Making Progress, Without Uncle Sam

by , July 01, 2008

It may be that the phrases "Middle East peace" and "Israeli-Palestinian peace" are classic oxymorons, along the lines of the late George Carlin’s example, "military intelligence." Certainly the history of the last several decades, perhaps the last 50 years, suggests that the safest attitude toward whatever is the latest manifestation of hope for peace among Israel and its neighbors is a pessimistic one. Based on the record, you will hardly ever be wrong. And indeed, signs emerged this week that a fragile truce between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has been made more fragile by Qassam rockets heading toward Israel.

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that in the last few weeks some tentative moves toward resolving, or at least reducing, some of the many ongoing conflicts in the Middle East have taken place. The remarkable – and remarkably important – fact about all of them is that the United States has played virtually no role in any of them.

Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, agreed on a truce last week, which would end the rockets rained on the southern Israeli city of Sderot and the Israeli military strikes in Gaza. Unfortunately, rockets were fired into Israel on Tuesday, Israel closed border crossings on Wednesday in retaliation, and a couple more rockets were fired on Thursday. The UN has also claimed that Israel has violated the truce. Still, even though both Hamas and the Israeli government blame the other side for violating the truce, neither is proposing to call off the cease-fire.

After months of turbulence, the factions in Lebanon have reached a tentative political agreement that promises at least a semblance of orderly government. That agreement, brokered by Qatar, was quietly opposed by the U.S., in part because it would increase the formal power of Hezbollah within the Lebanese government. But the parties involved, who have to live in the country and who feared it was on the verge of a civil war – memories of the 1975-1990 have hardly disappeared from Lebanese memory – went ahead anyway.

So Israel on June 18 pushed to open peace negotiations with Lebanon. The Lebanese government immediately rebuffed the idea, but that would be the expected first reaction.

Israel is also negotiating a prisoner exchange with its longtime adversary Hezbollah. And last month Israel announced the resumption of talks with Syria, which have been on hold for eight years.

There are numerous possible explanations for all this activity directed at relative peace, though war-weariness on all sides may be the most important underlying factor. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces a growing corruption scandal from which he may be trying to divert attention. Hamas rules Gaza, but continuing the attack-counterattack pattern means ordinary people in Gaza face privation with few hopes for a better future.

Most extraordinary – or perhaps not extraordinary at all, but utterly predictable – is the fact that the United States has not been involved, except very peripherally, in any of these negotiations. For years – decades, really – conventional wisdom has been that progress toward resolving the numerous disputes between Israel and her neighbors can only be made if the United States takes an aggressive leadership role. Every American president since Carter has at least tried to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

But U.S. influence and capabilities in the region have declined considerably since we invaded Iraq. The invasion led not to an increase in U.S. influence but an increase in the effective power of Iran. So without Uncle Sam to handle things, countries in the region are taking matters into their own hands. Egypt brokered the truce between Israel and Hamas. Qatar mediated the Lebanese accord that may have prevented another civil war. Turkey is acting as mediator in Israeli-Syrian preliminary talks.

The waning of American influence is felt in other parts of the region as well. As Leon Hadar reminded me when I spoke on the phone with him recently, we shouldn’t be surprised that Saudi Arabia came up with only a token increase in oil production after President Bush personally asked for a little relief. The Saudis are convinced that the Americans destabilized the region with the invasion of Iraq and its disastrous aftermath, and they are particularly concerned about the growing regional strength of Iran, a direct result of the invasion. The U.S. now has much less leverage over the Saudis than it had in times past.

In addition, however much various neocons trumpet the Iraqi government’s attack on Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces as evidence of the Maliki regime’s growing strength as a truly national government, the conflict would likely still be going on, with considerable bloodshed on both sides, if Iran had not intervened to broker a cease-fire. Although the U.S. is the military occupation force in Iraq, Iran has more influence both with the government and with the various Shia militias than the U.S. does.

The U.S. is not completely quiescent. Following the precedent of several previous U.S. presidents – seeking an Israeli-Palestinian agreement in the last year of a term, when presidents start to think about their legacies – President Bush announced last December that he expects an Israeli-Palestinian agreement before he leaves office. Of all the initiatives in the region, however, this is the least likely to succeed anytime soon. You might even say that the bizarre combination of pushing for democracy and seeking to enhance U.S. hegemony has failed miserably.

Leon Hadar, whose book Sandstorm is still a good guide to how effectively the U.S. has destabilized the Middle East and includes a good deal of informed discussion on how the various countries in the region operate, thinks most of this activity is occurring because all the countries in the region sense the declining power and influence of the U.S. and are beginning to act in their own interests, knowing the U.S. can do little to stop them. Hadar believes there is deep support in Israel for the initiatives Ehud Olmert is undertaking. Diverting attention from the prime minister’s scandals may play a small role in all this flurry of activity, but concern for the regime’s survival is a stronger motive. And an increasing number of Israelis see negotiating with their neighbors rather than maintaining a constantly hostile attitude as important for Israel’s long-term survival. Living in a garrison state is tiring.

In short, what we are seeing throughout the Middle East represents a gradual declaration of independence from the United States. Unlike denizens of comfortably appointed think tanks in Washington, D.C., those in the region have recent, personal experience of various kinds of conflict. It would be foolish to suggest a region-wide desire for peace, but a certain war-weariness seems to be growing. Even though regional peace may be elusive – and perhaps unlikely – the governments in the Middle East are beginning to move beyond the simplistic categorization of good and evil regimes the Bush administration has tried to impose, and are seeking some kind of modus vivendi with countries who are not leaving the neighborhood.

The lesson? Maybe the United States should stop trying to run the Middle East and let the people who live there handle things. As the next president considers how to leave Iraq as gracefully as possible, he would do well to contemplate reducing American efforts to run the rest of the region. Israel will survive, and the oil-producing countries have plenty of incentive to sell oil – perhaps more of an incentive – without U.S. ships patrolling the Persian Gulf.

Of course, the Middle Eastern countries will make mistakes, and all the initiatives described are fragile at best. But the evidence is that they will do better – indeed they are already doing better – without the precious guidance of the United States.

Read more by Alan Bock