The Region: New Middle East

Intransigence is in the palace and pragmatism is a beggar.

barry rubin column 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin column 88
(photo credit: )
The fighting in Lebanon punctuates some dramatic changes in the region that go far beyond these immediate events. These developments are going to be shaping events in the area for some time to come, even after the current shooting ends. Here are the keys to understanding this new situation:
  • Iran is at an all-time high in its regional influence due to a variety of factors, including its impending possession of nuclear weapons, the rise of Shi'ite Muslim power (that's the same sect as in Iran) in Iraq's government, and a particularly adventurous extremist leadership at home. This leverage is enhanced by the growth of radical Islamist movements seeking a sponsor and the vacuum of weakness in the Arab world.
  • Arab nationalism and cooperation is at an all-time low. There is no Arab state that has any real power outside its own borders. Iraq is trying to put itself together; Egypt is about to undergo a leadership transition; Syria is a client of Teheran. All the basic principles of Arab regional politics over the last half-century are up for grabs.
  • Most of the Arab states, except for Syria, are nervous about Iran's power, the domestic threat of Islamist rivals, the possibility of regional instability and the ability of Islamist terror groups to set the regional agenda. But they are unwilling to do anything about these problems, hoping as usual to use demagoguery to rouse their masses behind the regimes. They can still get away with this game for many years.
  • While their rulers are secretly worried about this upheaval, the Arab masses generally enthusiastic. A potent, poisonous mix of nationalism, religious sentiment and hatred of Israel and the West is still capable of mobilizing most of them into the false belief that they are winning, and pride at waging the battle. This is a far more potent force than the desire for democracy, pragmatism, more freedom and higher living standards.
  • The democracy movement is close to dead, unable to compete with such passion and demagoguery. Moreover, the exploitation of elections by Islamists has reduced enthusiasm in the West and tolerance by the regimes. Courageous reformers watch in horror as their worst nightmares seem to be coming true.
  • The Palestinians are increasingly radicalized, having rejected any possible peaceful solution with Israel and now following an extremist Islamist leadership. Any serious peace process isn't just dead for the moment - it is years from even beginning. With no real Arab support, the Palestinians are determined to fight losing battles against Israel and violent conflicts among themselves.
  • Syria's regime is happy thinking it is promoting both trouble and its own influence with the Iraqis, Lebanese and Palestinians. At the same time, though, it is isolated in the Arab world and stuck with a system incapable of economic or social advancement. And while the dictator and his men smile, Syrian Islamists are sharpening their knives for a future challenge in Damascus.
  • Hamas and Hizbullah have unleashed destruction on their own people, but does this mean they are sorry about it? Will the West understand that these people believe their own propaganda? They can see themselves as the most powerful forces in the region, setting its agenda. Israel is unable to destroy them; survival is itself a victory, God will eventually award them with a total triumph. Their local rivals among the Palestinians and Lebanese are too afraid to challenge them. And while their support in Europe has declined, the Europeans can always be counted on to step in and save them from total defeat by Israel. To put it another way, the extremists will lose but they will feel good about it and be cheered and idolized for making the effort. Intransigence is in the palace and pragmatism is a beggar.
  • Many Lebanese are unhappy that Hizbullah controls their fate, but more than one-third strongly support the organization. The politicians there are not willing to challenge the Islamists, however much destruction their actions cause. They wait for the world to save Lebanon, but given their own inaction there is only a limited amount of help that can come.
  • For Turkey, this all serves as a graphic reminder of why it wants to join Europe and have as little to do with the Middle East as possible.
  • Israelis are fed up with making concessions or showing restraint that only seems to inspire more attacks and are used against them. There is no interest, however, in returning to the past. The emphasis is on flexible response rather than occupying territory.
  • While the appeasement impulse is still powerful in parts of Europe it is fading, especially in terms of action rather than rhetoric. This shift is motivated partly by the experiences of Islamist radicalism and terrorism at home, which have undercut past illusions, and by having less sympathy for or romantic identification with with militant Islamism than revolutionary nationalism. Germany now has a centrist government friendly to the United States, and France will soon rid itself of Jacques Chirac, who never met a Middle East dictator he didn't like.
  • The United States has a government which understands three things: that everyone wants it to solve all the Middle East's problems without doing anything to help; that except for arranging temporary cease-fires from time to time, there is little that it can do; that given all the points made above, the area's problems are basically unsolvable. Paradoxically, only with this as the starting point can anything be accomplished at all. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.