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The era of democracy promotion as the main theme of US Middle East policy is over, for all practical purposes. Having found constructive forces in the region to be close to non-existent, America is back to the strategy of a more traditional realpolitik, making alliances with what seems to be those representing the lesser of two evils.
In principle, this change is regrettable, though absolutely necessary. It is the product of two main developments:
Support within the region for liberal, democratic-oriented reform is limited. The local political cultures and societies are too resistant; the dictatorships too strong and clever; extremists too able to take advantage of any openings offered, for example, by elections.
n Extremists have gone on the offensive, as represented by the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas alliance. Rather than a perceived opportunity for making things better - as represented by the peace process of the 1990s and the Bush administration's campaign for democracy - the task now is to keep the regional situation from becoming far worse.
Of course, within this new policy there are choices to be made. Consider the trend in US policy toward the Palestinians. Basically, America is taking sides, supporting Fatah against Hamas. Superficial observers think this means pushing for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and that is why, after all, they are superficial. Mahmoud Abbas, PLO head and Palestinian Authority chairman, is incapable of organizing a bake sale much less delivering on any serious diplomatic bargaining.
It is not a matter of helping him deliver some peace agreement as showing that his policies benefit Palestinians. Making such an arrangement requires concessions on his part and doing things like stopping terrorism and ending incitement. In the context of the internal Palestinian struggle, that kind of thing is political poison.
The only way he could engage in a real peace process is by getting control of his own organization and defeating Hamas. The only way he could defeat Hamas is by destroying it in a military confrontation. The only way he can make a deal with Hamas is to surrender all his own real authority and reject peace with Israel.
There is no way out this crisis. If diplomats want to pretend otherwise, that is their business, but nobody should be fooled about the reality of the situation.
GIVEN THIS reality, which policy course is best? On at least two fronts, the US is now funding Fatah - which of course includes a large majority of hard-liners and a major terrorist group - to build up Abbas's "bodyguard" and to learn how to campaign better in elections. For the latter task, according to a Reuters report, $42 million is budgeted. The emphasis is on internal party reform and on better organization. "This project supports [the] objective to create democratic alternatives to authoritarian or radical Islamist political options," says a US government document.
Sigh. Well, I can see how this makes sense on one level. Perhaps giving Fatah more money to throw around might buy it support and votes. But note that there is no policy quid pro quo (a Latin phrase meaning to get something for giving something). In other words, Fatah is not going to stop terrorism, end incitement or be more moderate.
And why would anyone believe Fatah is capable of learning anything? Fatah is far more comfortable competing with Hamas in bragging about how militant it is, how many martyrs it has produced and how intently it will carry on the struggle to total victory. The group is not about to prove its superiority to Hamas by building roads and producing better schools.
Some in Washington may believe the contrary. But what is apparently happening here is that realpolitik is wearing the clothes of democratization. The policy is really one of backing those forces opposed to the super-hard-liners even if they are regular, typical Middle East hard-liners.
Rejecting appeasement and knowing regime change won't work, there is a third policy alternative which consists of three basic points:
n Realistic assessment - Have no illusions that Iran, Syria, Hizbullah or Hamas is going to become more moderate. They are the advocates of war, revolution, terrorism and hatred in the Middle East. No matter what the United States, West and Israel do, these factors are going to oppose them.
n Tough stance - Recognizing that thee forces are enemies, it is necessary to develop systematically a full range of appropriate tactics, including sanctions, public statements, covert operations and no unilateral concessions to "build confidence."
n Best possible alignments. This requires the maximum possible cooperation between the US and Europe, on the one hand, and to work with regional forces whose interests also oppose the super-extremists. Within the region this includes Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the majority in Lebanon of Christians, Druse and Sunni Muslims who reject Iranian-Syrian-Hizbullah domination.
This is far less than many had hoped to accomplish during the optimistic era of the 1990s when comprehensive peace seemed possible or of the heady days for those who thought that democracy would sweep away dictatorship in the Middle East. Still, this is the hand we have been dealt and we must play it as best we can, while still arguing about how to implement such a strategy.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center.
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