Friday, April 30, 2010

Middle East: Much Worse Off Than a Year Ago

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By Barry Rubin

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.

Let’s start with Iran. While some companies and banks have been discouraged from doing business with Iran, the sanctions or barriers to Tehran 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.

The Obama Administration's effort to engage Iran failed. Then it missed repeated self-set deadlines for imposing sanctions. The engagement strategy was supposed to produce strong international support for sanctions--including from Russia and China--but that plan also failed. Now, at best, some kind of sanctions cannot be expected until the second half of the year.

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. This is not good. No blather about conferences, plans, meetings, speeches, and efforts should conceal this fact.

Lebanon? It is more in the grip of Iran, Syria, and Hizballah than a year ago. The Lebanese moderates have retreated and some have changed to a neutral position, because they know that the West will not back them up. Lebanon’s president is ready to align with the Iran-Syria access. Walid Jumblatt, the lion of the opposition, has made his peace with the Syrians, as has Said Hariri, despite the fact that Damascus was responsible for killing both their fathers. Hizballah, says the U.S. secretary of defense, has more missiles than most industrialized country though the UN promised to block these supplies back in 2006. This is not good either. No blather….

Turkey? Both the Iranian and Syrian governments have bragged that Turkey is now their ally. The Turkish regime does 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 United States. This is not good either. No blather….

U.S.-Israel relations? For the moment, they are on a better footing but they have gone through several crises since the Obama Administration took office for no gain whatsoever. 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, a tone of distrust and hostility has set in on Washington’s side that has hardly ever existed in the entire history of Israel.

Palestinian Authority (PA): Despite extensive American efforts to prove how pro-Palestinian it is, the PA has yet to do anything for the United States, including breaking its promise not to take the lead in pushing the Goldstone Report or to hold direct negotiations with Israel. With U.S. policy unwilling to press the PA on concessions, the Obama Administration has given the PA a lot of support but obtained nothing in return. This is not good.

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 the opening of champagne. This is pretty pitiful.

How about U.S. relations with the relatively moderate Arab states, moderate compared to Syria that is? Despite the Cairo and Istanbul speeches of Obama, 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 United States wants. And rather than cheering Obama as a pro-Arab president they are frightened that he is a pro-radical forces or pro-Shia president, that is he favors their enemies and is weak in protecting them. This is also not good.

This brings us to the one great achievement claimed by the current U.S. 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 U.S. interests.

Iraq? It is a relative bright spot, with the U.S. withdrawal under way. There are terrible problems with infighting in Iraq’s government, which might turn quite unstable. This is not the Obama government’s fault so much but what is worthy of blame is its cowardly refusal to back up Iraqi protests against Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism. At any rate, the calm that does exist is due in no small part to Tehran’s wanting to keep things quiet until the United States 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. Not good.

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 policymakers to recognize just how bad things are and how negative has been the impact of their policy.

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

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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