Middle East Cycles: Is the Current Age Permanent on is a New Phase in Sight?
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By Barry Rubin
After watching Middle East politics for more than 30 years, it is clear that these events—and the perceptions of them—move in cycles. At times, developments force a more realistic, and at other times a less realistic, understanding of what’s going on. Sometimes, sadly, it is only when things go wrong that people in the West wake up.
Let’s take some “positive examples,” in terms of negative developments, as examples
1. 1967 war: Israel is not going to be wiped out, as many in West and Arab world predicted. Its defeat of Soviet allies is perceived as a victory for the West, and Israel begins to be appreciated as a strategic asset. The Arab world’s rejection of peace after the war is clearly recognized.
2. Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, 1979: Despite predictions that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini will either be shoved aside after the revolution or is a moderate reformer, the regime becomes a very radical one, anti-American and a menace to the region. The danger of radical Islamism is recognized as is the fact that measures must be taken to counter Iran, mainly to save Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf.
3. Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, 1990-1991: The prediction that all Arabs will support Saddam Hussein if the West attacks is shown to be ridiculous (I debated Madeleine Albright in December 1990 and that’s what she said). The idea of unitary Arab nationalism and the Palestinian issue as the only thing that matters is exposed as false. Along with the USSR’s collapse, the Western defeat of Iraq, and the PLO’s mistake in backing Saddam, this gives the opportunity for moving ahead on peace efforts. It also shut up the Palestinian-issue-is-all-that-matters crowd for about five years or so.
4. The failure of the Camp David meeting and the Clinton-Assad meetings, 2000: The Clinton Administration sees that neither Yasir Arafat nor Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad want peace. The failure of the peace process is put on their shoulders by American policymakers (this is where the Bush Administration got the basis for its policy), but this lesson isn’t remembered very long by the public.
5. The September 11 attacks, 2001: Things will never be the same, it was said on that day, but of course, the cycle always continues. Radical Islamism is recognized as a major threat both to America and the region. This one lasts about four years but is cancelled out largely by the Iraq war.
I could also give examples of the alternative part of the cycle, but let me just use the current one as the example. Policymakers and much of the public goes in the other direction because they are dissatisfied with the Iraq war, which appears as a failure at the time; President George Bush’s alleged unilateralism and his unpopularity at home and abroad; and certain other trends in the West (discussed more below).
To a large extent, the spirit of the current age is: Israeli-Palestinian peace is within reach; it’s all Israel’s fault; Islamists aren’t so much a threat as a call for engagement; there’s nothing worth fighting about; and many other points you’re familiar with.
Now, here’s the key question: Is this current phase a long-term trend or do we see the distant but approaching end of it? I don’t know but I have some thoughts.
The argument that this is a long-term new phase of history rests on a number of points: the sharp swing left of Western elites and to some extent public opinion; post-modern, Politically Correct, multi-cultural ideology; the reaction against the Bush Administration; the expansion of a hedonistically inclined Western upper middle class; spoiling by the welfare state; the changes in Europe due to large-scale Muslim immigration; the Obama phenomenon; and other factors.
What are the counter-forces? Within Western society there are such things as dissatisfaction with Western elites that seem indifferent to the needs and legitimate concerns of their own people; a reaction against Obama perhaps; economic problems; along with additional points.
Examining only the Middle East elements, however, I would suggest the following:
–Already it is clear that the Obama Administration’s efforts on the Arab-Israeli front have failed. While some of this will be blamed on Israel, policymakers must see the lack of cooperation by Arab states and the Palestinian Authority (PA). If Fatah and the PA swing in a more radical direction under a post-Abbas leadership, this could disillusion people about the ease and importance of solving this issue.
–Most important of all is the Iran issue. Efforts to talk with Iran or pressure it will fail, obviously so by early 2010. The Iranian regime has never been more extreme and indifferent to Western opinion. Will Tehran behave in a fashion that forces the West to see its government as a threat that must be countered?
–Syria’s regime can talk sweetly for short periods of time but always reverts to bluster, threats, subversion, and terrorism. Will the West conclude that rapprochement with that dictatorship is impossible?
–Radical Islamist movements tend to reveal their true nature. Will a revolutionary crisis or takeover or massive terrorism force Western governments to realize the nature of this threat and to take action? Remember that it is Arab governments, not Israel, whose warnings and pleas are likely to have the most effect here.
I see a critical period at the very end of this year and certainly in 2010. We will begin to see whether this current era is going to be sustained or whether it is as transient as all those which have come before it.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).