Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In the summer of 2008, there was an epidemic of diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East. The new diplomacy represented a striking break with the pattern of statesmanship that has prevailed in the region for the last decade: It always involved an ally of the United States talking to an enemy of America without Washington’s approval or participation.

In May, Israel revealed that for over a year it had been secretly negotiating with Syria, using Turkey as a mediator. The contending sides have made significant progress toward a deal in which Israel would withdraw to its 1967 northern borders in exchange for Damascus signing a comprehensive peace treaty. The US could not be a party to the talks because the Bush administration has shunned Syria, declining even to appoint an ambassador to Damascus since Margaret Scobey departed the Syrian capital in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s ex-premier, Rafiq al-Hariri. Turkey also joined together with Iran, another state that the US insists is a pariah, to launch joint operations against Kurdish guerrillas in northern Iraq.

In June, Egypt negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, the Islamist organization Hamas. The truce held until November 4, the same day Americans elected Barack Obama as their next president, when Israel launched a cross-border raid and an airstrike in Gaza, killing seven, and Hamas fired back a barrage of rockets. Washington could not be a party to the June deal, and cannot be a party to its restoration, because it refuses to attend any meeting where Hamas, a “terrorist organization,” is present. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling to Israel and the West Bank two days after the ceasefire was broken, had to announce that President George W. Bush’s end-of-year deadline for an Israeli-Palestinian peace would expire without an agreement.

In May, too, the leaders of Lebanon’s feuding factions flew to Doha for eleventh-hour reconciliation talks supervised by the government of Qatar. To everyone’s surprise, the negotiations resulted in a successful agreement to elect a new Lebanese president, form a national unity government and schedule new elections. Not only would Washington not talk with many of the Lebanese factions involved, the Doha accords represented a failure of its year-long effort to exclude Hizballah from the Lebanese government.

Behind the scenes, the prodding and support of the Saudi government was critical to the success of the Doha talks. This was only one of several ways in which Riyadh suddenly seemed to be distancing itself from Washington. Concurrent with the Doha summit, President George W. Bush flew to meet Saudi King ‘Abdallah to plead for his assistance in lowering global oil prices, which were well on the way to their record $147 per barrel peak in July. Not only was the request rebuffed, but a month later King ‘Abdallah summoned a special energy summit in Jidda where he argued that the rise of oil prices was largely the work of American speculators.

Earlier in June, King ‘Abdallah had convened a gathering of Muslim religious leaders in Mecca, in an attempt to get them to join with the kingdom in a major interfaith dialogue with Christians and — remarkably — Jews. Seated at ‘Abdallah’s left throughout these talks was Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran. The two leaders agreed not only to work together at an interfaith summit to be held in Spain in July, but also to support the Doha accords and to strive to improve bilateral relations — despite an ongoing US campaign to convince the Arabs that Iran is their enemy. In fact, just in case anyone thought that the Saudis were happy with US policy, Riyadh signed a $4 billion arms deal with Moscow in May.

Ironically, this rash of independent peacemaking began just a week after Bush warned his Middle East allies of the dangers of “appeasing” rogue states. During his early May visit to Jerusalem, Bush praised Israel as the “homeland for the chosen people.” But a few days later, at the World Economic Forum at Sharm al-Sheikh, he hectored the Arabs for their failure to liberalize their economies and democratize their governments. The contrast between Bush’s two speeches prompted Egyptian President Husni Mubarak to boycott his talk and led to a public rebuke from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Bush’s call upon US allies to isolate Syria and Iran — “every peaceful nation in the region has an interest in stopping these nations from supporting terrorism” — fell as a tree in an uninhabited forest.

The Lame Duck

US policy under Bush has slowly lost the support of Washington’s allies in the Middle East. Of course, most Arab countries are unsettled by the program of democratization that Bush emphasized once US troops failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But even those allies whose governments have democratic features (Israel and Turkey) have been disturbed by the “idealist” character of Bush administration policy. Washington has tended to view conflicts in the region through moralistic lenses, as conflicts between good and evil. It has argued that “evildoers” must be held at arm’s length and shamed, excluded from negotiations or even from routine diplomatic communication.

