Radical US approach for radical leaders
As much as the Bush administration is trying to find an "honorable" way out of Iraq, there does not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. In fact, every week the tunnel of the Middle East gets darker for the United States. President George W Bush is desperately trying to formulate a "Sunni front" to confront Iran in Iraq and Lebanon. Lebanon itself is edging toward political collapse.
At this crucial moment, the US needs to adopt a radical approach to deal with a new breed of three radical Shi'ite leaders: President Mahmud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah Party and Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Jaish al-Mehdi (Mehdi Army).
At present, Bush's approach belongs to a bygone era that was focused on sustaining American supremacy and Middle Eastern subservience. The new breed of leaders, in a distinct departure from the dying breed of Sunni autocrats, not only rejects American dominance of their region, but wants to be accepted as representative of a new era in which Islam will play a dominant role in the balance of power.
Shi'ite leaders Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and Muqtada all repudiate the politics of accommodation of the US and the West that is popularized by current Sunni leaders such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and even King Abdullah of Jordan.
The three Shi'ite leaders are practitioners of the politics of defiance and rejection of the old order and old ways and they promote a new style of leadership which discards subservience to and acceptance of American or Western dominance.
At the same time, this is also an era in which the primacy of Islam has become an essential ingredient of Middle East politics. The 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran established the trend. The Islamization of Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s and the liberation of Afghanistan from the Soviets by the Afghan mujahideen in 1989 through the use of jihad - with the active participation of the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - made their momentous contributions to the making of the new era.
The September 11, 2001, attack saw the US emerge as the chief antagonist of Islamists. In the ensuing "war on terror", both sides made their versions of morality quite clear to their respective audiences. The US called the advocates of attacks on its territory, assets and personnel "terrorists", while the Islamists envisioned themselves as jihadis, conducting a holy war against the chief "infidel". They regard the chief purpose of their fight as a defense of their religion.
The emergence of Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and Muqtada should be examined in this context, that is, the US is the chief enemy of their countries and of Islam. Ahmadinejad, by adopting harsh anti-American rhetoric, has further escalated his country's long-standing cold war with the US. Iran's heightened proactivism in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq - which the US depicts as "interference", as if its own invasion of Iraq was not an interference of the worst kind - became just another reason for the deterioration of US-Iran ties, to a large degree focussed on its dogged pursuit of a nuclear program and acquisition of long-range ballistic missiles.
Nasrallah's 33-day war with Israel in the summer destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the Israeli military. In addition, it created a powerful perception that Hezbollah emerged as victorious, simply because it could not be destroyed as a fighting force.
Iran and Syria also emerged as "victors" from this conflict because both of them - especially Iran - had played a crucial role in training Hezbollah fighters and supplying them with rockets and short-range Katushya rockets that caused considerable terror inside Israel during the war.
Nasrallah decided to cash in on the impressive performance of Hezbollah in its war by insisting on acquiring additional political power in Lebanon at the expense of the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. This struggle is further complicated by Syria maneuvering to reestablish its political influence, which was shattered when it withdraw from Lebanon.
Nasrallah's fight is still in progress. What favors him is that he can afford to absorb human losses in the pursuit of his political objectives - as he proved in the war against Israel.
The US, on the contrary, as a result of its bloody occupation of Iraq, will not want to send any troops to Lebanon. They will also be painfully mindful of the deaths of 241 marines in 1983 in Lebanon at the hands of a Shi'ite suicide bomber.
Nasrallah also wishes to make Hezbollah a permanent military force in Lebanon. The US and Israel are determined to prevent this and will conspire to defeat Nasrallah politically.
Muqtada, like Nasrallah in Lebanon, is an iconic leader. Like Nasrallah - whom he admires and attempts to emulate - Muqtada wishes not only to oust the US from Iraq, but also to establish the permanent primacy of Islam in Iraq.
Muqtada may not be as friendly toward Iran as Nasrallah, however, he has done little to create any impression that he is anti-Iranian. Unlike Nasrallah, Muqtada is perceived by a great number of Iraqi Sunnis as their tormentor, since his Mehdi Army has been accused of leading the sectarian war against them.
As Iraq sinks deeper into civil war, Muqtada's political clout rises. If the US is to stabilize Iraq, it will have to convince Muqtada that its forces are leaving the country - and soon. Bush, though, is not interested in taking any measures that smacks of retreat. That is the proverbial rub, because Muqtada won't accept anything short of American withdrawal as the price for creating even a semblance of cooperation in stabilizing the country.
These three Shi'ite leaders do not follow Washington's political template. They are playing political hardball in which they see only one result - victory. In turn, the US requires an unusual - indeed radical - approach that would recognize the legitimacy of the leaders and allow for their accommodation.
Such accommodation would result in the US's quick withdrawal from Iraq. It would mean comprehensive dialogue with Iran, which in turn would help stabilize Iraq in return for carrots, including guarantees against regime change. That US compromise would mean stopping calling Hezbollah a "terrorist" organization, and then negotiating with it directly about stabilizing Lebanon. Above all, it would mean acceptance of a drastic reduction in America's prestige and influence in the Middle East.
One can imagine how difficult all this would be for Washington, even as Sunni autocrats are rethinking their blind support of the United States. Yet the tide is turning, and unless the US takes some of these hard choices, the Middle East will be reshaped by the likes of Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah and Muqtada.
Ehsan Ahrari is the CEO of Strategic Paradigms, an Alexandria, Virginia-based defense consultancy. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected] His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. His website: www.ehsanahrari.com.