Once upon a time, an American president would
have been a leader in the effort to bring peace between Israel and its neighbors,
since, after all, such reconciliation would bring stability to the Middle East
and serve long-term U.S. geopolitical interests.
In that context – with the struggle over the Holy Land at the core of the Mideast
conflict – finding ways to end the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians would
be central. In the past, the working assumption in Washington and in Jerusalem
was that as part of any Israeli-Arab process, the occupant of the White House
would, at some point, have no choice in the negotiations but to exert pressure
on its ally in Jerusalem to make the necessary concessions to the Arab side.
But recently the U.S. president seems to be unable or unwilling to play the
role assigned to him in that old Mideast script. Take the recent diplomatic
coup achieved by Saudi Arabia when it succeeded in brokering a deal between
the two leading Palestinian factions, allowing Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party to join a government headed by the radical
The accord not only brings an end to the bloody fighting between Fatah and
Hamas, but also creates conditions – like setting the stage for overcoming Hamas'
refusal to recognize Israel – that are more conducive for restarting negotiations
between Palestinian and Israeli officials. Now, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
Olmert could hold direct talks with President Abbas as the legitimate representative
of the Palestinian Authority.
But while America's Arab allies, members of the European Union (EU), and Russia
have welcomed the Saudi-brokered deal, Bush administration officials have expressed
wariness and have given it the diplomatic cold shoulder. In fact, the lack of
diplomatic progress during Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice's trip to the Middle East was a direct result of Washington's refusal
to back negotiations between Israel and a Palestinian government that includes
An even more dramatic sign that Washington is refusing to play its old role
has been the diplomatic pressure it has been exerting on the Israeli government
to refrain from opening a diplomatic dialogue with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Indeed, according to reports in the Israeli press, Assad has sent the Israelis
diplomatic messages expressing interest in negotiating a peace accord that would
include recognition of and diplomatic ties with Israel in exchange for the return
of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The proposal has been taken seriously
in Israel and has been debated by members of the Israeli political elite and
public. But the Bush administration has argued that Israeli negotiations with
Syria would reward a regime accused of cooperating with Iran to challenge U.S.
interests in the Middle East. There is little doubt that the hostile U.S. response
tipped the balance in Jerusalem in favor of those who oppose talks with Syria.
The current role that Washington seems to have taken on vis-à-vis the
Arab-Israeli peace process, including its skeptical reactions to Saudi mediation
in Palestine and to the Syrian proposal, suggests that the old script has ceased
to reflect current foreign policy realism and has acquired an air of surrealism.
In a way, the change demonstrates an erosion of U.S. influence in the Middle
East, which is a direct result of the implementation of the neoconservative
agenda that has led to the disastrous political and military situation in Iraq.
These policies have produced a series of developments that counter the neocon
goal of attaining hegemony in the region, including the emergence of Iran as
a regional power, the growing tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites, the failure
of Israel to dislodge Hezbollah from southern Lebanon, the electoral victory
of Hamas, and Turkey's increasing impatience with U.S. policy.
It's not surprising that changes in the alignment of forces in the Middle East
make it more difficult for the United States to use its military and diplomatic
power to affect policy outcomes in the region. After all, the status and success
of the United States as the indispensable mediator between Israelis and Arabs
was tied directly to its ability and willingness to pursue that costly task
during the competition with the Soviet Union (the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace
accord) and after the first Gulf War (the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which
aimed to jump start peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbors).
There is a direct correlation between the rising U.S. push for hegemony in
the Middle East and mounting anti-American sentiments there – a situation that
emphasizes U.S. ties with Israel. Yet these ties make it less likely that Washington
would be willing to challenge Jerusalem's policies, further eroding the U.S.
position as an "honest broker" in the eyes of many Arabs.
Now that the cost of the U.S. drive for power in the region is producing countervailing
pressures at home and abroad, U.S. capacity and determination to advance the
Arab-Israeli peace process has been weakened and has created a diplomatic vacuum
in the Middle East that is gradually being filled by regional – and outside – players.
The diplomatic role that Saudi Arabia has played in mediating the intra-Palestinian
conflict parallels its discussions with Iran to stabilize Lebanon, its move
to co-opt Syria into the Arab-Sunni camp, and its support for the Arab-Sunnis
Similarly, U.S. failures in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine have created disincentives
for Washington to engage Iran and Syria, a step that it fears could be perceived
as a sign of weakness. But both Syria and Israel share common interests in ending
their military conflict that do not necessarily correspond to those of Washington.
In fact, a deal between Damascus and Jerusalem could threaten the U.S. position
by sidelining it to the diplomatic margins. That could also happen if Saudi
Arabia increases its diplomatic role in the Middle East and moves in the direction
of engaging Iran instead of confronting it.
From that perspective, when U.S. officials and pundits warn of the "chaos"
that would follow a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, they are actually expressing
their anxiety over their real nightmare scenario – a Middle East in which the
United States is marginalized to a position of little power, with the other
players in the region making deals with each other with little consideration
of U.S. concerns. In other words, the formation of a regional security structure
in the Persian Gulf that involves Saudi Arabia and Iran but not Washington,
an organization that could facilitate cooperation between Turkey, Iran, Saudi
Arabia, and Syria to stabilize Iraq, and foster moves toward a peace agreement
between Israel and Syria.
Preventing such a scenario is probably the driving force behind the idea of
attacking Iran's nuclear and military sites to help reassert the U.S. position
in the Persian Gulf and other parts of the Middle East. President George W.
Bush, Vice President Dick
Cheney, and their neoconservative advisers are hoping that such a strike
would weaken Iran's power and lessen the "threat" that a deal between the Saudis
and Tehran could pose to U.S. hegemony. Similarly, the continuing conflict between
Israel and Syria helps sustain the position of Washington as a powerful outsider
whose services are required by the local players. It's the classic role of an
imperial power pursuing a "divide and conquer" strategy.
At the end of the day, the only peace that the Bush administration wants to
spread in the Middle East is one that preserves the U.S. dominant position,
a Pax Americana. But whether Washington can continue to secure that role remains
the central geopolitical question of the moment.
Reprinted courtesy of RightWeb.