BERLIN – Travel broadens the mind, goes the old saying. This is especially true for the Middle East. But travel there nowadays can be extremely disorienting; indeed, developments that were impossible to contemplate just a few months ago are becoming reality.
The youth revolt that began in Tunis and Cairo in 2010-2011 has come to an end (at least for the time being), though the region has been changed fundamentally by it. The victory of counter-revolution and power politics, as in Egypt, has only seemed to restore the old order; the current regime’s political foundations are simply too brittle.
Equally noticeable has been the permanent shift in the region’s political-strategic axis. Iran, with its nuclear and hegemonic ambitions, is the current center, while the old center – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – has been marginalized, giving rise to entirely new alliances of interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel (which have no formal diplomatic relations) are united against Iran – and against the possibility of a US-Iranian détente.
Ideologically, the central conflict between Iran and its neighbors is based on the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. The devastating Syrian civil war is already being fought along these lines; given signs of a military and political stalemate, those lines could become the basis of a permanent division of the country, as in Bosnia.
If this happens, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan would not be left unaffected. The old Anglo-French Middle East mapped out by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in May 1916 would be gone for good. Moreover, the Kurdish issue has reappeared – and could indirectly influence and re-radicalize the Palestinian question. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that an Israeli-Palestinian settlement based on a two-state solution will preempt this development.
Then there is the question of the long-term consequences of Al Qaeda’s rebirth in the form of Sunni jihadism in Syria, Yemen, and North and East Africa. The Gulf monarchies are trying to ride this tiger militarily against Iran. But what will happen when they one day find themselves in the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice? Will this fanatical wind blow back to the Arab peninsula? And could these societies’ domestic institutions withstand such an attack?
Throughout the Middle East, most of the political elite remain trapped within a worldview defined by power politics and nineteenth-century notions of sovereignty. Their strategic watchwords are national rivalry, balance, and hegemony – concepts that offer no solution for the future of the region’s nations and states. Intraregional economic cooperation, which is essential to achieving sustained growth and social development, much less a regional security framework to ensure peace and stability, remains an alien idea.
In essence, the Middle East is experiencing a crisis of modernization. The rebellious youth who led popular demands for change are lying low (or have been rounded up); but, given the intellectual paralysis of the region’s rulers (and large parts of the opposition), an even more violent eruption can be expected. As in the past, Egypt will play a guiding role for the entire region (whether it wants to or not).
The region’s modernization crisis is being compounded by the partial withdrawal of an exhausted force for order, the United States. This is fueling tremendous anxiety in the region and has contributed to the overthrow of existing alliances and the search for new ones.
President Barack Obama has ended America’s ruinous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Above all, it was the war in Iraq – and thus former President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers – that brought Iran to its current position of strategic strength. Yet it is Obama who is now regarded as weak in the Middle East.
Obama is heavily criticized for not having intervened militarily in Syria, even though his threat to do so subsequently forced President Bashar al-Assad’s government to surrender its chemical weapons. Likewise, far from strengthening Iran further, Obama has pushed the Islamic Republic into a corner by leading the global push for strict economic sanctions.
To be sure, many aspects of Obama’s policy in the region are worth criticizing – above all, the defensive attitude with which his administration presents it. But, rather than weakness, what America’s traditional allies in the Middle East fear most is far-reaching change in the status quo.
And Obama’s policy does indeed appear to be aiming for precisely that: a nuclear détente with Iran, an end to Syria’s civil war by means of a regional security architecture, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is a policy that sounds almost utopian, given the enormous inertial force of the region’s problems. But if, against all expectations, Obama succeeds, his accomplishment will be historic.
And if he fails? The Middle East will continue its slide into mayhem – perversely befitting the upcoming centenary of World War I’s outbreak.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2013.
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