Bush’s Broader Middle East Agenda

Jan 16, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 16, 2008
Number 01/08 #04

While most of the coverage of US President Bush’s recent Middle East trip focused on his interest in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, this was not his only (or, some would argue, even his main) purpose in visiting 10 Middle Eastern countries over the last week. This Update is devoted to that wider agenda – especially the ongoing attempts to contain a nuclear-bound Iran and breaking the political standoff in Lebanon.

First up is Iranian exile journalist, author and analyst Amir Taheri, who tries to put the Bush visit in the context of wider Administration Middle East goals, especially containing Iranian and, to a lesser extent, Russian, influence in the wake of a US strategic decision to stop supporting, and to begin trying to change, the Middle East status quo. Taheri argues that this aspiration requires more effort to forge “a new alliance for reform, progress and democratization as the chief guarantor of Middle East peace and security”. For his take on the larger US goals in the region, CLICK HERE. Some similar observations about the US re-shaping of the Middle East and private Arab priorities concerning the Iranian problem come from noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami.

Next up, the Jerusalem Post editorialises about some additional steps Bush should be trying to achieve if he is going to push his goals such as containing Iran and promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace. It compliments Bush’s robust speech on Iran, but urges him to both promote steps toward Arab normalisation with Israel which would help support the peace process, and to do more to get European support for trade and diplomatic sanctions on Teheran. For the full discussion, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Israeli officials have been stressing that Iran’s WMD plans threaten European and other Middle Eastern countries, as well as Israel.

Finally, a good look at the continuing political standoff in Lebanon and the US approach to breaking it comes from Beruit-based scholar Lee Smith. Smith argues that Iran and Syria have heated up issues in Lebanon in recent weeks precisely in anticipation of Bush’s visit and that in doing so, they may have helped remind the Arab states of the mischief they can cause, to their own detriment. For Smith’s compete analysis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looks at the importance of the Lebanese question to Washington and the differing Israeli and American perspectives on this issue.

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 Amir Taheri

New York Post, January 8, 2008

GEORGE W. Bush will set a new presidential record on his Middle East grand tour, visiting at least 10 countries in a short period. In some, he’ll be the first US president to make a state visit. But what is the visit for?

Cynics would suggest that Bush is looking for photo opportunities that might add some spice to his future memoirs. More generous commentators might see the tour as the continuation of an American tradition: All US presidents since Woodrow Wilson have dreamed of themselves as peacemakers and tried to help others sort out ancient disputes.

Both assessments may be true. After all, why shouldn’t Bush look for a photo opportunity, and why shouldn’t he try his luck at peacemaking? But those explanations are inadequate.

First off, the greater Middle East is no longer a distant region whose importance to the United States stems from its oil reserves and strategic location in the context of big-power rivalries. Over the last three decades, US dependence on Middle East oil has dropped steadily, even as US imports of crude have almost doubled. As for geostrategic factors, the Cold War’s end spelled the finish of the Middle East as a big prize in the race between the Free World and the Soviet bloc.

Instead, the Middle East has emerged as the chief source of threats to US national security in the context of a new global struggle between the established order and its challengers, who often act in the name of this or that version of Islam.

Successive US administrations failed to see this radical transformation when it began in the ’70s. Even the storming of the US embassy in Tehran and the seizing of American diplomats as hostages failed to convince Washington that something important was going on in the Mideast. It took the 9/11 attacks to shake America out of its illusions about the region.

Since President Franklin Roosevelt, US Middle East policy had aimed at preserving the status quo. Each time America intervened in the region – from the Marines landing in Lebanon and Jordan in the ’50s to the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s armies from occupied Kuwait – Washington sought to maintain as much of the status quo as possible.

That policy’s failure – illustrated by the emergence of pro-Soviet Arab regimes in the ’50s and the ’60s, the Communist seizure of power in Afghanistan in 1977 and the Khomeinist revolution in Iran in 1979 – didn’t persuade Washington that a different analysis might be required. But Bush realized post-9/11 that it was the very status quo that America had helped preserve that had produced its deadliest foes. He became the first US president to adopt an anti -status quo, not to say revolutionary, posture toward the Middle East.

Bush backed his words with deeds by taking military action to remove two of the region’s most vicious regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also exerted pressure on other countries, including some allies, to change aspects of their domestic and/or foreign policies.

The upshot: The status quo has shattered. Yet (even leaving aside the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq, who’ve had a chance to taste freedom from tyranny) America hasn’t been the sole beneficiary.

Indeed, the prime beneficiary has been the Islamic Republic in Iran. In 2001, it was in a pincer between the Taliban regime in Kabul and the Ba’athist regime in Baghdad. The Afghan mullahs challenged the Iranian mullahs on religious grounds; the Ba’athists tried to mobilize pan-Arab nationalism against Khomeinism. Those regimes’ fall has enabled the Khomeinists to revive their ambitions of regional supremacy as never before.

