Monday, January 5, 2009

A New Middle Eastern Cold War

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The term "Arab cold war" was popularized by the late American scholar Malcolm Kerr, who in 1971 published a book of the same name. A deserving classic at a concise 166 pages (with index), The Arab Cold War examined how the Arab world of the 1950s and 1960s was governed by "urgent appeals to Arab unity," when the reality was that "its governments and parties [were] dominated by bitter rivalry."

Arab rivalries have not diminished, but the stakes have greatly changed in the new Middle East. Kerr (whose assassination in 1984, as president of the American University of Beirut, by a precursor of Lebanon's Hezbollah presaged what we have today) was describing the post-colonial Arab state system. However, that system, characterized by the declining standing of its aging and despotic rulers, is under pressure as the fighting in Gaza continues. At one level, the conflict is between Israelis and Palestinians; yet in many respects that is only a fa├žade for a new Middle Eastern cold war in which a rising Iran, likewise a Syria pursuing its own ends, (not to mention Qatar, filling the vacuum left by Saudi diplomacy), uses non-state actors such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad to put on the defensive Arab regimes seeking to accommodate Israel.

Tehran's ambition is simple. If the Arab regimes are weakened, so too will be their ally, the United States. Iran could then play a dominant role in the Middle East, presumably backed by a nuclear weapons capacity in a few years, and compel Washington to accept this fresh reality. Syria's goals are more complex. The Assad regime, too, wants leverage over the Obama administration, but mainly to prepare for an impending normalization with the U.S. This would allow Damascus to re-impose its hegemony over Lebanon, bargain favorably with Israel over the Golan Heights and induce the international community to find an exit for Syria from the tribunal that will soon consider the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, which Syria almost certainly ordered.

In the coming days, America's Arab partners, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leading the way, will try to contain Hamas through a United Nations resolution on Gaza, and by so doing also contain Iran and Syria. It may not look that way, but Israel's ground incursion is the muscle behind that effort, assuming it succeeds. Abbas will tell his countrymen that he stopped the carnage, but his pull in negotiations with Hamas over the future of Gaza will be his ability to bring about an Israeli withdrawal on terms favorable to him and unfavorable to his Hamas rivals.

In the weeks before the outbreak of violence in Gaza, Egypt had tried to renew the truce between Hamas and Israel. 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. That should sober up those in the upcoming administration who speak of engaging Iran and Syria without conditions.

Throughout the Middle East, the eroding credibility of Arab states in the Arab-Israeli conflict has breathed new life into non-state actors, particularly militant Islamist groups. 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.

Iran's allies are trying to profit from this discontent by playing domestic Arab politics. A day after the bombing of Gaza began, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, condemned Egypt for keeping the Rafah crossing between Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai closed to Palestinians. He called on Egyptians to take to the streets and force the Mubarak regime to open the passage and allow both aid and weapons through to Hamas. He also accused Arab states, by which he meant Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but also Abbas's Palestinian Authority, of colluding with Israel.

Nasrallah's appeal partly compensated for the fact that he could do little to relieve his comrades in Gaza. However, his interference in the affairs of an Arab state, and a major one, was above all an Iranian-sanctioned effort to de-legitimize Egypt and other Arab allies of the U.S. who view the Gaza conflict as a way of debilitating Hamas. Nasrallah was less vociferous about Jordan, but only because the Jordanians have recently improved their ties with Hamas, fearing mounting support for the movement among Jordan's own increasingly powerful Muslim Brotherhood.

Judging from the limited Egyptian reaction to his injunctions, Nasrallah overplayed his hand. The Arab states, mediocre as they are, are more solid than their enemies imagine. Militant Islamist groups may be better at fighting Israel, but they cannot substitute for what states offer. However, the traditional Arab powerhouses are being marginalized by the more dynamic non-Arab states on their periphery--Iran, Turkey and Israel--as well as by some Arab states, such as Syria and Qatar, that have profited from the widening rifts provoked by the new Middle Eastern cold war.

What lessons are there for the United States here? The Obama administration should recognize these dynamics and accept that its allies are less credible because they are undemocratic, have narrow legitimacy, and offer no hope of amelioration to their peoples, while Israel further undermines them by denying a political horizon to the Palestinians.

Arab democratization is a bad word for many Obama Middle East hands, who seek a return to a political realism justifying making deals with America's foes. Democracy-building smacks too much of George W. Bush. Yet unless the Arabs open their societies up in states that are more than monuments to intimidation, America's allies will continue to lose ground, and America with them. In the realism game, Iran and Syria, like the militant Islamists, are better than Washington. The Americans won one cold war, but victory in this Middle Eastern version may be dodgier.

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