Sunday, July 31, 2005

Preparing for a Shipwreck in the Middle East

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR newspaper in Beirut.

By Michael Young

Several months ago, when interviewing Walid Jumblatt, I was struck by how the Druze leader perused the news like a lookout on the Titanic. It was not long after elections in Iraq, and Jumblatt was carefully weighing whether Ahmad Chalabi would become defense minister. He worried that Chalabi's appointment would enhance Iraqi federalism, which could deeply affect communal relations in Lebanon.

I pictured Jumblatt anxiously scouring the horizon daily for infinite calamitous icebergs.If so, we should all engage in that exercise, as the Middle East has moved closer to the abyss than at any time since the end of the second Gulf war in 1991.

The American adventure in Iraq - creative, bold and potentially revolutionary - threatens to sink under the weight of a Sunni insurgency that has fed off the Bush administration's frequent incompetence in prosecuting postwar stabilization and rehabilitation. In the Palestinian areas, the Palestinian Authority is more than ever looking like a futile, corrupt artifact in front of Islamist parties that promise only violence and the suffocation of tolerant politics. In Syria, the kleptocratic regime of Bashar Assad is disintegrating, but its death may linger in the absence of alternatives. And in Iran, the situation has been complicated by the election as president of the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delaying the expansion of liberty in the society, even as the regime must shift its attention to Ahmadinejad's poor electorate - conservative by nature but potentially violent if its expectations are not met.

Gliding above this is the apocalyptic specter of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, whose latest exploits in London and Sharm al-Sheikh brought standard condemnations from representative institutions in the Arab and Muslim worlds, usually blended in with standard condemnations of Western behavior toward Arabs and Muslims. The effect was a cowardly canceling out of meaning; nonetheless, pro forma expressions of remorse often came across, intentionally or not, as precisely the opposite.

In truth, when it comes to fighting terrorism and expanding democracy in the Middle East, a global dialogue of the deaf prevails. The Arab world in particular hardly ever transcends its songs of lament to consider just how much it would suffer from the continuation of Al-Qaeda's attacks, Iraq's descent into civil war, the persistence of despotic and selfish regimes that endure solely because of a fear of chaos if they are removed, and the advances of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who feed off a shortsighted belief that armed resistance can bring victory and salvation.

There will be those protesting that one cannot speak of the "Arab world" or the "Muslim world" in such sweeping terms. They might add, maybe with justification, that one cannot consider half the problem, namely the maladies of the Arabs, without mentioning the other half: how the West, and particularly the United States, has exacerbated them. The reality is, however, that the Arab world usually speaks with a single, undiscerning voice of the West; rare are those avoiding the ritualistic dilution of indigenous Arab evils by casting them as foreign-imposed.

Yet it's the Arabs who will alone confront the impending hopelessness. In thriving for intellectual evenhandedness in the blame game, they miss an essential point: What the region faces in the near term is not intellectual; it is real, and it is deeply troubling.

At the heart of the breakdown is Iraq. Even the war's supporters (this writer included) cannot honestly say that the postwar plan, if indeed there was one, was commensurate with the profound importance of the project. From the moment of Baghdad's fall, the Bush administration made error after error, steadily diminishing prospects for success in its transformation of Iraq into a pluralistic society.

Success is still possible, thanks largely to the Iraqis, but hope is evaporating. The question is whether the U.S. still believes in Iraqi democracy, and the answer may be less and less.

Thinking is shifting toward such schemes as partition or loose confederalism, which are expedient but also potentially disastrous.

One wagers that many in the Arab world would be delighted with an American admission of failure. The more sensible would merely maintain: "I told you so"; countless others would say: "Good, it will teach Washington a lesson." But such reactions would only confirm the Arab world's predisposition toward self-marginalization. By accepting decade after decade of stultifying political, economic and cultural stalemate; by offering no alternatives to Saddam Hussein; by applauding him even as he perpetuated his most bestial crimes; by displaying considerable indifference toward the mass graves found after the overthrow of the Baath regime, many Arabs implicitly justified, even invited, outside interference in their affairs. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. However, when American involvement came (and, let's recall that it is still consistently demanded to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), there was no effort to exploit it for domestic reasons. Instead of seeing how they could benefit at home from sovereignty and democracy in Iraq, even if that meant pragmatically and momentarily buttressing American efforts there, a great many Arabs - Islamists, nationalists, liberals, and permutations thereof - fell back on a threadbare argument that the failure of the American venture would represent a defeat for arrogant pro-Israeli "neo-imperialism." Though the fallout of such "freedom" is likely to be carnage, it doesn't matter: the Americans will take the blame.

Only rarely does the Arab world offer a fresh narrative to confront its shortcomings. The 2002 Beirut Arab League declaration on resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict was certainly an example, and was shot down by Israeli intransigence. However, such proactiveness is a rarity, and today, as Israel disengages from Gaza, all that Arab societies, and intellectuals, can do is recap that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan is designed to avoid final-status talks. It is, but it also represents an Israeli withdrawal from Arab land, and the only ones exploiting that fact are Islamists seeking to portray it as a military victory.

Politically, most other Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority are utterly unprepared for the aftermath. In fact the Arab world is utterly unprepared for all that lies ahead. It is unprepared to deal with a possible collapse in Iraq - though Arab states like Syria and Saudi Arabia continue to play sorcerer's apprentice there, as do Iran and Turkey.

The Arab world is unprepared to deal creatively with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to take advantage of the Gaza pullout. It is unprepared to deal with alternatives to dictatorship and regime corruption, or to deal with economic development and the myriad other requirements made routine in a world demanding more openness.

In Lebanon, we will acutely feel the repercussions of our surroundings. We will pay a price for breakdown in Iraq, as we will for Assad's efforts to cling to power and to punish us for our independence. We will pay for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' limitations, and for the Palestinians' desire to retain their weapons in Lebanon (didn't Sultan Abu al-Aynain, the Palestinian delegate to the Lebanese, say days ago that disarming the Palestinians meant disarming a "resistance," placing himself in the same trench as Hizbullah?). We will pay the price for Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran. We will pay the price for the compulsive distress of a Middle East that has become a headache to the world, because all it seems to generate with any consistency are angry young men and an uncanny resistance to amelioration.

Many of us will continue to dream of a liberal Arab world, because that's the only exit from a nightmare that has lasted for far too long. Iraq was to be the first step. But the plot is apparently much more complicated than anyone imagined, and the characters involved too mediocre. The region is heading toward a shipwreck: too few lookouts, too many icebergs.