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Notes on the Post-Bush Mideast
Tuesday, 25 December 2007 15:53
by Tony Karon

A year from now, the Bush Administration will be emptying its desks into cardboard boxes and preparing to hand over to its successor. And, it’s a relatively safe bet that the menu of foreign policy crises and challenges it will leave in the in-trays of its successors will be largely unchanged from that facing the Bush Administration today. A combination of the traditional lame-duck effect of the final year of a presidency, and the decline in relative U.S. influence on the global stage — a product both of the calamitous strategic and tactical mistakes by the Bush Administration and of structural shifts in the global political economy that will limit the options available to his successor — suggest that even as he goes scurrying about the Middle East in search of a “legacy,” very little is going to change in the coming year. Indeed, the recurring theme in many of the crises Washington professes to be managing is the extent to which it is being ignored by both friend and foe.

On Iran:

While the Administration insists that the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program changes nothing, plainly it represents a neutering of the hawks by the military establishment, which as we’ve suggested all along, was going to be a lot more active this time around in preventing another episode of disastrous adventurism for which men and women in uniform would pay the price (on the American side). The fallacy of the neocon and Israeli hysteria about Bush having 12 months to stop a new holocaust, which we’ve long challenged on these pages, has been laid bare by the U.S. intelligence community. Absent some insanely provocative action by the Iranians, there is unlikely to be any military action against Iran in the coming year.

Moreover, the finding also makes an escalation of sanctions an even more remote possibility — and there’s little reason to believe that Iran would be likely to reverse course in the coming year as a result of any sanctions the U.S. could impose alone, or via the United Nations. What the NIE makes clear is that the Iran’s nuclear program would give it the potential to build nuclear weapons — as would any full-cycle civilian nuclear energy program — but at the same time, concludes that Iran is not currently pursuing that option. (Bush has essentially been arguing all along that Iran can’t be allowed to master the technology of uranium enrichment because that would give it the means to build a bomb should it choose to do so. But the Iranians appear to have mastered that technology already.) The NIE also makes clear that Iran will make its decisions over whether or not to pursue the strategic nuclear option based on a rational calculation of its national interests.

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In fact, the U.S. intelligence community has essentially laid down a roadmap for the U.S. dealing directly with Iran, which essentially requires that the regime’s own security interests and regional aspirations be addressed and accommodated. In other words, a grand bargain with Iran, in which the U.S. relinquishes the goal of destroying the Islamic Republic’s regime in exchange for Iran satisfying U.S. and allied security concerns on issues ranging from nuclear power to terrorism and regional peace.

But the Bush Administration, whose own Iran policy has always fallen between the stools of regime-change and diplomatic engagement, is unlikely to be in a position to grasp the opportunity. Much of its support base and its presidential candidates will demand sticking to the hawkish line, even as international support for meaningful action against Tehran all but evaporates. Even the advisability of a U.S. administration enfeebled by its travails in the Middle East and the by the short duration of its tenure trying to strike a grand bargain with an emboldened and confident Iran is open to question. And, of course, Iran could see a change in its presidency, too, as a result of elections to be held in the summer of 2009. Even now, signs are that the Iranians are being careful to avoid escalating any confrontation with the U.S. and have, according to the U.S. military, been more cooperative in Iraq.

What the NIE report has done is removed the urgency from the equation, taking the wind out of the sails of those who had insisted that if he failed to act decisively, even militarily, before the end of his tenure, President Bush would leave his successor facing a nuclear-armed Iran. Instead, he’s more likely to leave his successor facing a version of the current dilemma — Iran enriching uranium in experimental quantities despite U.N. attempts to restrain it — but with a fresh set of policy options that the Bush Administration won’t allow itself: Principally, to negotiate directly with Iran on all issues of conflict.

On Iraq:

The Bush Administration’s troop surge has run its course, largely because the U.S. simply lacks the troop strength to maintain the current levels of commitment to a garrison mission in Iraq. The surge has brought a substantial reduction in sectarian violence in the capital and elsewhere, thus accompanying its primary tactical goal. But the strategic purpose of the surge was to create a security shield behind which Iraq’s political leaders could conclude the pact of national reconciliation that would set the country on a path to political stability.

Iraq’s political leaders remain as deadlocked as ever, with the result that the security gains achieved by the surge could just as easily prove to be a time-out as a turnabout.

President Bush has, of course, left no doubt that Iraq will be handed over to his successor, pretty much as is — rather than healed, the patient remains on life-support, in a situation that may be described, in medical parlance, as critical but stable.