Other beneficiaries include Russia, India, China and Uzbekistan – who were all mired in deadly struggles against armed Islamists. The Taliban’s fall and the destruction of al Qaeda’s Afghan network have led to the gradual demise of terrorist groups in Chechnya, Kashmir, Xingjian and the Ferghana Valley.

* Freed from the Chechnyan albatross, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has revived its big-power ambitions in Central Asia and the Middle East.

* The end of the Muslim revolt in Xingjian has enabled China not only to develop that oil-rich region, but also to attract massive Arab investment.

* India has freed itself of the cross it had to bear in Kashmir, letting it cut defense spending for the first time in half a century and focus on economic development.

* With no more mujahedin coming from Afghanistan, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has been able to restore his control over the Ferghana for the first time since 1990.

Arab states from Algeria to Yemen to Egypt, have also benefited from the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq have become magnets for terrorists who’d otherwise have targeted them. Europe and Japan gained, too, if only from the receding of the Saddamite and al Qaeda threats to a region that provides 60 percent of their oil imports.

The problem is that, while the old status quo has fallen, a new one has yet to take shape. The struggle against the enemies of new Afghanistan and Iraq may continue for many more years. Under a new administration, America may balk at the effort required to shape a new status quo. A US withdrawal before a new balance of power is in place could leave Iran and Russia the arbiters of the region’s future. Both have made no secret of their ambitions to build alliances to challenge what they see as US domination.

The State Department may have designed Bush’s final tour of the region as a signal that America is satisfied with the half-built Mideast status quo. This is why the focus is put on the Israel-Palestine conflict – which, its intrinsic importance notwithstanding, is of little consequence in the broader struggle for a new Middle East.

The president’s tour can acquire a positive meaning only if it is used to shape a new alliance for reform, progress and democratization as the chief guarantor of Middle East peace and security. Such an alliance would challenge the hegemonic ambitions of both the Islamic Republic and Russia.

Under Bush, America has helped change the Middle East. It would be odd, to say the least, if America’s principal adversaries end up as the chief beneficiaries of that change.

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Editorial: Go to Europe

Jerusalem Post, Jan 14, 2008

In Abu Dhabi on Sunday, President George Bush gave his most comprehensive speech thus far during his swing through the Middle East. Most notably, he came out swinging on Iran in a way that has not been heard since the release of the US National Intelligence Estimate early last month.

“Iran is today the world’s leading state sponsor of terror,” Bush said. “It sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world – while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home. It undermines Lebanese hopes for peace by arming and aiding the terrorist group Hizbullah. It subverts the hopes for peace in other parts of the region by funding terrorist groups like Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. It sends arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Shia militants in Iraq.”

“Finally,” he continued, “[Iran] defies the United Nations and destabilizes the region by refusing to be open and transparent about its nuclear programs and ambitions… So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf – and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.”

It is no coincidence that Bush said this in the Gulf, amid Arab countries that feel threatened by Iran and cannot fathom why the US, by releasing the NIE, seemed to switch from leading the charge to isolate Iran to a message more like that of Russia’s – downplaying the threat and puncturing the sense of urgency while pretending that there is no essential connection between Iran’s “civilian” nuclear program and its quest for the bomb.

The governments of the region might be encouraged by Bush’s new tone, but they learned long ago to pay more attention to American actions than to words. These states know that Bush will be out of office in a year, and what matters is whether Teheran is prevented from becoming a nuclear power or not.

They also know that the Israeli-Palestinian question is like a reed in the wind of the much larger struggle with radical Islamism – both within the Muslim world and between that world and the West. It should be obvious to every leader Bush has met or will meet on his trip that if Iran is allowed to go nuclear, all the forces that seek to literally blow up the new Israeli-Palestinian negotiating effort will be strengthened, and the prospects for peace will shrink to nil.

Accordingly, there are two major missing pieces to Bush’s current diplomatic push. The first is a strange omission from his speech in Abu Dhabi. While Bush spoke frankly about the need for greater freedom in Arab lands, he did not include a push for normalization with Israel – as he had done in previous speeches.

At Annapolis, for example, Bush said, “Arab states should also reach out to Israel, work toward the normalization of relations and demonstrate in both word and deed that they believe that Israel and its people have a permanent home in the Middle East.”

At other times in the US, Bush urged the Arab states to emulate Anwar Sadat’s courageous gesture that led to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. Yet, where it counts, speaking in Arab countries, Bush was silent.

Easing the pressure on the Arab states to make minimal gestures toward Israel is deeply misguided. If Arab states were to start meeting Israeli leaders, either in Israel or their own countries, this would send a powerful signal to the Palestinians that now is the time to make peace. Without such support from the Arab states, no amount of money or even direct pressure can induce the weak, divided and radicalized Palestinians to work seriously toward reconciliation.

The second missing piece is more effective US persuasion of Europe to tighten its sanctions against Iran. More than he needed to come to this region, Bush needs to go to European capitals and say explicitly, “If you want peace in the Middle East and the world, you must join the US in sanctioning Iran.”

