Middle East: the Imperative Peace

Posted in Broader Middle East | 24-Mar-06 | Author: Abbas Ali

"Middle East politics is such a difficult, passionately argued and unresolvable topic."
"Middle East politics is such a difficult, passionately argued and unresolvable topic."
In Time magazine (December 12, 2005) American filmmaker, Steven Spielberg, was quoted saying that “Middle East politics is such a difficult, passionately argued and unresolvable topic.” More than ever, recent events in the region seem to reinforce this impression and deepen the belief that the region’s intractable problems are a menace to world stability and peace.

Political commentators and diplomats are puzzled with the speed and unpredictability of the unfolding events in the region. For those who are not intimately familiar with the nature of the Middle East conflict, the current calamity in the region may lead them to conclude that the Middle East is a hopeless case and no power could slow or prevent its eventual downfall. Such a pessimistic conclusion is illogical, unpractical, and certainly inconsistent with historical precedents.

The seriousness of the Middle East problem should not be neglected but addressed with vigor and urgency. Writing in the Washington Post (March 11), Germany Ambassador to the U.S. Wolfgang Ischinger acknowledged the severity of the situation in the Middle East but argued that the seriousness of the situation accentuates the need to thoughtfully address the problem without ignoring the interest of all parties involved, Arab countries, Iran, and Israel.

Because of the need for oil and the fact that the Middle East has the world’s largest proven oil reserve, the West has attentively focused on the region. This economic factor has situated regional politics at the core of Western foreign policy. The establishment of Israel in 1948 intensified Western involvement in the Middle East and added emotional and arguably religious dimensions to Western policy toward the region. The interweaving of economic and religious, emotional and political factors have complicated Western approaches to the Middle East and have appeared to inflame instability in the region.

In its editorial (March 16, 2006) on the Israeli assault and demolishing of the prison in Jericho, the New York Times accused the U.S. and Britain of inflaming Israeli-Palestinian conflict stating that the prison raid certainly “helps Mr. Olmert in the elections, it will make the job of governing and steering Israelis and Palestinians toward peace even harder after the election is done. For that, he can thank his friends in Britain and America.” Similarly, writing in the American Conservative (March 27) former Presidential hopeful, Patrick Buchanan, argued that “we might be more successful in the Middle East if we simply got out of the Middle East.”

Even though the Middle East has experienced a frightening calamity, there are strong signs, at the official level, that the region may overcome its difficulties once the people are able to regain their freedom and reclaim their dignity. In fact, the possibility for peace and democratic transformation is more evident than ever and there seem to be unwavering commitment, in that direction, at home and abroad. In his speech to the American Legion (February 24, 2006) President Bush declared, “We'll continue to stand with people of the Middle East as they step forward to claim their freedom. We can be confident in our cause because we have seen freedom conquer tyranny and secure the peace before. . . . And now the hope of freedom is stirring in the Middle East, and no one should bet against it.”

The elections in Iraq in December 2005 and in occupied Palestine sent a gigantic storm across the Middle East. The process of the elections and the outcomes frightened the authoritarian regimes but reinvigorated the populace. More importantly, the elections enabled grassroots organizations, in a rare moment in the history of the region, to triumph over the elite and their designs for power. This development gives hope that eventually the people will chart their future independently.

The second development is closely linked to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and President Bush’ s fierce public pronouncements of supporting democratic transformation in the region. Unlike the Bush administration, previous American administrations shied away from prompting democracy or openness in the Middle East. Samuel Huntington (2001) argued that democracy in the Arab World may not serve our interest. He stated, “Obviously, there are groups in most Muslim societies that are in favor of democracy and human rights, and I think we should support those groups. But we then get into this paradoxical situation: many of the groups arguing against repression in those societies are fundamentalists and anti-American. . . . President Carter was deeply committed to promoting human rights, and when I served on his National Security Council, we had countless discussions about how to do this. But to the best of my recollection, nobody ever mentioned the idea of trying to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia, and for a very obvious reason.”

