Duneraker : The spiral of catastrophe set in motion by George W. Bush
James Bond: Your dream, whatever sort of nightmare it is, hasn't a chance, Drax.
Hugo Drax: You think not? [laughs] We shall see.
Bush’s failure in the Middle East, by Thierry de Montbrial
Published in Le Monde, 04 May 2006
(See a previous editorial by Montbrial on the political outlook in the Middle East translated here in February 2005.)
With the approach of Congressional elections at the halfway point of his second and last mandate, the outlook for George W. Bush’s policies in the Middle East —currently the most important region for international policy— appears nothing short of calamitous. Iraq is on the edge of civil war. The elections of 15 December 2005 have promoted devastating sectarian divisions and the task before the new Prime Minister is overwhelming. The economy of the country is a disaster. Infrastructures have deteriorated since the occupation. Only half the population has access to running water.
The radicalization of Arab countries is underway. In Egypt, there are now 88 Islamists in Parliament. In the Palestinian territories, the democratic elections of 25 January resulted in a landslide for Hamas. The Syrian régime, under massive international pressure, seems have the upper hand: it is attempting to reduce the opposition to silence while opening up more space to the Islamists and their values.
Parallel to these developments, tension between the United States and Iran is at a maximum. Everything suggests that Iran is so sure of itself that it does not hesitate to ratchet up its provocations. From strictly a legal standpoint, it is not entirely without justification. The Islamic Republic has certainly failed to honor its commitments by not declaring its uranium enrichment activities and heavy water production, noticed in 2002, to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It remains nevertheless obvious to the non-nuclear nations who are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP) that the international cooperation stipulated by the treaty for the development of peaceful applications for the atom is a dead letter, as well as the compensation promised to them in exchange for renouncing nuclear weapons.
From a policy standpoint, Iran believes that it enjoys a position of strength for three reasons. First, the population supports the régime in this contest. Second, the leaders of Russia and China will oppose any excessive action by the United States. Last, if despite everything the United States undertakes military action, Tehran has the means to make it pay dearly (in Iraq, Palestine, in the petroleum markets, etc.) The Iranians are no doubt interested the accelerated development nuclear weapons (in any case, it will not happen tomorrow) but for now they think they can get closer without excessive risk. From their point of view, their cause is justified because Pakistan and, unofficially, Israel are members of the Nuclear Club.
Against this backdrop, the 28 March elections in Israle revealed the fragmentation of its society and the priority of economic and social questions in the minds of the electorate. No one continues to believe in the benefit of negotiations with the Palestinians. They have latched on to Ariel Sharon’s separation policy, carried forward by Ehoud Olmert. After their unilateral retreat from Gaza, some isolated Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria were evacuated. The borders of a Palestinian state resembling “leopard spots” will be decided by the Israelis alone.
And who could possibly believe that such a process will lead to peace? The Bush Administration has consistently backed Israel’s unilateralism. It insists on more democracy but, at the risk of chaos, refuses to give Hamas the time, and perhaps even the chance, to temper its intransigence and to define a strategy toward Israel. As a general rule, Washington is opposed to any form of dialog with Islamists, even moderate figures. But sooner or later such dialog will come to be inevitable. Even though it may now be opportune to send out feelers to Iran for limited talks on Iraq, and despite the failure of US intervention in that country, Washington lets it be understod that it prefers the sound of marching boots.
It is impossible to discern a strategy. Certainly the United States is now more prudent in its relations with Saudi Arabia. This old ally, accused of every imaginable transgression in the aftermath of 9-11, has regained its position as privileged partner because King Abdallah has astutely maneuvered both within and without the Kingdom. Furthermore, from what is heard from the highest-ranking officials of the Kingdom, US officials are not only listening to Saudi analyses, but are asking for advice.
Without a fundamental realignment of US policies, the overall situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate. In a document made accessible to the public on the website of Harvard University, two respected American academics, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, have radically questioned US policy towards Israel. They wrote that for the first time in its history, the United States has sidelined its own interests and those of most of its allies for the benefit of another state. One can only hope that their research will become the subject of a large national debate.
It is a fact that a more balanced posture by the United States could change the cards on the table. The process outlined by the “Road Map”, condemned by Israeli-American unilateralism, could resume and offer a chance for peace. In the same spirit --instead of clinging to the illusory objective of overthrowing the regime of the Mullahs--, Washington could maneuver towards negotiations with Tehran, starting with issues of common interest, such as Iraq, thereby setting up a new and positive dynamic. The US was able to begin a relationship with China in 1972 by using Ping-Pong Diplomacy. A similar approach was recommended in 2004 by a group of experts headed by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert M. Gates within the framework of Council on Foreign Relations of New York.
For the immediate future and despite the difficulties in which the draft treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe has been mired since the "no" vote in the French referendum, the European Union cannot let down its guard on Middle East issues and give in to the temptation to align itself with the United States. Only an exhaustive and balanced approach can break the diabolical spiral of catastrophe to which only our own stupidity would condemn us.