The recently published memoir of the late Arthur
Schlesinger, the renowned American historian and former aide to U.S. presidents,
recalls that whenever officials in Washington had pointed to signs of progress
toward peace in the Middle East, Israeli diplomat Abba Eban would caution them
that when it comes to that part of the world, one should be reminded that "There
is a tunnel at the end of the light."
At a time when U.S. President George W. Bush and his top foreign policy aides
are celebrating recent developments in the Middle East, from Israel/Palestine
to Mesopotamia – the U.S.-sponsored summit in Annapolis, Md., scheduled for
November; the drop in the number of casualties in Iraq; the continuing diplomatic
pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program – as signs that the American diplomatic
train is pressing toward the light at the end of the Middle East tunnel, Eban's
advice can be helpful in deconstructing the spin of the administration.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been shuttling between Middle
Eastern capitals in recent weeks, trying to set up another peace conference
aimed at reaching a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, has stressed
that she will tire "until I have given my last ounce of energy and my last
moment in office" to working for the so-called "two-state solution"
– the creation of an independent Palestinian state that would live in peace
Like so much of the foreign policy rhetoric coming out of the Bush administration,
Rice's comments sound admirable but ring hollow. Many Arabs and Israelis are
skeptical that the summit will help achieve any concrete results and suspect
that it will end up as yet another meaningless photo opportunity.
While U.S. officials insist that they are preparing the groundwork for getting
the two sides to sign an agreement, the reality is that neither Palestinian
leader Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has the backing
of the majority of their people or the political will to embrace compromises
on the core existential issues that separate Israelis and Palestinians – the
fate of Jerusalem and the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the
fate of Palestinian refugees.
Olmert rules over a fragile coalition; Abbas does not even govern the Gaza
Strip, which is controlled by the Hamas movement. At the same time, it is not
clear whether Saudi Arabia, which has promoted its own Arab peace plan, and
Syria, which wants to hold talks with Israel over the occupied Golan Heights,
will attend the conference.
Hence it is not surprising that the concern is that the Annapolis Summit, by
raising expectations that cannot be fulfilled – ending with nothing more than
long-winded communiqués – will only produce frustration among the Palestinians,
re-igniting the Intifada against Israel and more anti-Americanism in the Middle
That is exactly what happened after the 2000 Camp David summit failed to deliver
a peace agreement. The Israel-Palestine deadlock and the continuing stalemate
on the Israel-Syria front, coupled with American efforts to isolate the regime
in Damascus, could create the conditions for new military tensions in the Levant,
especially if the Lebanese-Shi'ite Hezbollah guerillas, wo are backed by Iran
and maintain ties to Syria, decide to join the fighting.
That could certainly happen if and when the United States and Iran head toward
a military confrontation, following a possible decision by the United States
and/or Israel to strike suspected Iranian nuclear military installations.
Most experts calculate that there is a probability of about 60 percent that
such a scenario will take place before President Bush and Vice Pesident Dick
Cheney leave office in 2008. While Rice continues to express optimism that the
recent economic sanctions against Iran will force Tehran to renounce its nuclear
military program, that sounds – very much like the hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian
agreement – like more wishful thinking.
Rising oil prices, together with Iran's financial and trade ties with China,
Russia, and other countries, allow the Iranians to overcome the effects of the
U.S.-led economic sanctions.
If anything, U.S. policies in the Middle East, including the occupation of
Iraq, which helped bring to power a Shi'ite government in Baghdad while increasing
anti-American sentiment in the region, have played into the hands of the more
radical elements in Iran's leadership. They, no doubt, will use an American
attack on Iran as an opportunity to mobilize support for their cause in Iran
and in other Muslim countries.
The conventional wisdom is that the Bush administration is aware of the potentially
high economic and military costs of a confrontation with Iran, including massive
increase in energy prices, and of the opposition in the U.S. military and Congress
to direct, unilateral action against the Iranians.
Hence even a limited "surgical" strike by the Americans and/or the
Israelis could bring about Iranian retaliation that could take the form of unleashing
Hezbollah forces in Lebanon against Israel and encouraging Iran's allies in
Iraq – which include the majority of the Shi'ite religious and political leaders
and their militias – to attack U.S. forces in that country.
Indeed, the fact that the Bush administration's "allies" in Iraq
are actually longtime partners of the Iranians – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
spent more than 20 years in exile in revolutionary Iran – demonstrates the fragility
of America's political and military control of Iraq.
U.S. diplomatic and military leaders have attributed the decline in the number
of American casualties in Iraq to cooperation with Sunni militias and tribes
that are willing to work with the Americans on an ad-hoc basis against al-Qaeda
in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups backed by foreign players.
But this American partnership with some Sunni groups has helped create anti-American
sentiment among members of the Shi'ite militias, who fear resurgent Sunni power.
At the same time, the Americans are also being drawn into the competition and
fighting among the growing number of Shi'ite militias, with their different
political agendas and outside allegiances – all of which highlights the kaleidoscopic
nature of Iraqi politics, where never-ending shifts in the alliances and commitments
of this sect or that group make it difficult for any outside power to maintain
control of the country.
Indeed, the current crisis in the U.S.-Turkey relationship over Ankara's threat
to deploy its military forces into the Kurdish autonomous region in northern
Iraq, as part of its pursuit of anti-Turkish terrorists belonging to the Kurdish
Workers Party (PKK), exposes in a very dramatic way the dilemma facing the United
States as it tries to establish its hegemony in Iraq and the wider Middle East.
In a region exploding with historical national, ethnic, and religious rivalries
(Israelis versus Palestinians, Persian versus Arabs, Sunnis versus Shi'ites,
Kurds versus Turks/Iranians/Arabs), where authoritarian regimes face powerful
domestic opposition (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria) while others exhibit the symptoms
of failed states (Iraq, Lebanon), America does not have either the power or
the will to impose its preferred solution.
Instead, the United States can buy time with some temporary arrangements –
say, limited Turkish military incursions into the Kurdish area – until the next
crisis – say, Turkish opposition to Kurdish control of Mosul. Which explains
why as the Americans get closer to what seemed to be a light at the end of the
tunnel, they discover that they are entering a new and darker tunnel.
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