Following the end of the first Gulf War and the Madrid Peace Conference, there were high expectations in Washington that a new American-led order would be established in the Middle East. The Madrid Peace Conference and the ensuing Oslo peace process were supposed to lay the foundations for a New Middle East: Peace between Israel and a Palestinian state. And the integration of the region into the global economy.
Ten years later and it’s the same old Middle East. There is a President Bush. There is an Assad. (He does surf the Internet. So perhaps globalization did have some effect.) The ayatollahs are still around. And so are the Hashemittes. And the Saudis. The military is still in charge in Egypt. And there is still violence in the Holy Land. And there are Sharon and Arafat — older, heavier, ailing. But just like in Lebanon 20 years ago, they are ready for another gunfight.
And, of course, there is Saddam.
Sounds depressing. But welcome to the Middle East that has proven to be — and will prove to be once again — a grave-yard of great expectations for outside powers, as well as regional players.
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire they have all been trying again and again to make and remake the Middle East. And at the end, in the words of the Rolling Stones, they can’t get no satisfaction!
Whether it was Shimon Peres’s mirage of a New Middle East — or Ariel Sharon’s fantasy of a New Order in the region after the Lebanon War. Or consider the promise of Nasserism and the ambition of Khomeinism. Recall how the Six Day War or the 1973 War… and then the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord… were supposed to change everything. And indeed, that euphoric mood in Washington following the first Gulf War, and the Madrid Peace Conference.
As historian L. Carl Brown proposed, the post-Ottoman Middle East can be compared to a Kaleidoscope. Everything is related to everything else. There are no clear boundaries between local, regional and international issues. A powerful outsider enters the picture. And it hopes to impose its agenda. But that only produces counter-efforts by unsatisfied players to form opposing regional alliances and secure the support of other local and international powers. The outside power tilts the Middle East kaleidoscope. But the many tiny pieces of colored glass move to form a new configuration that looks very different from what it expected.
On the top of the list of unfulfilled expectations was the British imperial project in the Middle East in the early 20th century. Driven by strategic interests, the smell of oil, and religious sentiments, the English-speaking people invaded the Middle East and they tried to establish a new and stable order.
And now in the early 21st century we seem to be on the eve of an hegemonic American undertaking in the region. The Anglo-Americans are returning to try to set up another order, a new and stable order in the Middle East.
It seems that one can say about the imperial designs of great powers in the Middle East what George Bernard Shaw once said about marriage: That is was the triumph of hope over experience.
In the old movie, the British created Iraq. They put the Hashemittes and the Saudis in power. Maintained influence in Egypt. They tried to end this or that cycle of violence between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land. We know how that movie ended. To put it in economic terms, the costs of the British Empire in the Middle East were higher than the expected benefits. Resistance from regional players, including terrorism, challenges from global powers. Including the U.S. ally, economic decline and opposition at home led eventually to a long and painful withdrawal of Britain from the region, culminating in the 1956 Suez debacle.
This time the name of the movie is the American Unilateral Moment in the Middle East. But we have a feeling that we’ve seen that movie before. Different actors. But a similar script: Recreating Iraq. Navigating between the Saudis and the Hashemittes. Preserving influence in Egypt. Bringing an end to another cycle of Arab-Jewish violence. Some in Washington are even adding a Wilsonian soundtrack to the old new order script: An Iraqi federation of Arab Sunni and Shiites and Kurds based on Western and liberal principles. Trickle-down democracy, secularism, pro-Americanism that would transform the entire Arab World, and help bring peace between Israel and Palestine.
This is the big band scenario for “The Day After” in Iraq and the Middle East that the neo-conservative intellectuals are proposing: A new age of stability, democracy, and prosperity under American guidance. On the other side of the debate, there is a mirror image: The “Apocalypse Now” scenario: Bloodbath in Iraq. The rise in the Arab street. Collapse of regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Another 1973 oil crisis.
But the choice for the U.S. would not be between Big Bang and Apocalypse Now. A war will produce a change in Iraq and the Middle East, a movement of the kaleidoscope. But it should not be equated with progress, with Wilsonian pipe-dreams.
