Old-Think Rides Again

Haaretz-27/11/2006

The curtain is now descending on United States and allied hopes that a democratic, stable Iraq might yet emerge from the 2003 invasion of that country. As the endgame is played out, one may glimpse the contours of the new thinking on key Mideast issues emerging to fill the vacuum left by the eclipse of the “regional democratization” project of which the new Iraq was intended to form the linchpin. This new thinking, it turns out, is not very new at all. It is also of direct relevance to Israel.

Observe: A week ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair laid down some clear parameters for the future direction of Mideast diplomacy. The “core” issue, said Blair, was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Movement in this area, the British prime minister told his audience, was the essential starting point in confronting the roots of the global terrorism that has emerged from the Middle East. From Israel/Palestine, he suggested, one might move on to Lebanon. In this way, Blair considered, the sources of anger used by Iran and Syria against the West would be stilled. In turn, the West could then offer a new “partnership” to Iran in return for giving up its nuclear ambitions. The threat, should Iran fail to comply, would be “isolation.” The recent trip by a senior British prime ministerial adviser to Syria suggests that the British government hopes to make a similar attractive offer of “partnership” to the Assad regime in Damascus.

Western policy in the Mideast, of course, is not determined in any European capital. Blair’s hopes for regional influence go via Washington. But there has rarely been a more welcoming environment for the flourishing of such thinking than that to be found in Washington today. Opponents and erstwhile associates of the Bush administration are scrambling to construct a new regional strategy from the ashes of the Iraq project. Engagement is all the rage. The influential Iraq Study Group (ISG) of former secretary of state James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton consists largely of individuals who support the idea of a new “regional conference,” drawing in Syria and Iran, in the hope that they may use their influence to prevent further meltdown in Iraq, Lebanon and between Israelis and Palestinians. Secretary of Defense-designate Robert Gates is a long-term advocate of dialogue with Tehran. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian, who is expected to author the upcoming ISG report, is known to favor renewed closeness between the United States and Syria. President Bush, it is understood, currently opposes any major policy shift. But the way the winds are blowing is clear.

The problem with this thinking is that it exchanges one form of naivete for another. The previous version – which said that tomorrow, Middle Eastern political culture will be just like ours, once the small matter of democratization has been sorted out – is being discarded. In its place is emerging a view which asserts that seemingly problematic Middle Eastern leaders and regimes are already like us. So all we need to do to get them on our side is to offer a few inducements, a few incentives, and they will surely see the benefits of cooperation.

We have been here before. This is the thinking that underlay the failed peace process of the 1990s. But it is being revived in a region vastly more volatile and dangerous than that of a decade ago.

Such a view fails to cast a clear eye on how things look from Tehran and Damascus. For the revivalist ideologues in Iran, and the Alawi junta in Syria, things are currently going rather well. U.S.-induced democratization has run aground. Efforts to build a coherent coalition against the Iranian nuclear program seem to be going nowhere. And imaginations across the Arab world have been captured by the performance of Iranian/Syrian client organizations against the hated Zionist enemy. Why on earth would this be the time for compromise? Why stop when you’re winning?

But the poverty of Western policy thinking also has at its root a failure of imagination. It is the failure to comprehend that for the rising elite in Tehran, the Shia Islamist idea is a serious matter, not a mere decoration. The anti-Western sentiments, the long, bitter historical memories, the desire for the redress of perceived past wrongs are not merely ideological poses. They are the basis of political behavior. They will not be stilled by appeasement – though the holders of them will be keen to exploit and manipulate perceived weakness.

Policymakers in Israel would do well to pay careful heed to this revival of Mideast old-think in Western capitals. In addition to the sincerity of President Ahmadinejad’s desire to destroy Israel, keeping the focus on the Zionist entity has the added benefit of helping to downplay the Shia-Sunni divides that may yet derail Iran’s push for regional hegemony. Thus, in the first instance, the price of (not-to-be-delivered) “cooperation” is likely to be requested in Israeli currency.

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