Chaos or renewal?

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Each New Year brings with it the hope of change, and a renewal of hope in a brighter future. This is as true for geo-politics as it is for personal lives, and the Middle East, which has seen some of its worst periods ever in the last few years, is in urgent need of a positive future to look forward to. But how likely is this in the present global situation? If I had to sum up in one phrase the single most important determinant for developments in the region for 2005, I woul! d say, "the US fear factor".

George Bush’s re-election last November is likely to mean a continuation or aggravation of the policies seen during his first period in office and, most significantly for the Middle East, a perpetuation of neo-conservative influence. This group, which has been instrumental in the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions and in shaping US foreign policy in its present aggressive and intrusive form, is far from diminished in power. Much as observers predicted the neo-conservative downfall after the Iraqi adventure ended in the quagmire of today and, even with the resignation of one arch-neo conservative, Richard Perle, the majority, from Douglas Feith to Donald Rumsfeld (himself not a true neo-con, but a strong supporter), are still in office and as close to the president as before.

The effects of this can be seen in the much-vaunted US Greater Middle East Plan through which America hopes to dominate a far larger territory than the countries of the geographical Middle East. The new "Middle East" includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, and many see in this a desire to control the fate of a major part of the Islamic world. Hostility to Islam after the events of 9/11 and the consequent war on terrorism has markedly increased in America. In August 2004, Bruce Teff, a former senior CIA official, described "Islamic terrorism" as based on the Quran and stressed that terrorism and Islam were the same.

The US Middle East plan promotes the idea of democratic reform throughout the region with economic liberalization, the education of women and equal opportunities for all citizens. President Bush says this is a central plank of his new term in office. In December 2004, these ideas were put forward by the outgoing secretary of state, Colin Powell, at the "Forum for the Future", a conference of Middle Eastern foreign ministers in Rabat, Morocco. He spoke of fighting terrorism through reform and insisted that the Arab-Israel conflict should not be used as an excuse to delay these changes.

It is naive to imagine that these plans will succeed in 2005 or later. Reaction to the Rabat conference was indicative of this. A number of Arab ministers boycotted the meeting, and the rest were unimpressed. There were demonstrations outside the hall and popular Arab opinion was uniformly hostile. Many Arab governments, which have cooperated in America’s war on terror by draconian measures against their own populations, feel threatened by the prospect of transparency and democratization, even had these been suggested by an impartial source and not by a state deeply committed to their enemy, Israel.

Even so, it is a measure of their desire to placate the US that the Gulf states (except Saudi Arabia) have gone though various motions in the direction of greater popular participation and that so many Arab ministers even attended this patronizing conference. It is of course fear and dependence on the US for aid, military hardware and protection of ruling regimes that drives all Arab states to try and comply with its demands. Egypt has long ago abnegated its oppositionary role and now acts as the mediator, selling unpalatable Israeli/American policies to the Arabs. A wide-ranging trade agreement on textiles between Egypt and Israel and America is due to be instituted this year. This will create employment for Egyptians and increase Egypt’s exports to America to $1 billion, and thus provides an incentive to continued cooperation.

Of the so-called hardline Arab states, Libya caved in first last year with its abject offer of compensation for the victims of the Lockerbie crash and surrender of its minuscule weapons of mass destruction program. Syria, the next target of the neo-conservatives, is now ready to enter into unconditional negotiations with Israel and has imposed ostentatious measures to control the flow of suspected terrorists through its border with Iraq, in the hope of averting an American attack.

Iran, the other serious US/Israeli target, and hitherto the most anti-American of all, has agreed to halt its uranium enrichment program temporarily, despite much posturing. In May 2003, Iran reportedly made secret approaches to Washington to negotiate an agreement on the nuclear issue. It is currently dealing only with the EU and may bide its time during this year to review its decisions. But this will not be enough and the Pentagon is planning to build a new military base near the Iran border with Afghanistan. With the new base, American forces will effectively encircle Iran and make real their threat. Part of the neo-conservative agenda is to serve Israeli interests, even if these conflict with American ones, and Iran is Israel’s major remaining enemy in the region. Even so, an attack on Iran is unlikely; it would be logistically difficult, the US military is already over-stretched, and the Iranian regime is politically adroit and sophisticated.

In this year, preparations for Turkey’s entry into the EU will continue and Israel may be expected to join Europe too in a new "European Neighborhood Policy". This entails an Israeli acceptance of the EU’s central role in the Quartet negotiating the roadmap. It is unlikely that Israel will agree to such conditions and the European invitation may remain on the shelves.

But a major determinant of developments this year involves the Middle East economy. In November, the UNDP noted that direct investment in the region fell in 2004 from $5.8 billion to $4.6 billion due to the unstable political situation as perceived by foreign investors. This is serious in view of the preponderance of youth–two thirds are under 30, of whom 40 percent are unemployed. Instability is scheduled to increase because of the Iraq war, the unresolved Israel/Palestine conflict, and Muslim anger at the US’s anti-terror campaign.

Most of this could be resolved or ameliorated by a radical change in US policy toward the region. I see little prospect of this happening with the present US administration and 2005 will not be the new beginning we all hoped for.

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* First published and courtesy by Bitterlemons-International.org

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