If Europe imposed the same trade and diplomatic sanctions that the US already has imposed on Iran, the pressure on Teheran would be tremendous and the aura of inevitability around an Iranian bomb would be punctured. But this will not happen unless Bush personally raises the level of his Iran diplomacy towards Europe to that of the efforts he is now dedicating to the Annapolis process. After all, the success of Annapolis depends on facing down Iran, not the other way around.

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Lebanon in Limbo

The political process comes to a halt.

by Lee Smith
Weekly Standard, 01/11/2008 12:00:00 AM

Beirut – THE IDEA THAT George Bush might be stopping in Lebanon during the course of his 9-day tour of the Middle East is one of the more far-fetched rumors I’ve ever heard in a land rife with speculation and hearsay. A Bush visit here is unlikely, for obvious reasons.

“Syria’s allies threatened to block the airport road if Bush shows up in Beirut,” says Eli Khoury, a Lebanese democracy activist and founder of New Opinion Workshop (NOW) Lebanon. And what about the rest of Lebanon? “Considering Syria’s strong presence in Lebanon through these allies, and the security threat it poses, there is a big difference between what the democratic public in Lebanon would want to do to welcome Bush and what they would actually do. People might not mass up, out of fear for their lives or militant intimidation.”

Certainly a meeting between Bush and the million plus who took to the streets March 14, 2005 to demand their freedom, independence, and sovereignty would cheer the leader of the free world at a time when his administration’s Middle East policy has run off the tracks. If the invitation Secretary of State Rice extended Damascus for November’s Annapolis meeting rattled the Sunni-Druze-Christian coalition that makes up Lebanon’s March 14 movement, post-Annapolis events have concerned the rest of Washington’s regional friends.

Insofar as Annapolis was supposed to gather U.S. allies to remind them of their common front against Teheran, the National Intelligence Estimate discounting the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program rendered the exercise meaningless. Why would the Saudis or Egyptians stick their necks out for the White House if the president can’t even manage his own intelligence community? Now, the administration is stuck with what some pundits are unironically calling the “Annapolis process,” which is supposed to lead to a Palestinian state and usher in a new Middle East.

But to welcome the President to what is still the old Middle East, Damascus and Tehran have heated things up a bit–largely here in Lebanon. First, a sectarian clash in a Beirut Sunni neighborhood bordering on a Shia section threatened to get out of hand until the army was deployed and tensions cooled. Monday, two rockets were fired into Northern Israel, and Tuesday afternoon a UN convoy was targeted, injuring three UNIFIL troops.

As Lebanon’s Syrian and Iranian allies are willing to resort to such violence to send the message that the President of the United States cannot protect his allies in Lebanon, Israel, and Europe, what can the U.S. do to show its resolve?

Khoury believes a presidential trip would actually mean a lot. “It means that Lebanon has, for once, strong allies who are serious about supporting their cause,” Khoury says. “And that, despite the deadly circumstances, the new Syria-free regime will overcome and flourish.”

Right now, however, there is only political stasis. After March 14 cut a deal allowing army commander and presumed Syrian ally Michel Suleiman to become president, the Hezbollah-led opposition smelled blood in the water. What they wanted next was a re-jiggered cabinet that would give them veto power to quash the formation of the tribunal into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafiq al-Hariri. Thus, Lebanon has entered a stalemate that has no obvious resolution–except for March 14 to cave in to the demands of Hezbollah and its Syrian assets, or for the tribunal to take shape and start naming members of the Asad family.

It is very difficult for observers to understand how a country can function in such a vacuum, without a president and a sidelined parliament, but life goes on in Beirut. Bars and restaurants were filled this holiday season with Lebanese expats; as one reveler explained New Year’s Eve, “the fun never stops”–even if the political process has.

And thus Lebanon has come down to a game of nerves, with regional and international actors waiting for the next move. Regardless of the president’s travel plans, in the wake of Annapolis the White House has redoubled its efforts to show, as Bush said recently, “the United States is strongly committed to Lebanese democracy.” And after France’s brief flirtation with Damascus, president Nicolas Sarkozy has suspended talks.

The Arab League has backed the Suleiman presidency, which given the reality on the ground is a non-starter. According to Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “It seems increasingly like the Syrians simply avoided criticism in Cairo by appearing to back the Arab consensus while at the same time winking to their Lebanese allies to create old-new hurdles. It afforded Syria, in their view, a measure of deniability.”

Usually it is the Americans who are eager to wrap things up–to get some closure, as we like to say. But if Syria and Iran believe they are riding a wave with the NIE, the recent violence in Lebanon suggests that Damascus and Teheran are also capable of losing their cool.

First, the vacuum gives the tribunal more time to form. Second, in spite of all the vain talk about splitting Syria from Iran, there is only one obvious wedge issue between them. While Damascus will sacrifice any amount of Lebanese blood to protect the Syrian regime, Iran does not want a Sunni-Shia war in Lebanon that would affect its standing throughout the region. If Washington’s Sunni allies read the NIE as an index of the Bush administration’s weakness, sectarian conflict in Lebanon would remind them that cutting deals with the Islamic Republic of Iran is a very foolish idea.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute.


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