Saturday, January 17, 2009

Watch for the Bush in Barack Obama

Only days are left before the departure of George W. Bush, and already the word out is that, in the Middle East, the new boss, Barack Obama, may be like the old boss. The only disagreement is who that old boss is. Is it Bush himself, or is it Bill Clinton, in whose administrations many of those now expected to decide the region's affairs once served?

Barack Obama's enthusiasm for change only seems to extend to the Clinton years. We will again hear familiar names such as Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Kurtzer, critics point out, all of whom served in some capacity on Middle Eastern affairs during the 1990s, mainly in the peace process. Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Peace Accord for Bosnia-Herzegovina, is another former Clinton official who might get the call to deal with broader regional matters. He is being tipped as Obama's envoy to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That this recycling of old faces should seem odd is itself odd. There has been only one Democratic president since 1980, so you would expect Obama to reach for expertise in his administrations, even if this makes fresh ideas less likely. For our misfortune, the president-elect has also relied on the counsel of castaways from the Jimmy Carter shipwreck, notably Zbigniew Brzezinski. If in Hollywood you're only as good as your last movie, in Washington you're only as bad as the media's attention span. Few journalists today ask how Carter's failures in Iran and Afghanistan entitle Brzezinski to be considered a sage on the Middle East.

Let me offer a hypothesis: The old boss that Obama will end up imitating most is not Bill Clinton, regardless of the fact that Mrs. Clinton will be secretary of state, but George W. Bush. Even the idea that Bush was unique as a war-monger may have to be adjusted once Obama escalates American military intervention in Afghanistan, and once he discovers that taking to Iran "without conditions" (his delusion, not mine) is unlikely to stop it from developing a nuclear weapons capacity.

Obama will not channel Bush because he's a closet neoconservative. Rather, he will do so because the Bush we watched during his second term displayed few neoconservative instincts at all. And what are these major neoconservative instincts? If we examine Bush's first-term behavior and pair that with a reading of the National Security Strategy of 2002, an essential vessel of neocon thought (though it also contains plenty of conventional "realist" wisdom), we could pair it down to a few loud ideas: reliance on American pre-emption to neutralize emerging global threats; the retention of American predominance over other states or group of states; and a willingness to rely on power, particularly military power, in a unilateral way if necessary, to advance American interests.

The writer Paul Berman caught another essential aspect of the neoconservative moment when he drew attention to its style, remarking that it embodied a great many things, not least "a kind of nationalist swagger." That swagger could be heard in Bush's cretinous "Bring 'em on" phrase goading the Iraqi insurgents in July 2003. The president, far too scattered an individual to be tied down by doctrine, was never really a neocon, but he had certainly internalized their triumphalism.

As we look back on Bush's second term, however, almost all the neocon foreign policy guidelines have evaporated – as has the swagger. In the Middle East the United States has been so pervasively multilateral in its actions, that it has been unable to get very much done. On Iran, working through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations has gone nowhere. If a prop of neocon thought was to act against growing threats preemptively--and Iran's nuclear program would seem to qualify as such a threat--then in 2007 the Bush administration undermined that rule by releasing a National Intelligence Estimate that derailed the chances of a military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. Indeed, the US went further and warned Israel against launching an attack.

In Afghanistan, American cooperation with the UN and its military efforts through NATO have also faltered. Recall that the Afghan intervention came in the heyday of neocon affirmation in Washington. Yet the US went about it multilaterally, with all the right certificates of international good behavior. And in Lebanon, as of 2004, the US created a bodyguard of UN resolutions to protect the country from Syria and to contain Hezbollah. Yet that hasn't prevented Damascus from systematically violating those resolutions and undermining Lebanese sovereignty; nor has it prevented Hezbollah from doing the same by rearming via Syrian territory.

In none of these countries – Iran, Afghanistan, and Lebanon – did the US go it alone. The Bush administration locked itself into an international consensus that left room open for others to limit American actions. That squared little with the neocon yearning that no state or group of states should balance America off in the pursuit of its national objectives.