And there will be two strategies to deal with this change: A relatively short, low-cost process of U.S. adjustment. Or a longer and more costly process of adjustment that would resemble that of Britain’s Middle East experience in the last century.
From a Realpolitik perspective, a low-cost U.S. adjustment means: One, recognizing that Iraq is only one stage in a very complex strategy, involving diplomatic, economic and military efforts, overt and covert action. This is a strategy aimed at containing threats, including radical and anti-status quo forces in the Middle East and in the so-called Crescent of Instability, stretching from the Balkans to the borders of China. This is the larger strategic context, the big picture, in which the war on terrorism will take place.
Two, this will not be, and should not be, a moral crusade, a missionary undertaking. Political freedom, democracy and the expansion of human rights could be a byproduct of such a strategy. But they are not the main goal. In fact, part of the costs of this strategy involve getting in bed with authoritarian regimes and unsavory characters.
Three, and this is probably the crux of the matter: The U.S. global position today provides it with some obligation and an opportunity — to play a leadership role. That is certainly the case if core U.S. national interests are at stake: The response to 9/11 was clearly such a case.
But the U.S. should not try to shoulder all the costs of implementing such a strategy. And costs here are not only measured in body bags and dollars. But also in terms of harm to political freedom — not in the Middle East — but in the United States.
And the bottom line is: The American people will not be ready to create and sustain an empire in the Middle East or elsewhere. In order to advance its interests in the Middle East and the Crescent of Instability, the U.S. needs to work with the other members of the Northern Alliance.
I’m not referring here to the opposition forces that help bring down the Taliban in Afghanistan. But to the concert of big Western powers that—after fighting each other during most of the 20th century over the control of the World Island of Eurasia — are now ready to manage it together: The U.S. or the Anglo-Americans, Europe, mainly France and Germany, and Russia.
These global powers will be working together with regional influentials, like India, Turkey, Iran, South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil, the ASEAN nations.
And, in addition to containing the threats in the Middle East and its peripheries, their other important challenge will be integrating Greater China into the international system—at some point bringing it into the alliance of these mostly status-quo powers.
A win for the Northern Alliance in post-war Iraq and the Middle East would mean that no challenger would be able to tilt the kaleidoscope, for awhile. In Iraq we could see the evolution of a mish-mash of protectorates controlled by the combined forces of the U.S., NATO and the U.N.
Think about the dilemmas faced in dealing with the Albanian-Kosovars, and apply that to the Iraqi Kurds, and you get a U.S.-Turkish condominium in the North, under a French administrator. Probably a Sunni-Shiite confederation along the lines of Bosnia, under some Pan-Arab control, and in which Iran will be permitted to exert influence.
A small Palestine will emerge along similar lines, as an international protectorate.
In fact, in the coming years, some of the other entities in the Middle East and the entire crescent of instability — certainly Afghanistan, perhaps even Pakistan — would look more and more like the way Yugoslavia looks now, and Iraq would look in a few years.
In the long-term, the U.S. has an interest to encourage other members of the Northern Alliance to play a more active diplomatic and military role in the Middle East. The EU is more dependent than the U.S. on oil supplies from the Middle East.
Taking into consideration the EU’s geographical proximity to the Middle East, and its historical, economic and demographic ties to that region. There is no reason why it would not share more of the costs of intervention in the region.
This strategy may not sound very inspiring, like that of World War II. It ignites memories of the Congress of Vienna or, worse, the Yalta Conference. But I think that it is this strategy, and not an American Empire, that would evolve, either by design or by default.
In conclusion, I have a feeling that in another 10 years, we will recall all this talk about an American Empire in the same way we are now reminded of all the nonsense we have read — and written — about globalization and the internet in the1990’s. Remember the Collapse of the Nation State. The Borderless World. The New Economy. The Coming Great Boom. Dow at 24,000.
The American Empire will prove to be one more intellectual fad that was oversold. And then over-run by events.