Bush’s moralism has aggravated a series of problems for US allies. It has meant that there has been very little progress in regional negotiations — such as the Arab-Israeli peace process — because Washington refuses even to speak to some of the main parties involved. The US stance appears perverse to most Middle Easterners, for whom realism is the dominant political tradition. Most Middle Eastern states are highly opportunistic: They routinely make and break alliances in a search for the most powerful partners. At least in secret, they are prepared to talk to anybody; even talks with traditional enemies may result in reduced tension or collaboration on issues of mutual interest.

Washington’s moralism has fueled a steady polarization between Middle Eastern states over the last eight years. At first the Bush administration treated all “state sponsors of terror” as if they formed a single axis, even though Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Mohammad Khatami’s Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan loathed each other. Then it began to treat Iran and its allies as if they were the focus of evil in the region, even though some of Iran’s allies, in particular the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, were the same people that the US was trying to install in power in Baghdad. Frequently, US hostility toward Iran was viewed in the region as hostility toward Shi‘ism, so that US belligerence became an aggravating factor in the regional spread of civil wars between Sunnis and Shi‘is. As a result, Middle Eastern states have been pushed into mutually hostile camps, fueling the worst wave of regional infighting since the “Arab cold war” of the 1960s.

Privately, and more recently in public, Middle Eastern leaders have complained that US moralism is having dangerous effects. Until 2007, there was little that they could do about it. But as US policy failures in the region — not just in Iraq, but in Gaza and elsewhere — piled up, American influence gradually waned. Indeed, the authority of the Bush administration declined even more rapidly. From 2006 both the president’s falling poll numbers and the election of a Democratic majority in Congress eroded his power. The 2008 presidential campaign started in 2007 and the selection of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) — a Bush critic — as the Republican nominee a full eight months before the party convention tended to edge Bush out of the limelight.

But the one factor that contributed most to the growing independence of Washington’s Middle East allies was the attitude of Bush himself. In November 2007 he declared at Annapolis, Maryland that he would spend his final year in office searching for Arab-Israeli peace, but afterwards there was no initiative, no follow-up, no plan — as Rice was finally compelled to acknowledge a year later. The May 2008 defeat by Hizballah of Washington’s allies in Lebanon also constituted a tipping point; it was concrete evidence that Bush was not prepared to intervene and, in fact, had no response up his sleeve. Bush appeared already to have embraced his status as a lame duck president. Not only was he neglecting the Middle East, he was slow to act even on burning domestic issues such as the credit crunch. When Bush appeared at the Gridiron Club in March to sing the melancholy ballad, “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” his eagerness to get away from the travails of Washington and return to his Crawford, Texas ranch was patent.

Shrinking Capital

The one country in the region where US diplomacy remains the only game in town is US-occupied Iraq, but there, too, Washington’s clients have been spurning their patron’s overtures. In November 2007, Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a declaration of principles for a bilateral agreement, to be concluded by the following July, on the terms of a continued US troop presence in Iraq. The bilateral accord was to replace the UN mandate governing the Multi-National Force in Iraq that will expire on December 31. Initially, the assumption was that Bush would succeed in inking an accord without a timeline for US military withdrawal, possibly obligating his successor to keep tens of thousands of US soldiers in Iraq for an indefinite period.

But things did not go according to plan — and not because the proposed agreement raised the hackles of Congressional Democrats concerned that, because Bush said it was not a “treaty,” he did not intend to submit it for their approval. The concept of an open-ended US military presence ran up against much stronger opposition in Iraq, including, eventually, from within the Maliki government. By August 2008, the White House had agreed to a “time horizon” of 2011 for the departure of combat forces, though the decision to leave would still be “conditions-based.” The draft of the accord that was leaked in mid-October stipulated more firmly, “The forces of the United States will withdraw from Iraqi territory on a date no later than December 31, 2011,” before adding that either Iraq or the US could request an extension of this deadline subject to the other party’s approval. Discontent inside and outside the Iraqi parliament continued to build, and within days, Maliki himself was reported voicing objections to the terms. Various Iraqi factions have demanded an ironclad timetable for withdrawal, clearer provisions for Iraqi jurisdiction over crimes committed by US troops and an Iraqi right to inspect US arms shipments entering the country, among other revisions. But the bottom line appears to be that, at present, no Iraqi politician outside of Kurdistan wants to be seen signing off on an extension of a foreign military presence on Iraqi soil.

