Friday, April 9, 2010

US blinkered by a simplistic view of Middle East peace.


by Michael Young

An interesting logic is taking hold in Washington, but where it will lead no one knows. The idea is that in order for the United States to contain Iran in the Middle East, it must impose a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement, in that way denying Tehran the ability to mobilise regional animosities against Washington's interests.

In a Washington Post column on Wednesday, David Ignatius quoted an American official in support of this rationale. "The American peace plan [to propose the outlines of a final settlement] would be linked with the issue of confronting Iran, which is Israel's top priority," the official said. "We want to get the debate away from settlements and East Jerusalem and take it to a 30,000-feet level that can involve Jordan, Syria and other countries in the region."


There is some merit to the argument. To limit Iranian influence throughout the region, the Obama administration will need to multitask, gradually taking away from Tehran the many cards it has accumulated and played effectively in recent years.

One of these has been the "resistance" card – the notion that because Israel does not want peace, the best option for Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular is to pursue armed struggle. This has undergirded Iran's military support for Hamas and Hizbollah, who have enjoyed some popularity in the Arab world, despite the fact that in Gaza and southern Lebanon their actions in recent years have been disastrous. But that matters little to Iran's regime, since both organisations have given Iran the means to thwart Arab-Israeli talks.


But if containing Iran requires adopting a multifaceted approach in the Middle East, then a similar approach is required in other places where the Iranian-American rivalry is playing out. In Iraq, for instance, the Obama administration has taken great pride in saying that it did not interfere in the recent parliamentary elections. That is honourable, but with just under 90,000 troops in the country, and Iran not hesitating to shape electoral and post-electoral outcomes, such apathy also happens to be inane. The elections created an opening for the US to begin rolling back Iranian influence in Iraq by working toward a Sunni-Shiite consensus in a new government. Instead, Washington's lethargy merely allowed Tehran to regroup.


It would also be a mistake to expect too much from a Palestinian-Israeli accord. The skies of the Middle East will not suddenly open up to a new morning of harmony. Washington continues to have a naive impression that its interests in the broader region are somehow tied in to America being popular. By resolving the running sore of the Palestinian problem, the reasoning goes, the US would be less hated by the peoples of the region, who would therefore be more reluctant to reflexively oppose American actions as they are now doing.


Yet the problem is more prosaic. The US is disliked, and will continue to be disliked even after a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, because it is powerful. The US president, Barack Obama, entered office with the quaint notion that America's problems stemmed from George W Bush's tendency to employ force. Actually, Mr Bush's problem was that he stumbled in Iraq. If no one likes powerful nations, what people despise most is a nation that fails to use its power effectively. Worst than being hated is not being feared.


Nowhere will that lesson be more important than in dealing with one of the likely by-products of an American push to secure Palestinian-Israeli peace. As the official cited by David Ignatius implies, negotiations on the Palestinian track must bring in other regional actors, including Syria, which is still at war with Israel. But the Syrian track is the Godot of Arab-Israeli peacemaking – the person everyone is waiting for, without any certainty that he will ever appear.


Much is expected of a revived Syrian track – that it will break Syria away from Iran, that it will be the icing on the regional peace cake, that it will lead Damascus to abandon Hizbollah and Hamas, and more. Yet the regime of the Syrian president Bashar Assad has quite clearly, and quite honestly, declared that it has no intention of accepting these conditions.

Syria sees no advantages in relinquishing relationships that have greatly increased its leverage. Ultimately, peace with Israel is less useful than open-ended negotiations that allow Mr Assad to cash in on this leverage, but also neutralise outside efforts to curb Syria's efforts to enhance its clout in Lebanon and Iraq.


That is where American power comes in. Mr Assad is confident that the Obama administration can do nothing against him today. He sees the US ensnared in Afghanistan and on its way out of Iraq; he feels there will be no breakthrough on the Palestinian front; Syria's leading regional counterparts, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are weak and their leaders getting on in years. The Syrian president's buoyancy is not good news for the US.


The Bush administration used to say that it sought behaviour change, not regime change, in Damascus. Yet the behaviour change is happening in Washington, where the administration has embraced warmer ties with Syria, even though Mr Assad has methodically undermined American interests in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian areas for years, and continues to do so with abandon.

A settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is vital, now more than ever, and tying it to containment of Iran is defensible. However, a settlement is not, and should not become, the whole story. Stability in the Middle East necessitates a clearer American understanding of those regional dynamics little affected by Palestine. It also dictates a more hard-nosed reading of American power to fill the destabilising vacuums the Obama administration has created all around.


Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


No comments:

Post a Comment