“Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East,” the Economist

This excellent Economist article recounts the problems Rice faces in trying to persuade friendly Arab governments to embrace America‘s agenda in the region and turn against Syria, Hamas, or Hizbullah to the degree required by Washington. Rice is now calling America‘s enemies the “resistance” block and not the “Shiite Crescent,” “Axis of Evil” or “Bloc of Bad” as Washingtonians used to – a reflection, perhaps, of Rice’s new realism? If so, she has a long realism row to hoe. Things will get a lot more real before she gets a deal.

Just last week Rice told the Wall Street Journal that the US would be punishing Syria for its stand with Iran In a series of interviews published by the Wall Street Journal just before she left for the Middle East, Secretary Rice explained how America would punish Syria for its bad actions in Lebanon with tougher sanctions. “We’re going to have to look at tougher measures if Syria continues to be on the path that it’s on,” Rice said. Syria had effectively entered into an alliance with Iran, which she also accused of destabilizing the region. “The Syrians look as if they’ve made their choice and their choice is to associate with extremist forces in Iran, not with their … traditional partners like the Arab states,” she added.  

Bret Stephens on September 30 writes: “I ask [Rice] about the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, which a year ago appeared to be on the point of collapse yet today has reasserted itself in a big way in Lebanon, particularly thanks to Hezbollah’s perceived victory in the summer’s war against Israel. “This is one of those twists and turns…  I started speaking to at the beginning. I don’t think you can kind of know today the effect of Syria‘s isolation from the Arab world.” (Pressed on the subject later on, she concedes that “we’re going to have to start looking at further sanctions on Syria.”) Further sanctions. Who is she kidding? As Walid Moallem, Syria‘s Foreign minister recently said: “Tragically enough, we all end up paying the price when the decision-makers in Washington believe that they know better, and are in a better position to understand and grasp the needs and circumstances of the Arabs. They diagnose the ambitions and aspirations of the Arab in a manner tailored to their own vision,” he said. No one is going to support sanctions against Syria. The Arab states – even those angry at Syria – don’t want more sanctions. Europe doesn’t. Russia and China don’t. Why even say such things? It makes America look foolish and out of touch.makes America look foolish and out of touch.

Friends see things differently – America and the Middle East
7 October 2006
The Economist
Condoleezza Rice in the Middle East: Arab leaders, like Hosni Mubarak, agree on America’s aims but not how to get there IT ALL looked cordial enough as Condoleezza Rice toured the Middle East for the first time since this summer’s nasty little war in Lebanon. The secretary of state, adhering to the Bush administration’s habit of shunning leaders it doesn’t like, talked only to those anointed as “moderates”. Even so, behind padded doors, some hard words were exchanged. That is not surprising. The Middle East pot is more than ever brimful with sticky problems, ranging from Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to the ongoing agony of Iraq, to the humanitarian disaster of Darfur, to the shaky peace in Lebanon, to turbulence in internal Israeli politics and, never-endingly, to the misery of Palestine. So fraught is the region that Ms Rice, who on her last, wartime, visit homilised over the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”, this time talked only of a “future Middle East” where peace, prosperity and democracy would prevail.

The secretary’s tour took her to Saudi Arabia, then Cairo for a joint meeting with six Gulf foreign ministers, along with those of Egypt and Jordan, and then on for meetings with Israel’s prime minister and the beleaguered Palestinian president. Her objective was to rally allies against what is seen as the mounting challenge of the “resistance” block made up of Iran and Syria, together with their sub-state clients, Hizbullah and Hamas, and, to some extent, the recalcitrant government of Sudan.

Once seen as weak and isolated, this block has been bolstered by Hamas’s electoral win, Iran’s nuclear obstinacy and the skill and determination of Hizbullah in holding off Israel’s far more powerful army. Meanwhile, the whole notion of “resistance” to America’s perceived desire to dominate the region has gained ground among the wider Arab public. While the Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and even Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, win popular acclaim as Robin Hood-like heroes, stalwart Arab “moderates”, such as Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, are tarred as American puppets.

Their sense of vulnerability to such charges explains why Ms Rice’s reception in Arab capitals was relatively muted. Arab diplomats seemed as concerned to show they were not creating a new, pro-American coalition, and were not acting against anyone in particular, as they were to emphasise any positive result of their talks. Yet, aside from reflecting the current toxicity of America to Arab public opinion, this coolness also reflected diverging priorities between America and its allies.

Most Arab regimes, for instance, fully share America’s annoyance with Syria, whose meddling in Lebanon, and support for hardline factions within Hamas, are seen as damaging to stability. But whereas American policy has been to squeeze until Syria crumples, Arabs tend to accept that Syria has legitimate grievances. “We don’t think Syria‘s bullying tactics should be rewarded,” says an Arab diplomat, “but you can’t just besiege a country without providing some kind of exit option.”

No Arab leaders, except those of Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah, like the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran and they are disturbed by Iran’s backing for militant Islamist groups. But what they fear more is a clash between America and Iran that could spill onto their turfturf that is, in the case of several Gulf states, conspicuously dotted with American military bases. If the question is to secure the oil-rich Gulf against Iranian adventurism, insist America’s Arab friends, a good first step would be to deny Iran and its rejectionist allies moral traction, by doing something about the festering Palestinian issue.

Ms Rice, aware of Arab impatience for some progress on Palestine, proffered some slim ideas, based on trying to empower President Mahmoud Abbas and persuading Israel to moderate its blockade (see next story). Her Arab allies understand that such steps may be all that can be hoped for at present. At the same time, they have lost faith with the long-held American policy of pursuing peace by incremental confidence-building measures.

“No one has the political capital left to take even the smallest step,” says an Arab official in Cairo. The only way to move, he says, is to offer a vision for a comprehensive regional settlement that would include not only Israel and Palestine, but also Syria and Lebanon. Oddly, that is precisely the idea now being floated by the 135 former foreign ministers, heads of state and Nobel prize-winners from around the world who have signed a petition calling for a regional peace conference.

Comments (2)

Chris said:

I don’t think any realist can reside in this administration. They are mutually exclusive realms.

October 6th, 2006, 4:53 pm


Bernard Moulin said:

Rice has been a great disappointment in managing the US Middle Eastern policy.One would have thought, with all her degrees, she would “doctor” the “moron”‘s opinions and pull him out of his Cowboyish illusions.But she seems to be anchored at being ‘Condoleanza’ Rice…Pity!

October 8th, 2006, 9:44 am


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