its own political system in a way that will always give right-wing nationalists a veto power (that is, when they’re not in command, which is the more likely outcome).

My own view is that if the solution to the conflict is to be a two-state one, the only basis for achieving that will be if it is imposed as a matter of international law — which, of course, is the same mechanism by which Israel was created, although its borders were never settled. But that’s a matter for another post. Meanwhile, don’t expect too much from the current diplomatic flurry — the regimes at the center of it are too weak politically to make it happen. And that’s in no small part because of the disastrous drift in U.S. Mideast policy over the past six years. The Saudis have got the right idea about the failures of the Bush Administration; and they’ve recognized that its failures in Iraq and its domestic political lame-duck status have left it politically enfeebled. Riyadh has just chosen to act on it way too late.

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53 Responses to Birthpangs of a Post-Bush Middle East

  1. Amazing post! I initially found your blog a sometimes a week ago, and I subscribed in your RSS feed the identical day. I have several cool ideas for quite a few upcoming posts you could write. I¡¯ll send you a message shortly. Keep up the work.

  2. Thank you for such a decent post, the content is great on this site!

  3. My, my, Fred, what a paradox you’ve uncovered. On the one hand, ‘the call to Justice is really a call to War.’ And yet, there can be no peace without justice. No meaningful peace, anyway. It’s funny the way people are prepared to tolerate injustice, poverty, war, etc. in the purported interests of some ‘higher good’, when they are the beneficiaries of the higher good and somebody else is the victim of the injustice.

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