Monday, January 5, 2009

A New Middle Eastern Cold War

A New Middle Eastern Cold War
Michael Young

I think Young’s take is largely correct (click the link above for his article), and I’m sure if he had space he would have elaborated on many of his statements. Here’s what I would add:

Egypt has little credibility with Hamas (or Palestinians in general) since their separate peace with Israel made it more difficult for other Arab regimes (notably the Palestinians themselves) to negotiate the return of their territories. Egypt also has little credibility with democratic activists in the Arab world since, despite their glowing reviews in the US media, Mubarak’s regime is just as despotic as any other in the region. The Egyptians may have gotten peace with Israel and money from the US, but they’ve lost most of their credibility with their Arab neighbors. Instead, much of their foreign policy now looks Southward – toward Sudan and the rest of their African neighbors.

Young also states that, “By most accounts, Iran and Syria pushed Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas's political bureau, to undermine any accord by continuing to fire rockets at Israel, making the Gaza confrontation virtually inevitable. The idea was not only to discredit the Egyptians, but also to welcome Barack Obama with a crisis making any American opening toward Iran and Syria more costly for the United States.”

I had to read this statement a few times, thinking I was misunderstanding Mr. Young, since it’s irrational for either Syria or Iran to desire to make it MORE difficult for Obama’s administration to reach out to their respective regimes. Young’s theory does make sense, however, if we assume a power struggle within the Iranian and Syrian regimes between the old guard hardliners (in Syria the old bureaucratic elite and the military and in Iran I’m assuming this would be Ahmadinijad and the Ayatollah) and a nascent group of moderate technocrats (in Syria this would include President Bashar and a number of his ministers – in Iran this would probably include only opposition figures outside the government without any real political weight).
If this is a correct reading, and indeed there are struggles within Iran and Syria for control of their countries’ foreign policies, this is even MORE reason for Obama’s administration to engage in talks, since a rapprochement with concrete benefits would weaken the hardliners in both regimes.

Young also states, “As Arabs watch events in Gaza, their first impulse is to condemn their own leaders. For decades, Arab regimes diverted valuable resources to build up vast security apparatuses justified as necessary to combat Israel. Yet Israel won all its wars, some Arab states made peace with it, but the security apparatuses remain.”
I would agree, with the caveat that this is probably their second impulse – rather they would first blame Israel and the international community for failing to make peace, which has given their regimes the necessary scapegoat for maintaining bloated security sectors. The Egyptians, who have made peace with Israel (at great domestic political costs that still resonate 30 years later) must still maintain a large security presence at Israel’s behest to stop smuggling across their border. Arabs can see through their regimes’ rhetoric, but Israel still bears most of the blame in their calculus.

What I find striking in both Young’s analysis and the analysis of most other Middle East observers is their insistence at singling out Iran and Syria as the most powerful backers of movements like Hamas and Hizbullah. To this duo of states I would also add the entire Arab population, which while mostly disenfranchised and powerless, are still a force that must be reckoned with sooner or later. Focusing on states like Syria and Iran at the expense of the region’s people is symptomatic of the failures of US policy. By engaging with the movements that Arabs see as the last front fighting against complete US/Israeli tutelage, more powerful actors like Iran and Syria could more easily pursue reasonable foreign policies while abandoning empty rhetoric about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘resistance’ and their massive militaries.

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