Similarly, Martin Indyk, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asia, asserted that promoting democracy in the Arab World could work against American interests. He indicated that during the Clinton Administration, the consensus was that the “middle East should be exempted’ from ‘promoting democracy abroad.” Indyk stated, “those in responsibility for Middle East (including myself) put forward a more powerful argument in favor of focusing on peacemaking rather than democratization.”

Both the invasion of Iraq and the call for freedom in the Middle East have simultaneously produced intentional and unexpected outcomes. The intentional result is related to deepening submission to and total reliance of the Arab regimes on Washington. Writing in the Israeli Haaretz (February 3), Guy Rolnik, stated that the invasion of Iraq dramatically altered the regional political and security map and “made most Arab states submissive and fearful.” The invasion, in particular, however, has motivated the populace to defy their own oppressive governments and offers them the opportunity to relive the era of the 1950- early 1970s, though on smaller scale, where people and their political organizations utilized public places to voice their concerns. After 1973, the Arab authoritarian regimes seriously curtailed freedom and any unauthorized political expression forcing the public to retreat into the basement whispering political concerns. The rapid collapse of Saddam’s regime conveyed to the Arab masses that their governments are impotent and inept. This growing feeling has created a psychological intifada where the public has resumed political expression, in defiance of its government.

Abbas J. Ali: "A peaceful approach is a moral imperative."
Abbas J. Ali: "A peaceful approach is a moral imperative."
Karen Hughes’s, U.S. Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, visit to the region and her holding of public meetings with ordinary citizens could constitute the most important development in dispelling the perpetuated myth that Arabs react favorably to suppression. For many years, the neoconservatives have been effective in promoting a notion that the Arab and Muslim people respond positively only to the use of force and forceful suppression. This relentless promotion has been generally accepted as a fact and eventually institutionalized in policy discourse. For example, Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser was quoted in the New Yorker (October 31, 2005) saying that in advising Vice President Dick Cheney before the invasion of Iraq, neoconservative thinker, Bernard Lewis, stated, “I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power.” Cheney, in particular, Scowcroft thinks, accepted Lewis’s view of Middle East politics.

In her public meetings in the region with a cross section of audiences, Hughes was astonished to learn that in all countries that she visited, people again and again vehemently rejected suppression and all of them loudly resented the abuses inflicted upon the Arab societies. The significance of these encounters and findings is that, because of her personal relationship with President Bush, Hughes may be able to convey an uncensored message, to the president that the people there would not like to be either oppressed or humiliated.

Obstacles to a Peaceful Region

While the above developments can shine a ray of hope to the Middle East situation and may constitute a qualitative leap forward, there are significant roadblocks capable of derailing any serious attempt and programs to nurture peace and democratic transformation. Political commentators have regularly identified a list of items pertaining to this subject. There are, however, essential issues that, without confronting them, may render any talk regarding the Middle East conflict useless.

The subtle contradiction in the declared democratic goal-- a call to spread democracy in the Middle East and simultaneously sustain authoritarianism—is a serious impediment to winning the minds and hearts of the people. It is critical that in pursuing its new founded mission in the Middle East, Washington has to address two major dilemmas. The first is that the desire to have democracy while keeping “useful dictators” amounts to impossibility. The Economist (February 23) commented on this issue when it stated; Washington “cannot bully dictatorial allies to reform, then always expect their support.” Middle East experts have always argued that without profound democratic transformation in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a realistic possibility for having democracy and alleviating suffering in the region simply does not exist. This is not only because the first country is financially rich and has access to vast resources and the second has the largest population, but also because of the pivotal yet destructive role that both countries play in Arab politics.

The Saudi regime’s primary aim is to sustain the Saudi family in power; any other aim is secondary. The elite in the al-Saud family have recognized that their power, to a large extent, is influenced by how political events in the Arab world are managed. Thus, the regime has engaged in two interrelated strategies. On any emerging Arab issue, the regime is the first to publicly propose initiatives to address the problem but, behind the scenes, uses all its energy to paralyze any move forward. Second, the regime creatively keeps the domestic population concerned with ever emerging crises, induced or spontaneous, in other Arab countries, thereby diverting attention from domestic political affairs. Its financial dealing with the powerful network of the elite in various Arab states and its ownership, direct and indirect of major Arab media outlets, has kept the family fairly secure for the time being.