On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, too, the US has been militantly multilateral, and the net result has again been stalemate. The so-called Quartet, including the US, the UN, Russia, and the European Union, has been ineffectual largely because domestic Palestinian and Israeli dynamics have thwarted a breakthrough. The sad irony is that Obama may finally inherit some movement on the track because of the butchery in Gaza, which may weaken Hamas. The conflict, for all the death it has rained down, especially on Palestinians, may yet turn into a meeting point between neocons, who favor the transformative possibilities of military ventures like Israel's, and the peace process mavens of the Obama administration, who seek to renew Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.

The reason Barack Obama will resemble George W. Bush in the Middle East is that Bush hardly resembled himself during his second term; in fact, he resembled what Obama claims he will become: a president who worked with other states consensually; who made use of international law and institutions; who dealt with emerging threats through diplomacy; and, less openly, who ignored all the above when the US could do better for itself that way. Obama's first test will be Gaza. Does he allow Hamas to be beaten, and then cash in on the results? Or does he step in and demand an immediate ceasefire? My money is on Obama's George W. Bush reflex.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Tiptoeing around death in South Lebanon

The rocket attacks yesterday across Lebanon's southern border with Israel were a worrying sign that the conflict in Gaza may escalate into a wider conflagration. Hizbullah, or whichever group it allowed to fire the weapons from its territory, sought in some degree to push a fearful international community into imposing a cease-fire in Gaza, where the Israeli stranglehold may lead to the imposition of an Egyptian-French plan whose outcome is the military neutralization of Hamas.

Hizbullah must have also found intolerable its immobility in the past two weeks, reduced as it was to providing Hamas with verbal encouragement. For a party that claims to be the vanguard of the armed struggle against Israel, cheerleading from the sidelines was surely mortifying. However, at this early stage it seems that neither Hizbullah nor Israel wants to go to all-out war. Responsibility for the attack on the Lebanese side was kept ambiguous, while Israel's response was limited in scope, with some officials there preferring to put the blame on unidentified Palestinians.

The reality is that Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is facing constraints as he ponders what to do next. For starters, he must evaluate the consequences of Hizbullah's two pyrrhic victories, in 2006 and 2008, which he and his followers still insist are incontestable.

The first is Hizbullah's purported victory in summer 2006. Presumably, victories over Israel are so desirable that the Lebanese in general, and the Shiites in particular, would care to turn them into an annual event. If so, then why are the Shiites so reluctant to repeat what happened that year? Perhaps they sense that the brutal displacement of 1 million people, and the killing of 1,200 others, only qualified as a victory in the narrowest and most counterintuitive of ways. Nasrallah, for all his bravado two years ago, must now factor in the Shiite refusal to be similarly punished once more, and the refusal of a Lebanese majority to suffer his whims.

The second victory Nasrallah must consider is that of early May 2008, when his men overran western Beirut and humiliated the Sunni community. In the short term, that episode gave the opposition veto power in the government and an election law that will preserve Hizbullah's share in Parliament. But in the context of the party's long-term struggle against Israel, it may have been catastrophic. A reason why Nasrallah has hesitated to intervene more publicly over Gaza is that last May he squandered any national consensus behind the idea of resistance that Hizbullah once enjoyed, and today the party cannot even be certain of protecting its rear if Israel again devastates Lebanon.

An interesting subplot is playing itself out in the local media. Most Lebanese want to be seen as on the Palestinians' side, but there is marked competition between the Hariri camp, through its Future satellite television channel and Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, and Hizbullah's media outlets, over who can best express outrage when it comes to the Palestinians' plight. In Lebanon's polarized sectarian atmosphere, the Future movement and other Sunni political groups, particularly the Jamaa Islamiyya, have done everything but say what is really on their minds: that Palestine is, above all, a Sunni concern, regardless of Hizbullah's efforts to place itself at the center of the battle against Israel; therefore, Nasrallah should not repeat what he said in 2006, when he accused his local rivals of colluding with Israel against Hizbullah.


