‘Birth Pangs of a
New Middle East’?

If you’ve been watching the television images from Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine and have been getting a little depressed, cheer up! U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has explained to reporters that the scenes of death, destruction, and human misery from Beirut, Haifa, and Gaza are – get this! – “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

If the folks who once promised – let’s see – that Iraqis would be welcoming U.S. troops with flowers; that a New Iraq would serve as a model of democracy, peace, and prosperity for the entire Middle East; and that renewed efforts would be made to bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace are now ensuring us that we’ve been watching the birth of a New Middle East, well, permit me to be a bit skeptical.

What I’ve been watching on television are scenes of war in the Middle East. Or to put it differently, it’s another sequel in that familiar and violent television program called the Old Middle East. War has been the norm in the Middle East since 1945, with wars between Israelis and Arabs, between Iranians and Arabs, between Arabs and Arabs, not to mention quite a few military coups and civil wars.

Microcosm

In fact, Lebanon itself has been a setting for a long civil war among its many ethnic and religious sects that lasted for most of the 1970s and early 1980s, and was interrupted by an Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and then military control by Syria. In a way, Lebanon is a tiny microcosm of the politics of the Middle East, which have been dominated since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by rivalries among tribal, ethnic, and religious groups.

The artificial borders that were drawn by British and French imperialists after World War I have remained in place for most of the 20th century, thanks to the support by global powers for autocratic regimes in the region, despite the fact that most of the nation-states there, with the exception of Turkey and Iran, have lacked a clear sense of national identity.

Many analysts expected that the end of the Cold War and the dawn of globalization would lead to some political and economic reform in the region. Israel’s peace accord with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the economic renaissance of Lebanon in the 1990s created a mood of optimism in the region.

But no one expected that a U.S. president would launch a revolutionary process to democratize and remake the Middle East, not unlike Napoleon, who attempted to spread liberty in Europe in the early 19th century.

But as in the case of Napoleon, the attempt by President George W Bush to achieve his goals through the use of military force has backfired, creating the conditions for a civil war in Iraq, radicalizing the Palestinians, empowering Hezbollah in Lebanon, antagonizing the Syrians and the Iranians, and as a result, destabilizing the entire Middle East, from Iraq to Israel/Palestine through Lebanon.

What President Bush should do in the last two years of his term in office is to try to “de-revolutionize” the Middle East his policies has brought about. Among other things, Washington should try to end its policies of isolating Syria and Iran. While Hezbollah is not a puppet of these two governments, they do exert an enormous influence on it.

A dialogue between Washington and Damascus/Tehran could help create a regional environment in which a Hezbollah, weakened by the military confrontation with Israel, would have no choice but to disarm while moving to complete its political integration as a political party into the Lebanese system. At the same time, international peacekeeping troops could be deployed into southern Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from threatening Israel’s security.

Such constructive diplomatic engagement by the U.S. could lead eventually to negotiations between Washington and Tehran aimed at providing support for the government in Baghdad and maintaining security in Iraq as well as resolving the current nuclear crisis. Next on the agenda should be a renewed effort to reactivate negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps by engaging the political wing of Hamas and the moderate Fatah group.

Reforms Needed

No one denies that the Middle East needs a shot of political and economic reform. That should take place peacefully through diplomatic and economic engagement with the world and not through violent revolution imposed from the outside.

More specifically, one hopes that the states in the region will not embrace radical identities, including militant political Islam, and that the concept of a modern nation-state in which ethnic and religious groups can coexist and women enjoy equal rights should become the norm, not the exception.

Defusing tensions in the region, including by resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, providing stability to Lebanon, and preventing a full-scale civil war in Iraq could help accelerate the process of peaceful evolution.

These are the kinds of goals that Washington should place on the top of its agenda instead of pursuing New-Middle-East fantasies. It should remake its policy of remaking the Middle East before it’s too late.

Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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