The regime in Egypt positions itself differently. It is always the first to officially champion and espouse Arab popular issues, be they nationalistic or religious. But through its effective media and public campaign, however, the regime offers seemingly convincing arguments that, while the issues on hand are valid and logical, acting upon them under the prevailing global conditions, may harm Arab causes and further instability in the region. Egyptian regime ostensibly supports the populist movement while weakening its momentum and eventually paralyzing it. Similar to Saudi Arabia, the Egyptian regime simultaneously plays the role of the champion and the dissuader of popular concerns rendering vital Arab national and patriotic notions, ideas, and forms impotent.

The second dilemma is central to the credibility of any democratic initiative: Washington’s preference for democracy is contingent upon an outcome that brings politicians who do not answer to their people. Rightly, President Bush hails the open elections in both Palestine and Iraq as a historical step. The winner in Palestine, however, was denounced and in Iraq, concerted efforts were made to abort the democratic result. The election results gave the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) the majority seats in parliament. The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad did not like the outcome and suggested in January the establishment of Ahel al-hel wa al-Aqed Committee- National Security Council - to supervise the government and decide national policy. When the nominee for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, who belongs to UIA rejected Khalilzad’s proposition for having a non elected council to plan government policies, ambassador Khalilzad (Washington Post, February 17, A 19) called for an al-Jafari replacement, stating, "I would not exclude the possibility that if they don't agree on programs and people, there may be a new candidate for prime minister."

"The elections in Iraq in December 2005 and in occupied Palestine sent a gigantic storm across Middle East."
"The elections in Iraq in December 2005 and in occupied Palestine sent a gigantic storm across Middle East."
Another important obstacle to peaceful transformation in the region is the perceived deliberate promulgation of negative messages and stereotypes about the Arabs and Muslims in the United States. This makes it impossible to objectively and positively view Middle East conflict. The recent fiasco and eventual collapse of the business deal with Dubai Ports World to manage certain American ports demonstrated as General John Abizad indicated a growing anti- Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. The Washington Post (March 9) reported that there is negative widespread perception against Arabs and Muslims “fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.” The Post quoted Juan Cole, a Middle East expert, stating that the American people "have been given the message to respond this way by the American political elite, mass media and by select special interests."

Writing in Washington Post Zbigniew Brzezinski (December 4, 2005) warned that the recent unwise repeated usage of negative racial and religious terminologies by Washington political elite is unprecedented and will eventually lead to misunderstanding and increasing hatred. He stated, “It is particularly troubling that Bush has also relied heavily in his recent speeches on what to many Muslims is bound to sound like Islamophobic language. His speeches, though occasionally containing disclaimers that he is not speaking of Islam as a whole, have been replete with references to "the murderous ideology of the Islamic radicals," "Islamic radicalism," "militant jihadism," "Islamofascism" or "Islamic Caliphate."”

It is regrettable that the most recent survey conducted by Zogby International of the American soldiers serving in Iraq found that eighty-five percent believe they are there “to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attack.” Such attitude is shaped by constant unsubstantiated claims by civilian leaders in Washington. It is possible that unsophisticated people will misunderstand the political message. For example, it is certain that when President Bush discussed global war on terror at Port Tampa Florida (Feb. 17, 2006), many associated Iraq with terrorism when Bush stated, “We saw a threat in Saddam Hussein. . . . And so when Saddam Hussein chose war- - and believe me, he made the choice - -the hardest thing for the President of the United States to do is commit troops into combat. It’s the last option, the very last option. Except September the 11th taught me, and September the11th taught me, that we got to take threats seriously [sic].”