If Nasrallah feels pressed domestically, he can't be much very more reassured by what is happening regionally. What, for example, are Syria's calculations? It's quite possible that the rocket attack on Thursday was carried out, with Hizbullah's acquiescence, by pro-Syrian Palestinians. Like all good merchants in carrion, the Assad regime will probably emerge from the Gaza confrontation stronger. If Hamas is neutralized, the Syrians will doubtless see one of their cards devalued, but they will also be able to compensate for that because the United States and the Europeans will embrace Syria as an ally in containing troublesome non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah. That Syria helped arm these groups in the first place will be stubbornly ignored. President Bashar Assad will be given a chance to bargain over the dead of Gaza in the same way that his father bargained over the dead of Qana in April 1996.

Nasrallah knows that any Hizbullah move on Israel's northern border would only give Assad a stronger hand to offer his services abroad, at the expense of the party. In that complicated minuet, Iran, too, must be careful of the consequences if a broader conflict ignites in southern Lebanon. Syria would use this to better sell its Lebanese return to the Americans; Hizbullah could find itself isolated domestically in the run-up to parliamentary elections in June; and Iran risks not only seeing its Hamas ally in Gaza diminished, but Hizbullah as well. And this time Tehran's ability to throw money around to placate Lebanon's Shiites might not be what it was two years ago. The results in Lebanon would feed into Iran's presidential election, so that what happens here could determine the political fate of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

These concerns notwithstanding, Nasrallah also faces a more profound problem if he comes across as a helpless prisoner of Lebanese realities. By showing he can do nothing on the Israeli border, for fear of heightening tensions at home, he undermines Hizbullah's deterrence capability in the event Israel strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. From the start of the war in Gaza, Iran's containment has hovered over Arab decision-making. That explains why Hizbullah could not remain idle indefinitely. Nasrallah had to establish that, even in the most unpropitious of times, he could still use his weapons, or allow others to do so, against Israel.

As the abduction of Israeli soldiers in July 2006 showed, however, attacks too carefully calibrated can easily get out of hand. Israel and Hizbullah may not want to return to those days, but they will fight a new war with relish if one becomes unavoidable. More bothersome, Lebanon is back to being a hostage to the choices of one man, who in order to defend his party, and particularly its standing with its regional sponsors, needs to engage in brinkmanship at the expense of his own compatriots.

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.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gaza hides a war over the Arabs' future

Amid the carnage in Gaza, it's not immediately obvious that what is taking place has less to do with Israelis versus Palestinians than with Arabs versus Arabs, principally to define the future of the Middle East. The Gaza conflict has become part of an ongoing confrontation between regimes emerging from the Arab state system established over six decades ago, and, with one exception, new regional players vying to take their place.

Whether it is Hamas, or some groups in Hamas, that sought out this latest battle with Israel; whether it is the Israelis who picked a fight in a pre-election period; or whether it is some combination of both, the outcome of what is happening in Gaza today is not difficult to guess: Israel is helping Hamas undermine any peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which will only guarantee a condition of long-term war.

What we see developing in the Middle East is an accelerating counterattack by non-state actors such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Islamic Jihad, all backed by a rising Iran, against the majority of Arab states committed to a negotiated peace with Israel. Manipulating the emotions that the fate of the Palestinians invariably release among Arabs, Tehran above all, but also the militant Islamist groups, are attempting to redraw the regional balance of power through a normalization of the armed struggle against Israel and a delegitimization of Arab states opposed to this. As Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declared on Sunday, Arab countries that have signed a peace treaty with Israel are to be discredited not because they won't fight Israel, but because they collude with it.

