It feels like déjà vu all over again. A U.S. official
leaves for a conference in East Asia where he or she is supposed to discuss
issues that affect the interests of the governments and economies in the region.
Instead, the American representative ends up investing most of his or her time
and energy in trying to resolve another Middle East crisis.
Indeed, this was expected to be a Southeast Asian week for Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice, who was scheduled to fly to Malaysia for the ASEAN regional
forum, and after concluding talks with officials from the region, return to
Washington. But her trip to Kuala Lumpur will probably be recalled now as nothing
more than a short stopover in between her extensive and more important efforts
to deal with the mounting violence in the Middle East.
On her way to Southeast Asia, Ms. Rice spent several days of shuttle diplomacy
in the Middle East, followed by an international conference in Rome, as part
of an effort to bring a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hezbollah that
has already resulted in hundreds of casualties and appalling destruction in
Lebanon (as a consequence of Israeli aerial bombing) and in northern Israel
(caused by hundreds of missiles launched by Hezbollah guerillas).
And on her way back from Malaysia, the United States' chief diplomat held more
talks with Israeli and Arab officials as she tried to find ways to reach an
agreement that she insisted would lead to the release of Israeli soldiers who
had been kidnapped by Hezbollah (the development that ignited the current crisis),
the disarming of Hezbollah's militias in exchange for Israeli willingness to
discuss the return of Lebanese citizens it has been holding for several years,
as well as resolving the fate of disputed land on the border of Israel, Lebanon,
Most U.S. allies, including the ones that Ms. Rice met in Kuala Lumpur, would
like to see an immediate cease-fire in the Mideast. But Ms. Rice and her boss,
President George W. Bush – as he made clear during a press conference with British
Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday in Washington – seem to have given Israel
a green light to continue its assault on Hezbollah until the Shi'ite group is
so damaged it is forced to raise a white flag.
That this has been a very long and grueling week of diplomacy for Secretary
Rice becomes obvious when one studies her body language during press conferences.
She looks as if she's under a lot of pressure. That is not surprising when one
takes into consideration the problems she has been facing as she tries to juggle
the many and contradictory U.S. commitments – to Israel, which the Bush administration
and Congress regard as a close U.S. ally; to the fledging democracy of Lebanon,
where Hezbollah is part of the cabinet; to the pro-American Arab-Sunni regimes
in Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia; and to a Arab-Shi'ite government in Iraq
with close ties to Iran. The U.S. has the ambition of achieving peace between
Israelis and Palestinians, isolating and containing Syria and Iran, promoting
political and economic freedom in the Middle East, and securing access to oil
resources in the Persian Gulf.
Secretary Rice's failure to fulfill all of these costly commitments and achieve
these many goals has less to do with her personal charm and diplomatic skills
and more with the fact that the United States is reaching a point in which it
seems not to have the power anymore to advance its agenda in the Middle East,
which combines a realpolitik drive toward hegemony with a Wilsonian crusade
To put it simply, the United States has too much on its Middle Eastern plate,
and it is clearly beginning to lose its leverage over the main players in the
region. As America's allies in East Asia are discovering, this means the U.S.
has less time and resources to devote to other policy issues.
You don't have to be a great strategic thinker to reach these conclusions.
Just glance at the headlines in your daily newspaper and watch the latest news
on television and you get the picture: The United States is overstretched militarily
in an Iraq, which is experiencing a form of civil war that threatens to split
the country, where the rise of an Arab-Shi'ite-dominated government has helped
Iran to emerge as the main regional power in the Persian Gulf and a source of
inspiration for Shi'ites in the entire region.
All that has been happening as Washington tries without much success to force
Iran to end its plans to acquire nuclear military capability. The Americans
have succeeded in evicting the Syrians from Lebanon, but that has created a
military vacuum that helped to strengthen the power of Hezbollah there. And
the U.S. has made little effort to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
In fact, the push for democracy in Palestine has brought to power the radical
That does not mean that the U.S. is a global power in decline like, say, Great
Britain and France were after World War II, as they were gradually ejected from
the Middle East by the Americans (and the Soviets). But the unilateral and hegemonic
project that the U.S. has been trying to establish in the Middle East since
the end of the Cold War, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, is probably coming
to an end.
The kind of challenges that America is facing now in Iraq, Israel/Palestine,
and Lebanon, including the rising power of radical political Islamic movements,
growing ethnic and religious tensions (including between Sunnis and Shi'ites),
an increasing number of failed states, and threats from non-state actors, cannot
be dealt with through this Democratic Empire project.
Making Way for Others
There are limits to Washington's ability to invest
its economic and military resources in such a project, especially if one considers
the unwillingness on the part of the American taxpayers to support a never-ending
military intervention in the Middle East.
On one level, Washington cannot continue to pursue a policy of punishing and
isolating Middle East regimes with which it disagrees on either policies or
ideology. There is no way that Washington could encourage the creation of a
stable balance-of-power in the Persian Gulf, including Iraq, without negotiating
And it cannot help bring stability to Lebanon without dealing with its powerful
Syrian neighbor, or for that matter with the powerful Lebanese-Shi'ite community,
many of whose members support Hezbollah. Similarly, no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict can be reached through unilateralist Israeli strategy backed by Washington.
Taking its cue from the process that has taken place in Southeast Asia, the
U.S. should be supportive of a formation of regional security groups in which
Washington will not play the leader; for example, a Persian Gulf security organization
that includes Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states.
On another level, it is in the interest of the U.S. to provide incentives for
other global players to play a more active role in promoting stability and peace
in the Middle East in particular, the members of the European Union (EU),
especially the Mediterranean countries (France, Italy, Spain) and Germany (which
has special ties with the Jewish state). Britain and Turkey should play a leading
role in this process of growing engagement in the Middle East, a region that
because of geographical proximity, economic ties, and demographic links is their
strategic backyard – what Latin America is for the U.S.
Through its hegemonic strategy in the Middle East, the U.S. has encouraged
the Europeans to take a free ride on American policy. The message from Washington
has been: "We'll do the driving, while you only have to check the tires and
replace the oil."
France and Germany could start doing some of the driving, even if that means
that they will have more impact on deciding what policy route to take in the
Middle East. The current crisis in Lebanon might be just such an opportunity
for a growing European engagement.
Against the backdrop of declining U.S. prestige, France, Italy, and Spain have
been playing an active role, mostly through back-channel diplomacy with Israel,
Syria, and Lebanon, and indirectly with Hezbollah, to fashion a peaceful resolution.
At the same time, according to press reports, Germany has also been pursuing
behind-the-scenes diplomacy involving Israel, Syria, and Iran. The EU has already
announced that it would be willing to take the lead in deploying peacekeeping
troops to southern Lebanon; France, Italy, Turkey, and Norway have agreed to
participate in such a force. And the Europeans have also indicated their interest
in playing a more central role in future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
This is the kind of European activism in the Middle East that American officials
should encourage, so that when another crisis blows up in the Middle East, U.S.
officials will be able to participate in an ASEAN conference without being distracted
by a new mess in the Levant.
Copyright © 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.