The Maliki government may be coyly resisting an agreement it really does want, whether to make a show of nationalism or to wring further concessions out of Bush. Or it may hope to get a more marketable agreement out of the next White House, one that can pass the Iraqi parliament, but that also leaves US soldiers in Iraq long enough for the factions he represents to defeat their political opponents and consolidate their rule. In any case, Bush’s failure to obtain a deal — with the clock ticking furiously on the UN mandate — underscores his consistent larger failure to shape Iraqi politics to US strategic advantage since the invasion. The drama of the Bush-Maliki talks has made everyone forget that there has been scant progress toward national reconciliation — the purported raison d’être of the “surge” that commenced in 2007. Meanwhile, the protestations of Iraq ground commander Gen. Ray Odierno and US Embassy officials that Iran is orchestrating the Iraqi reactions to the drafts again highlight the bitter irony that Washington and its nemesis Tehran back the same horses among the Shi‘i Islamist parties in Baghdad.

Concurrent with the stalling of US-Iraqi negotiations over the bilateral security agreement, the credit crunch of the spring worsened dramatically, as one over-leveraged Wall Street investment bank after another was exposed as a paper tiger. The roots of the crisis lay in decades of federal deregulation, including during the Clinton administration, but again the Bush administration’s interventions were perceived abroad as dilatory and erratic. The global crisis that is still unfolding points to the importance of the US economy to the health of world markets, but also to the shrinking financial and diplomatic capital of America’s power centers.

The Oslo Formula

The new diplomacy in the Middle East will persist at least until a new US president, one whose credibility is intact, takes office. Indeed, the new style may actually endure much longer. President-elect Barack Obama has said he will embrace and advance the Syrian-Israeli talks. And at least one country, Saudi Arabia, looks set to make the new diplomacy a permanent element of its arsenal.

The September 11, 2001 outrage — wherein 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi — was a public relations disaster for Riyadh. The Saudis feared that the US might partially blame the kingdom for the attack, or at least for having fostered the salafi movement that gave rise to it. So for seven years afterwards the Saudis mimicked US foreign policy as closely as they could, with the exception of their attempts to forge unity between Hamas and Fatah at Mecca in February 2007. Only in 2008 have the Saudis concluded that their image in the West is secure enough, and Washington’s leadership dysfunctional enough, that they can risk resuming an independent foreign policy stance.

The new diplomacy is perfectly tailored to Saudi needs. It allows Riyadh to launch its own initiatives, without the approval of Washington. The fact that the new diplomacy relies heavily on secret bilateral talks rather than public consultations lowers the risk of American opposition. It also means that the Saudis can engage their enemies and Washington’s (Israel, Hamas and Syria) without worrying that moralizing or threats of regime change will sink the negotiations. The talks can focus on concrete and practical compromises rather than wrangling over who is right. And if the negotiations are successful, Washington can later be brought on board — after the tenor and objectives of the talks have already been established.

The new diplomacy meets the needs of a period in which US leadership in international affairs has lost much of its legitimacy and influence. It is not totally new: Consciously or unconsciously, it is modeled after the Oslo formula, the secret talks between Israel and the PLO — mediated by Norway — that set the stage for a later peace agreement signed on the White House lawn. Nor is it entirely a Middle Eastern phenomenon. In Asia, too, US neglect is giving rise to independent negotiations between Washington’s “partners” and its “competitors.” The most public example of this is Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s array of initiatives designed to improve relations with China. Rudd bucked suggestions from Washington that he should supply nuclear fuel to India, largely out of respect to Chinese sensitivities. In response, the Chinese signed a series of agreements with Australia, covering topics from trade to climate change.

The United States still controls the most formidable military and the largest (if not the most dynamic) economy in the world. When the United States acts decisively, it still matters. But when it declines to act, or to be constructive, the new diplomacy gives Washington’s allies other options. They can get the ball rolling and even settle key issues before inviting the Americans aboard. The United States is not Grand Central Station any more: Not all roads lead to Washington.

How to cite this article:

Yahya Sadowski "Not All Roads Lead to Washington," Middle East Report 249 (Winter 2008).
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