The fact that the U.S. has been unable to create the conditions for long-term stability in Iraq through the deployment of its own resources and those of its immediate allies (Britain is all but gone) means that Iraq’s future may well depend on the state of the U.S. relationship with each of its neighbors — Iran, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — and the relationship between them. Managing that relationship may no longer be the exclusive responsibility of the U.S., either: Saudi Arabia is clearly making a concerted effort to repair its own relations with Iran, as are other Arab countries. The regional dynamic may be the most important front in setting the outcome in Iran over the next year. Don’t expect President Bush to be offering milestones and promising victory. Iraq in 2008 will be not unlike Iraq in 2007 — hanging in the balance.

On Israel and the Palestinians:

Despite the optimistic fanfare that surrounded the Annapolis peace conference, it would require an extraordinary leap of faith to believe that, as promised at that gathering, 2008 will be a breakthrough year towards Israeli-Palestinian peace. The more optimistic explanations for why this might be the case tended to focus on the apparent uptick in effort by the Bush Administration, and the idea that the domestic political weakness of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders who went to Annpolis makes them more reliant on a deal.

But there has been no indication that the Bush Administration plans to change anything about its policy on the conflict other than the frequency with which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels to the region. The Israelis have always left little doubt that they do not believe Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is capable of delivering a credible peace precisely because of his domestic political weakness; they have agreed to indulge Washington by going through the motions with him, knowing that they can live with the status quo. The Israelis also made clear they prefer an open-ended process with no timetable. They know that in a year’s time, they’ll still be there, but President Bush will be turning off the lights on his Administration. What’s the rush? Instead, the Israelis are likely to ignore Bush when his positions don’t suit them, be it on the question of expanding settlements in East Jerusalem or on negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas has thrown all his eggs into the basket of U.S. mediation, and has no option besides going along with whatever Washington is willing to do. But he knows, as do many U.S. allies in the Arab world, that the idea of a peace process constructed as if Hamas — the majority party in the democratically elected Palestinian legislature — did not exist, is simply fanciful. Yet, the current peace effort attempts to do just that. Even then, there is no sign that the Israelis are likely to give Abbas anything even close to what he needs — on issues ranging from prisoner releases and freedom of movement to settlements — in order to win the Palestinian political debate with Hamas. Nor is there much prospect of Abbas reasserting control over Gaza and halting the barrage of rockets that rain down from there into southern Israel. That’s up to Hamas, and the fact that Israeli leaders are starting to talk about talking to Hamas reflects their recognition of Abbas’s feebleness.

And the Arab regimes are pressing Abbas to restore a unity government with Hamas, despite the fact that the Israelis deem this a deal-breaker — cynically, perhaps, given that they’re talking themselves about dealing with Hamas, but the Israelis have never been short of cynicism.

Absent a U.S. Administration willing to change its own course in respect of talking to Hamas and willing, ultimately, to prescribe the terms of a fair solution to both sides, 2008 is likely to be simply a holding pattern until the next occupants of the White House have settled in.

On Syria and Lebanon:

Much is revealed about the state of U.S. influence in the Middle East by the fact that the Bush Administration felt compelled to invite Syria to its Annapolis peace conference despite the fact that Damascus remains allied with Iran, plays host to the headquarters of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, continues to exert considerable influence in neighboring Lebanon despite the best efforts of the U.S. to end that influence, and even [EM] according to Washington’s own claims [EM] appears to be dabbling in nukes. The regime of President Bashar Assad has, quite simply, weathered the storm of the Bush Administration’s drive to remake the Middle East, and its centrality to the prospects for stabilizing both Iraq and Lebanon [EM] and the desire of pro-Western Arab regimes to detach it from Iran [EM] have forced Washington to abandon its efforts to isolate Syria.

Syria’s demand that Israel return of the Golan Heights, which it captured in 1967, is now an integral part of the dialogue between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And, despite Washington’s best efforts to defeat the pro-Syria opposition alliance of Hizballah and the Christian followers of General Michel Aoun in Lebanon, the U.S.-backed government (and its supporters elsewhere in the Arab world) appear to have accepted the need for a compromise. Essentially, on the regional power-play scoreboard, Washington and its allies fought Iran, Syria and their allies to a tie in Lebanon.

The Bush Administration is unlikely to engage with Syria directly, preferring to leave that to its Arab allies and, possibly, also Israel. But absent any U.S.-brokered deal on the Golan, movement on all these fronts is likely to be slow. Again, 2008 will, in the best case scenario, simply retain the holding pattern of the current stalemate, pending a new grand bargain made possible by political changes elsewhere (most notably in the U.S. and Iran).