An exception to this rule is Syria. Whereas Iran and the militant Islamists hope to emasculate the old stalwarts of the Arab state order - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - by accusing them of participating in a purported "American-Israeli project for the region," Syria, no less a traditional stalwart of the Arab political order, is in the peculiar position of being on the side of Iran and the non-state rebels while also seeking an accommodation with the United States and Israel. In fact, Syrian spokesman often argue, whenever they are invited to foreign capitals and conferences, that Syria is a vital American ally in containing non-state Arab actors - the same ones that Syria arms, shelters and incites.

Awash no less in self-serving ambiguity is Qatar, never a major pillar of the Arab older, but a state increasingly effective in filling the diplomatic vacuum left by Saudi Arabia. Like the Syrians, the Qataris are on good terms with Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizbullah, even as they host the largest American military base in the Middle East and preserve an open, if discreet, relationship with Israel. Playing all sides to its advantage, the tiny emirate benefits from a population that doesn't revolt, neighbors who take too much time to act, and an emir who doesn't blush.

Yet it's Nasrallah who on Sunday somehow showed what was really at stake for the Arab states, and both Syria and to a lesser extent Qatar might consider his meaning. In focusing his anger on Egypt, in effectively calling on Egyptians to mount a civil protest campaign at home against Cairo's behavior in Gaza, the secretary general crossed a red line in his dealings with the Arab regimes: With considerable boldness, even impudence, he tried to play domestic Egyptian politics. In so doing Nasrallah may have overplayed his hand. His message was mainly an Iranian one, another echo of Tehran's recent efforts to put the Egyptian regime on the defensive when it comes to Gaza, so that Iran's ally Hamas might more easily rearm and prepare for a war of liberation against Israel.

However, Nasrallah's audacity is something no Arab state can readily tolerate. Not even Syria, in fact especially Syria, wants to hear the leader of a foreign armed group calling on Syrians to disregard their leadership in support of the Palestinians. Recall that Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 to contain the Palestine Liberation Organization, fearing its victory in the Lebanese Civil War might lead to a conflict with Israel that would engulf Syria. Arab states may be much weaker and less credible than ever before, but the region still remains a redoubt of national sovereignty.

Nasrallah not only may have overestimated his capacity to challenge such sovereignty in Egypt, he may have also overestimated the weakness of the states he opposes. Hizbullah and Hamas err in assuming that the Arab regimes can be as easily overcome as were their own national authorities - the Palestinian Authority in Hamas' case, the Lebanese government in Hizbullah's. The Arab state system has doubtless lost a great deal of its vigor in the last two decades, a result of regimes proposing nothing new, stifling their own people, and seemingly incapable of either fighting Israel or convincing it to cede to the Palestinians their most basic national rights. However, most Arabs won't abandon their states for the pull of non-state military actors that promise only a project of war.

This is where Israel comes in, specifically its consistent miscalculations when it comes to the Palestinians. Far from strengthening the hand of the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis have only ensured that Iran and the non-state Islamist actors gain strength. By systematically humiliating the Palestinian Authority and displaying little genuine willingness to follow through on territorial compromises, the Israelis have denied the Palestinians any political horizon. At this stage, talk of a negotiated solution to the Palestinian conflict seems naive. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are capable of reaching a mutually acceptable solution to their dispute, and that pleases Hamas to no end.

Iran, and with it Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, have also prepared a welcoming present for Barack Obama. The US president-elect once said that resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a priority. Good luck. The Arab peace plan of 2002 lies in tatters; Mahmoud Abbas will be the Palestinian president only until late January, when what remains of his legitimacy will evaporate; and Israel is likely to vote for a right-wing government even less prepared to arrive at a deal with the Palestinians than the present government. What a wonderful new year's gift this bloody Gaza attack has been for Hamas and its partners, above all for Iran and Syria, who now have great leverage to bargain with the Obama administration.

Meanwhile the Arab states and their regimes hang on, but without offering any prospect of rejuvenation, let alone a realistic peace scheme that could tilt the new Arab cold war in their favor.