One of the most ignored issues in Washington’ s corridor of power and the discourse on the Middle East problems is the conspicuous disregard for the value of having direct relations with the people in the region and their civic and professional organizations. While Europe has done reasonably well in reaching out to civic organizations in the region, Washington has consistently shown a mistrust of the Arab masses and relied instead on its strong relationships with the authoritarian regimes. In its editorial (October 3, 2003) the Jewish Forward asserted that dialogue and communication can help reduce tensions between people, nations and cultures. While this is a simple truth, the editorial continued, “that’s all but disappeared from America’s diplomatic vocabulary these days.” It is probably this overt indifference to the aspirations of the people in the region and the total reliance on force that encourages instability and fuels resentment.

Hopeful Signs

These hindrances to peace are products of orientations cultivated during the Cold War; outlooks that seek to find or create enemies. In addition, in the context of the Middle East, these outlooks were shaped by the emotionally charged Arab –Israeli conflict. The latter and the continuing occupation of Palestine has become a major threat to peace in the region. In an article in the Israeli Haaretz (March 18, 2006), President Jimmy Carter wrote the “preeminent obstacle to peace is Israel's colonization of Palestine. … Israel's occupation of Palestine has obstructed a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.” The political ruling elite in the Arab World and Israel along with powerful right-wing groups in the U.S. have always found that perpetual conflict is to their advantage. The authoritarian Arab regimes have utilized the suffering of the Palestinian people to divert attention from chronic domestic problems and have justified oppression and lack of freedom by making references to the ever existing Israeli threat to national security.

The Israeli elite, as Gideon Levy asserted in Haaretz (March 19), have nurtured for a long time a program that resists a peaceful solution. In fact, they have based their policy, according to Haaretz (January 29, 2006) “on arrangements and terror-balances with Arab dictators. . . Their authority was seen as a barrier protecting Israel from the rage of the hostile rabble in the “Arab street.”” The democratization process that was promoted by President Bush, and the invasion of Iraq, however, has awakened the Israeli population to the depth of the perils they might face if the Palestinian question is not solved mutually with the Palestinian people. In addition, there is a growing understanding that recognizing the Palestinian right to have their own state is essential for the future of Israel. That is, the recognition of the security and rights of each must be reciprocal. Bradley Burston wrote in Israeli Haaretz that recognition “being a two-way street, it comes naturally neither to the Israelis nor the Palestinians.”

Most importantly, there is a growing consensus, among the ordinary people in the Middle East, including Israel, that the nature of the conflict in the region is not primarily driven by the need to dominate vital economic resources. Rather, it increasingly resembles a conflict between people who aspire to have their freedom and reclaim their dignity and powerful forces attempting to impede their quest for a better future. In this conflict, the interest of various players, including terrorists from all walks, coincide in maintaining instability and preventing genuine liberty. The realization that the conflict essentially revolves around human dignity and the aspiration for freedom from domination and suppression may change the political landscape and nurture the emergence of a new leadership in the region that espouses dialogue and peaceful co-existence.

"The possibility for peace and democratic transformation is more evident than ever."
"The possibility for peace and democratic transformation is more evident than ever."
In the Arab World, people, too, have realized there must be an end to their oppression and that they must be involved positively in charting their future. Having reached the conclusion that the threat to their security and safety is unbearable has induced the people to reevaluate their national priorities. Indeed, reconsideration of recent history and the unfolding tragedies have induced a large segment to view the ordinary Jews in Israel as victims, just like them, of vicious politics and that their fate, under normal conditions, is interwoven.

In the U.S. there have been, in recent months, dramatic changes in public attitudes that may eventually influence policymakers and shape the general outlook pertaining to foreign adventures, especially the scope and the purpose of involvement in the Middle East. This change may turn out to be the most pivotal factor in profoundly influencing what is going on in the Middle East. Underlying these changes are three promising developments: President Bush’s call for an end to “addiction to oil,” a rising conflict between Christian fundamentalists and Jewish groups relative to domestic policies, and the tragic outcomes of the Iraqi venture.