On Pakistan and Afghanistan

Not part of the Middle East, of course, but nonetheless germane to its prospects. And six years after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a bust for the U.S. and its allies. Indeed, today it looks not unlike Soviet-era Afghanistan in the early ’80s, with the Taliban operating freely in around 60% of the country. Pakistan’s military regime continues to pursue policies at odds with U.S. desires (in Afghanistan and at home) while remaining the acknowledged “lesser evil” in Washington’s eyes. So what Bush says and what Musharraf does are quite different, but Bush has no good alternative to Musharraf. Anyone who was paying close attention after 9/11 will remember that the Pakistani leader’s position was to try and get the Taliban to cough up Osama bin Laden, in order to remain in power — which is where you usually want your proxy to be in a country you deem your strategic back yard. And there’s a growing belief even in NATO ranks that stability in Afghanistan may require a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Musharraf may, improbable as it may seem, actually get a version of what he wanted.

The Demise of Pax Americana

So, Bush has accelerated the decline of U.S. influence in the region through a series of disastrous blunders, and that decline is unlikely to be significantly reversed by any successor Administration in Washington — the decline of U.S. global influence is related not only to tactical errors by Bush; it is also a symptom of structural shifts in the global political economy. In the U.S., then, the question is whether it can elect a government that can adopt policies appropriate for a declining superpower (as opposed to Bush’s giddy adventurism which is based on a fantasy about U.S. capabilities — he still says things like “I’ve run out of patience with the Assad regime…” Oh really? And what does that mean? That like Kim Jong-il who Bush famously said he “loathed,” Assad will sooner or later also get a polite letter pleading for cooperation. What’s that? Oh, right, he already has; it was an invitation to Bush’s Annapolis conference…)

But a second set of challenges arises in every part of the Middle East where those in power have premised their strategies and positions on the assumption of U.S. primacy — if Pax Americana in the Middle East is indeed on the wane, what does that mean for the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis, the Syrians and Iran and the Gulf States?

Stay tuned.

Tony Karon is a journalist from Cape Town, South Africa and resident of New York since 1993. He is currently a senior editor at TIME.com (although his writings at Atlantic Free Press and personal blog he does on his own time and is personally entirely responsible for its content, which in no way reflects the views or outlook of anyone else).

Karon has worked for Time since 1997, covering the Middle East, the “war on terror” and international issues ranging from China’s emergence to the Balkans. He also does occasional op-eds for Haaretz and other publications, as well as bits of TV and radio punditry for CNN, MSNBC, and various NPR shows. Karon did an ever-so-brief stint at Fox News (measured in months!) and worked at George magazine in its startup year. Having majored in economic history, he cut his analytical teeth in South Africa in the struggle years, where he worked both as an editor in the “alternative” press and as an activist of the banned ANC. And in that context, his obsession with understanding global events took root, as a means of contextualizing the choices and obstacles faced in the struggle against apartheid. In 1990/1, he gave up his activist career almost as soon as Nelson Mandela was released, the ANC was unbanned and the regime conceded to a transition to democracy — and a “normality” was achieved in South Africa politics. Karon then went to work in the mainstream media at the Cape Times and the Mail & Guardian Weekly, before leaving for New York in 1993 on what he imagined would be an extended holiday.

A brief research gig at Time Out opened his eyes to the possibilities of working in the U.S. — as well as hooking up to the first connections of the sort of ever-expanding networks that make life in the city possible. What followed was a mad array of freelance gigs ranging from the sublime (television work for Britain’s Channel 4 that involved escapades such as spending three days with the rapper Notorious B.I.G.) to the ridiculous — writing the script for a Geffen Records “rockumentary” on Manowar, an upstate New York heavy metal band, really big in Spain and Greece, whose brief spell in the Guiness Book of records as the world’s loudest band underscored their image of themselves as Norse warriors and Wagner’s true inheritors.

While he relished the professional holiday from the serious themes that had preoccupied his life during the 80s, and the opportunity to explore other interests and passions, he gravitated back to writing about geopolitics. The optimism surrounding the new paradigms of post-Cold War politics suddenly began to recede, and familiar patterns began to repeat themselves. Reading the New York Times on the subway en route to various day jobs, Karon found himself drawn back to the big themes. There were things that needed saying, and he had more to offer than commentaries on the marketing strategies of the Wu Tang Clan.

In the aftermath of 9/11, he found many friends and acquaintances asking me to share private observations about the “war on terror” and related subjects and started mailing those out to a list of friends and colleagues, that just kept growing as they forwarded them to others. And finally, after a substantial hiatus, they’ve evolved into Rootless Cosmopolitian - where he blogs regularly.
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