America moves forward to the past


No sooner had Condoleezza Rice finished shaking hands with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem last week at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference, than American commentators, former officials, and others were stumbling over themselves to offer congratulations. The secretary of state had displayed “pragmatism” and a “sense of realism” by reaching out to a state that had been isolated. Heaven’s gates seemed to open

The United States is fast returning to the old ways in the Middle East, the pre-9/11 ways, where foreign policy skill was defined mainly as cutting baroque deals with despots rather than overly bothering with the promotion of open societies, human rights and the rule of law. That’s understandable, since the Bush administration has left itself little room to maneuver because of the fiasco in Iraq. But democratization was among the first superfluities to be tossed out the window when Rice, that most chameleonic of figures, rediscovered her “realist” pedigree. She now reportedly hopes to leave as her legacy the establishment of relations with Iran. We are close to the point where the US, in trying to extricate itself from the Iraqi trap, may bring the masonry down on all our heads.

The US has emerged as a fairly futile superpower, at least in the Middle East. For those of us who thought that the ousting of a tyrant like Saddam Hussein might usher in an era of pluralist change in the region, the disappointment is doubly felt. Arab liberals, who should have strived to use the radical developments in Iraq as an inspiration for their own domestic renovations, instead pushed aside their leaders (and tormentors) to be the first in slamming “American neocolonialism.” Now the dictators, having won their battle against the US, are back to stifling their homegrown liberal critics. Prepare to soon see the liberals revive an old lamentation of theirs: that Washington is as one with the autocrats.

On the other side, the US, which claimed to be building a new Middle East, has yet to build a new Baghdad. The historian Niall Ferguson has described the US as an empire with a short attention span. It is, but it’s also an empire with mostly misdirected attention whenever it deals with Arab affairs. The US seems incapable of grasping how the region works, so concerned is it with the idiotic matter of whether it is loved or hated by the Middle East’s inhabitants. The issue isn’t love, but competence – the competence to use power intelligently, to know what societies will and will not accept, to stick to a fairly consistent political line, without bouncing back and forth between high rhetoric and low deal-making, usually to salvage something from America’s chronic inability to persevere.

Arab regimes, in their sclerotic splendor, have saved the region from any real prospect of innovation. Saddam’s removal was a harsh blow to a political confederacy that had bolstered the murderer through good years and bad, but the Americans are on the verge of throwing in the towel, of declaring defeat before anyone else does. In the US, political candor often declines into political stupidity. As for the Arabs, we will plod on in our most inert of regions, afflicted by violence and oppression. Onetime republics are reversing into discounted monarchies, authoritarianism and underdevelopment are nourishing fanaticism and ignorance, though we will always have Pollyannaish optimists out there chasing the mirage of Arab progress and hawking the merits of “indigenous reform.”

Even Lebanon, for a brief moment in 2005 a shining light of ecumenical democratic modernization, is today threatened. Syria is the main suspect in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, and the United Nations has already paid out millions of dollars to investigate the crime. Yet in none of the paeans to “engagement” with the Baath regime has anyone expressed especial interest in that murder, and what its punishment might mean for justice in the Middle East. Indeed, none of the engagers have shown much interest in what happens to Lebanon itself, as they accept that Syria is entitled to enjoy (never-clarified) “influence” over the country. As if the regime in Damascus could distinguish, or even cared to distinguish, between “influence” and the obdurate vampirism that characterized its 29-year military domination of Lebanon.

What will engagement of Syria bring? The last time the US had an opportunity to check, during the 1990s, what it got was an assurance that in accepting the hardship of regaining its occupied land from Israel, Damascus would also take on the burden of continued rule over Lebanon. President Bashar Assad is no fool; he sees many Americans pleading for dialogue, so he offers the Bush administration dialogue. He vows that Bush will like what he gets, that all will be fine in Iraq – so fine that the soldiers and marines, once they’re home with their families, will not have to worry about the detonations of those human bombs crossing daily through Syria’s eastern frontier. The Syrians will not really give anything up to the Americans or anybody else, whether in Lebanon, on the Palestinian front, in eventual talks with Israel, or in their relations with Iran. Why should they? Assad’s door is being scratched so frantically that he has little incentive to surrender the leverage that brought this about.

The Syrian president has two priorities: saving his regime by undermining the Hariri tribunal and reimposing Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. The international community has had a momentary case of the nerves on the former, as the Syrians and their allies threaten to provoke a Lebanese civil war if a Chapter 7 tribunal is formed; as for the latter, no one has bothered noticing that Syria is avidly trying to manipulate the upcoming Lebanese presidential election in order to bring another puppet to power in Beirut. Are the Lebanese to blame for their own divisions? Surely, but the international community will only be able to move beyond that once it implements Security Council resolutions with more spirit.

If that’s the Middle East’s future – where an anemic kleptocracy can blackmail the world community by holding a gun to the head of its smaller neighbor – then there is no hope. Maybe those who argue that the region is better left ignored are right. Maybe the US was too optimistic in expecting more, and too lazy to verify if that optimism was defensible. So let’s go back to where we were before in the region, which is basically nowhere. At least we know the pundits and former officials will lustily approve.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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