The U.S. imports about seventeen percent of its oil need from the Middle East. The majority of oil import comes from Mexico and Canada. Nevertheless, in the politically charged environment, there is a general public impression that the U.S. heavily relies on Arab oil and that supporting Israel is a strategic imperative. By reducing the share of oil import from the Middle East, there is a great hope that Washington, free from oil dependency, will not look anymore to Israel as a strategic ally for keeping the oil flowing freely from the region. Consequently, it is more likely that Washington will become a positive player and not stand in the way of a genuine peace treaty in the Holy Land.

After the Oslo agreement, the Wall Street Journal (September 14, 1994) surveyed leaders of major American Jewish groups and found that the prospect for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians had left American Jews “curiously adrift and grappling with an identity crisis.” For many years, the Journal reported that the turmoil in the Middle East has kept the American Jews united and their leaders enjoying the privilege of power and influence. These leaders have traditionally found alliance with Christian right-groups and their unconditional support for Israeli occupational policy. They have been instrumental in lobbying successive administrations not to press Israel to meet the demand of the international community and the UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to the Arab-Israel conflict.

Recently, the Jewish Forward reported a serious rift between Christian evangelical and Jewish groups relative to domestic issues. This rift surfaced publicly when Abraham Foxman, National Director of Jewish Anti-Defamation League, in a speech condemned what he called a campaign "to Christianize America" by the Christian-right. The Forward (December 23, 2005) reported that evangelical Christian leaders “support for Israel may go on the chopping block if Jewish leaders persist in publicly criticizing the religious right.” It quoted one leader stating that if Jewish leaders continue criticizing them, “then we just won't support Israel anymore." It is possible that such rift may motivate American Jewish leaders to rethink their alliances with Christian-right and seriously consider that peace in the Middle East serves the interest of Israeli Jews.

The anarchy in Iraq and the tragic outcomes that have followed the invasion could profoundly change American public opinion about foreign adventures. In the latest Newsweek poll (March 18, 2006) only 29 percent of the people questioned approved Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq and 65 percent disapproved. Indeed, the tragic situation in Iraq exceeded even the most pessimistic scenario. Iraqis in their wildest dreams never thought that their country would be a place where terrorists roam freely and their cultural and political institutions are incapacitated. This situation promoted Senator Joseph Biden to declare on the eve of the third anniversary of Iraqi invasion, "We got rid of a brutal dictator. And that's good. But we may be on the verge of trading him for chaos and a new terror haven in the Middle East. That's a bad bargain for America's security."

The bleak calamity in the Middle East has reached a point that demands a profound rethinking of the policies that have led to chaos and chronic turmoil. While both the Arab and Jewish people in the region have been the direct victims of such a calamity, people in other parts of the world have been consumed too by the instability in the region. Experience over the last five decades and the unfolding events demonstrate that violence and unilateral decisions and indifference to human suffering in the region have produced no tangible progress and in fact deepened suffering among innocent people. They have led to painful and depressing outcomes of a global magnitude that no responsible leader should ignore.

Indeed, the scope and depth of the never ending tragedies in the region evidence that a peaceful approach is not only a logical choice but is also a moral imperative.

Additional Reading:

Benn, Aluf (January 29, 2006). The era of the masses. www.haaretz.com

Burston, Bradley (Feb. 24, 2006). Israel has no’right to exist.’ www.haaretz.com

Carter, Jimmy (March 18, 2006) Colonization of Palestine precludes peace. www.haaretz.com

Forward editorial (October 3, 2003). Making America’s case. www.forward.com

Goldberg, Jeffrey (2005-10-31). BREAKING RANKS: What turned Brent Scowcroft against the Bush Administration? New Yorker.

Huntington, Samuel (2001, October 20). A Head-on Collision of Aleien Clutures? Interviewed by Michael Steinberger. The New York Times. P. 13.

Levy, Gideon (March 19). A new consensus. www.haaretz.com

Marcus, Dockser (September 14, 1994). Burden of peace. Wall Street Journal, p. 1

Rolnik, Guy ((March 3, 2006). Taking stock/living in a global village. www.haaretz.com

Siegel, Jennifer (December 23, 2005). Christian Right Leader Warns Foxman on Israel

Zbigniew, Brzezinski (December 4, 2005 ). Do These Two Have Anything in Common? Washington Post, B02