The Region: Bright spots, anyone?

Let’s take a dispassionate look at the changes in the Middle East over the past year.

By BARRY RUBIN
May 3, 2010 11:48
BARRY RUBIN

BARRY RUBIN. (photo credit: jp)

 
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Let’s take a deep breath, clear our heads of any ideological or partisan preconceptions and then ask a simple question: How has the Middle East changed in the last year?

If one approaches this in a fair-minded, calm and honest manner, the answers are quite shocking.

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Let’s start with Iran. While some companies and banks have been discouraged from doing business with Iran, the sanctions or barriers to Teheran are almost the same as they were a year ago. That means that Iran has moved one year closer to obtaining nuclear weapons without serious hindrance. This is not good. No blather about conferences, plans, meetings, speeches and efforts should conceal this fact.

What about the keystone of Iranian strategy, its alliance with Syria? Despite much Western talk about pulling Syria away from Iran – which isn’t going to happen – the relationship is closer than ever. No blather about conferences, plans, meetings, speeches and efforts should conceal this fact.

Lebanon? It is more in the grip of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah than a year ago. The Lebanese moderates have retreated and some have changed to a neutral position, because they know the West will not back them. Lebanon’s president is ready to align with the Iran-Syria axis. Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, the lion of the opposition, has made his peace with the Syrians, as has Sa’ad Hariri, despite the fact that Damascus was responsible for killing both their fathers. Hizbullah, says the US secretary of defense, has more missiles than most industrialized countries though the UN promised to block these supplies back in 2006. No blather about conferences, plans, meetings, speeches and efforts should conceal this fact..

Turkey? Both the Iranian and Syrian governments have bragged that Turkey is now their ally. The Turkish regime conducts military maneuvers with Syria and not Israel. Turkey’s government opposes any sanctions or pressure on Iran regarding nuclear weapons. Today, Turkey is no longer a reliable ally of the US.

No blather.... you know the rest.




US-ISRAEL relations? For the moment, they are on a better footing but they have gone through several crises since the Obama administration took office. On at least two occasions – settlement blocs and also the freeze on West Bank construction only – the administration broke previously made promises to Israel by itself or its predecessor. Moreover, an unprecedented tone of distrust and hostility has set in on Washington.

The Palestinian Authority? Despite extensive US efforts to prove how pro-Palestinian it is, the PA has yet to do anything for the US, including breaking its promise not to take the lead in pushing the Goldstone Report or to hold direct negotiations with Israel. With US policy unwilling to press the PA on concessions, the Obama administration has given the PA a lot of support but obtained nothing in return.

What about the Israel-Palestinian peace process? Well, the best hope at present is that it might return to indirect negotiations, which puts it roughly at the level of contacts prevailing back in 1991. Indeed, getting the two sides to talk – however distantly, however slowly – is going to be regarded by the Obama administration as a huge victory meriting some champagne-drinking. This is pretty pitiful.

How about US relations with the relatively moderate Arab states, moderate compared to Syria that is? Despite Obama’s Cairo and Istanbul speeches, the outreach to Muslims, the hint that Islamists would be welcome to dialogue, the distancing from Israel, there is not one iota of improvement. Arab regimes will literally not do anything the US wants.

THIS BRINGS us to the one great achievement claimed by the current US government – high popularity in the Arabic-speaking world. Whatever numbers can be pulled out of polls, and they aren’t as good as many people think, any popularity Obama has is totally useless from the standpoint of US interests.

Iraq? It is a relative bright spot, with the US withdrawal under way. There are terrible problems with infighting in Iraq’s government, which might turn quite unstable. This is not so much the Obama government’s fault, but what is worthy of blame is its cowardly refusal to back Iraqi protests against Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism. At any rate, the calm that does exist is due in no small part to Teheran’s desire to keep things quiet until the US pulls out, then try to increase its own influence in the country. Not great.

Pakistan should be a big disappointment. True, the government is holding together. But despite the massive tidal wave of American aid, the regime is only willing to defend itself, not exert a real effort to wipe out the Taliban and al-Qaida on the border. And of course Pakistan is shielding its own terrorist assets that have been used to commit horrendous murders in India. Not good.

Finally, Afghanistan where the president has made a public relations-oriented decision: send in the troops in a pseudo-surge to show his apparent toughness, then pull them out to show his apparent dovishness. And with all good intentions the military and political leadership has set an impossible program of stabilizing Afghanistan and providing it with a good government. Meanwhile, bilateral relations have hit an all-time low.

Have I missed some bright spot or great achievement? I don’t think so. It’s a pitiful situation. What is the point of making this list? Not, despite what you might think, to bash Obama. The real problem is the refusal of policy-makers to recognize just how bad things are and how negative the impact of their policies has been.

It is not too late to change course. But how can opinion-makers explain this to administration officials when most of them don’t see how much has gone wrong? Waking up is the first step.


The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs and Turkish Studies. His personal blog can be read at www.rubinreports.blogspot.com

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