The US Can’t Run the Show in the Middle East

It feels like déjà vu all over again. A U.S. official leaves for a conference in East Asia where he or she is supposed to discuss issues that affect the interests of the governments and economies in the region. Instead, the American representative ends up investing most of his or her time and energy in trying to resolve another Middle East crisis.

Indeed, this was expected to be a Southeast Asian week for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was scheduled to fly to Malaysia for the ASEAN regional forum, and after concluding talks with officials from the region, return to Washington. But her trip to Kuala Lumpur will probably be recalled now as nothing more than a short stopover in between her extensive and more important efforts to deal with the mounting violence in the Middle East.

On her way to Southeast Asia, Ms. Rice spent several days of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, followed by an international conference in Rome, as part of an effort to bring a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hezbollah that has already resulted in hundreds of casualties and appalling destruction in Lebanon (as a consequence of Israeli aerial bombing) and in northern Israel (caused by hundreds of missiles launched by Hezbollah guerillas).

And on her way back from Malaysia, the United States’ chief diplomat held more talks with Israeli and Arab officials as she tried to find ways to reach an agreement that she insisted would lead to the release of Israeli soldiers who had been kidnapped by Hezbollah (the development that ignited the current crisis), the disarming of Hezbollah’s militias in exchange for Israeli willingness to discuss the return of Lebanese citizens it has been holding for several years, as well as resolving the fate of disputed land on the border of Israel, Lebanon, and Syria.

Most U.S. allies, including the ones that Ms. Rice met in Kuala Lumpur, would like to see an immediate cease-fire in the Mideast. But Ms. Rice and her boss, President George W. Bush – as he made clear during a press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday in Washington – seem to have given Israel a green light to continue its assault on Hezbollah until the Shi’ite group is so damaged it is forced to raise a white flag.

That this has been a very long and grueling week of diplomacy for Secretary Rice becomes obvious when one studies her body language during press conferences. She looks as if she’s under a lot of pressure. That is not surprising when one takes into consideration the problems she has been facing as she tries to juggle the many and contradictory U.S. commitments – to Israel, which the Bush administration and Congress regard as a close U.S. ally; to the fledging democracy of Lebanon, where Hezbollah is part of the cabinet; to the pro-American Arab-Sunni regimes in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; and to a Arab-Shi’ite government in Iraq with close ties to Iran. The U.S. has the ambition of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians, isolating and containing Syria and Iran, promoting political and economic freedom in the Middle East, and securing access to oil resources in the Persian Gulf.

Secretary Rice’s failure to fulfill all of these costly commitments and achieve these many goals has less to do with her personal charm and diplomatic skills and more with the fact that the United States is reaching a point in which it seems not to have the power anymore to advance its agenda in the Middle East, which combines a realpolitik drive toward hegemony with a Wilsonian crusade for democracy.

To put it simply, the United States has too much on its Middle Eastern plate, and it is clearly beginning to lose its leverage over the main players in the region. As America’s allies in East Asia are discovering, this means the U.S. has less time and resources to devote to other policy issues.

You don’t have to be a great strategic thinker to reach these conclusions. Just glance at the headlines in your daily newspaper and watch the latest news on television and you get the picture: The United States is overstretched militarily in an Iraq, which is experiencing a form of civil war that threatens to split the country, where the rise of an Arab-Shi’ite-dominated government has helped Iran to emerge as the main regional power in the Persian Gulf and a source of inspiration for Shi’ites in the entire region.

All that has been happening as Washington tries without much success to force Iran to end its plans to acquire nuclear military capability. The Americans have succeeded in evicting the Syrians from Lebanon, but that has created a military vacuum that helped to strengthen the power of Hezbollah there. And the U.S. has made little effort to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. In fact, the push for democracy in Palestine has brought to power the radical Hamas movement.

That does not mean that the U.S. is a global power in decline like, say, Great Britain and France were after World War II, as they were gradually ejected from the Middle East by the Americans (and the Soviets). But the unilateral and hegemonic project that the U.S. has been trying to establish in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, is probably coming to an end.

The kind of challenges that America is facing now in Iraq, Israel/Palestine, and Lebanon, including the rising power of radical political Islamic movements, growing ethnic and religious tensions (including between Sunnis and Shi’ites), an increasing number of failed states, and threats from non-state actors, cannot be dealt with through this Democratic Empire project.

Making Way for Others

There are limits to Washington’s ability to invest its economic and military resources in such a project, especially if one considers the unwillingness on the part of the American taxpayers to support a never-ending military intervention in the Middle East.

On one level, Washington cannot continue to pursue a policy of punishing and isolating Middle East regimes with which it disagrees on either policies or ideology. There is no way that Washington could encourage the creation of a stable balance-of-power in the Persian Gulf, including Iraq, without negotiating with Iran.

And it cannot help bring stability to Lebanon without dealing with its powerful Syrian neighbor, or for that matter with the powerful Lebanese-Shi’ite community, many of whose members support Hezbollah. Similarly, no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be reached through unilateralist Israeli strategy backed by Washington. Taking its cue from the process that has taken place in Southeast Asia, the U.S. should be supportive of a formation of regional security groups in which Washington will not play the leader; for example, a Persian Gulf security organization that includes Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.

On another level, it is in the interest of the U.S. to provide incentives for other global players to play a more active role in promoting stability and peace in the Middle East – in particular, the members of the European Union (EU), especially the Mediterranean countries (France, Italy, Spain) and Germany (which has special ties with the Jewish state). Britain and Turkey should play a leading role in this process of growing engagement in the Middle East, a region that because of geographical proximity, economic ties, and demographic links is their strategic backyard – what Latin America is for the U.S.

Through its hegemonic strategy in the Middle East, the U.S. has encouraged the Europeans to take a free ride on American policy. The message from Washington has been: “We’ll do the driving, while you only have to check the tires and replace the oil.”

France and Germany could start doing some of the driving, even if that means that they will have more impact on deciding what policy route to take in the Middle East. The current crisis in Lebanon might be just such an opportunity for a growing European engagement.

Against the backdrop of declining U.S. prestige, France, Italy, and Spain have been playing an active role, mostly through back-channel diplomacy with Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, and indirectly with Hezbollah, to fashion a peaceful resolution.

At the same time, according to press reports, Germany has also been pursuing behind-the-scenes diplomacy involving Israel, Syria, and Iran. The EU has already announced that it would be willing to take the lead in deploying peacekeeping troops to southern Lebanon; France, Italy, Turkey, and Norway have agreed to participate in such a force. And the Europeans have also indicated their interest in playing a more central role in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This is the kind of European activism in the Middle East that American officials should encourage, so that when another crisis blows up in the Middle East, U.S. officials will be able to participate in an ASEAN conference without being distracted by a new mess in the Levant.

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