Middle Eastern politics is rife with paradox in the turbulent aftermath of the Arab Spring. That is the source of much bewilderment as to what recent developments mean for the region as a whole. Washington’s present befuddlement owes to its inability to make sense of, much less resolve multiple paradoxes. In the broad perspective, American influence over other governments has hit an unprecedented low — yet, the current diplomatic configuration conforms to the pattern existent before January 2011 when the alignment was dominated by American partners and allies. That earlier alignment served the United States’ self-defined strategic interests — reasonable or not. So, too, does the reconstituted configuration. But a sense of lost control obscures that reality.
Its main feature is a coalition of states dedicated to protecting the status quo. They include the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel as well as the Gulf principalities (including a repentant Qatar). Fatah, and Abbas personally, have been co-opted as passive accomplices. The binding glue is a shared aversion to three disruptive threats to the status quo: a concerted drive to create a Palestinian state, radical salafist movements, and Iran. In agreement on the identification of these threats, the parties assess them in somewhat different ways.
On Palestine, the common thread is a fear that any semi-independent entity would be dominated by Hamas. None is ready to acknowledge that the present policies of exclusion combined with Israel’s rejection of acceptable terms for Palestinian autonomy strengthen Hamas and ensure that the Palestinian grievance will continue to inflame Arab sentiment. For Washington, blind commitment to the Israelis explains this blinkered view as does the intense terrorism paranoia. For the Arab governments in the coalition, fear of internal Islamist groups as diverse as the Muslim Brotherhood, the self-styled al-Qaeda affiliates and local jihadist elements, all with ties to Hamas – tangible or ideological, are the menace — a menace to the military’s dominance in Egypt and to the traditional monarchies alike.
In the case of the House of Saud, there is a particular hyper-sensitivity to the claims of those Islamists who present themselves as bearers of the true Islamist faith. The Kingdom’s very legitimacy is based on its position as custodian of the Holy Sites of Mecca and Medina – and, therefore, the spiritual integrity of Islam itself. Ever vigilant that it not be outflanked on its fundamentalist flank, the Saudis follow the dual strategy of using their wealth to actively promote their version of the faith, Wahhabism, throughout the Islamic world while striving to undercut challengers. One result is to bring Saudi Arabia into direct conflict with some of those forces aggressively assaulting the West and secularism in the name of Islam – yet another paradox rooted in the complexities of the Middle East’s religio-political affairs.
Radical salafism, for the United States does not convey the same weighty menace — except insofar as its threat to friendly regimes endangers its own geo-strategic interests. The paradox for American policy-makers is that the vaunted promotion of democracy as a desirable goal in itself conflicts with its stake in the regional status quo. Free elections insert a very big Joker into the pack. Outcomes are unpredictable and can be unwelcome — as occurred in the 2006 Palestine vote that Hamas won, as in Egypt, as in Iraq, and as in Lebanon where Hezbullah’s successes at the polls have gained it a prominent place in the government. Washington, therefore, is steadily losing credibility as its vocal proselytizing for the democratic creed is belied by its actions — inter alia, silence on Bahrain’s suppression of its Shi’ite majority, equivocation on the Army’s coup in Egypt, voiding the Palestinian vote, and shivering elsewhere when Islamists have or could gain power. Obama bet heavily on the Mursi government as representing a reconciliation of democracy with political Islam. It has lost that bet due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rigid and fixed objectives and an underestimation of the reaction that would ensue.
The same contradiction is vividly on display in Syria where the Obama administration pronounced anathema on the Assad regime only to find that liberal elements in the opposition were being overwhelmed by fiercely anti-American jihadi forces. Hence, its protracted equivocation over whether and how to help the anti-Assad forces that has led to a relegation of the United States to the status of a sideline observer. Discomfort with that position of uncharacteristic passivity in itself is a factor helping to tip the White House balance of opinion in the direction of intervention after the gas attack. It remains tied into knots, though, due to two other paradoxes. Any intervention that is to the advantage of one side in the civil war serves the interest of either radical salafist groups or Hezbollah — both of which have are denounced as dangerous terrorist groups. In addition, the sensitivity about the loss of credibility were Washington not to respond to an alleged crossing of the “red line” drawn by Obama is counter-balanced by the credibility it would lose among regional public opinion were it to act without a compelling justification.
In stressing that any military action would be in the form of punishment for the specific crime of using chemical weapons, the Obama White House is admitting that it can see no positive outcome to the civil war. That leaves it two options: a passive stance of letting the fighting continue; or working toward a negotiated agreement among the warring parties. The former is unattractive since the regional consequences could be pernicious, and because it could lead to sectarian massacres. Yet, an active effort to find a compromise that might prevent sectarian factions from revenge attacks means doing things that make American leaders chary: collaborating with other governments on a truly multilateral basis, and accepting some role for the anathematized Iran as well as Hezbollah and Russia. Tehran poses the greatest difficulty since to involve the Islamic Republic would set the United States on a course it is not yet prepared to take – even though it carries the potential for resolution of the nuclear issue.
Iran is the one common point of anxious reference for the conservative coalition where member attitudes are convergent. All find the prospect of a nuclear capable Iran intolerable. All see the mullahs’ regime as dedicated to becoming the dominant power in the Persian Gulf and to forcing a reconfiguration of the diplomatic constellation throughout the region. All are nonetheless hesitant about resorting to military force to neutralize Iran’s nuclear potential. All, it follows, aim at regime change as the one definitive answer to the Persian challenge generally as well as to the nuclear problem.
There is one point of difference between the United States and its Middle Eastern allies: the sectarian confrontation within the Islamic world between Shi’ites and Sunnis. That rivets the attention of Washington’s Sunni Arab partners — raising the stakes in the perceived power contest with Iran and reinforcing already rigid political positions. American officials do share the notion that Tehran is striving to exploit sectarian affinities to build a regional power bloc that threatens multiple Western interests re. Israel, terrorism (shi’ite variety), secure access to oil, and the stability of its allies. The bloc’s composition embraces Hezbullah, Assad’s Alawite dominated Syrian regime, and Iraq (admitted off the record and with qualification) as supplemented by influence on shi’ite communities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf. With this dire conception of the Persian danger, the United States’ fears of Iran match those of its Sunni allies despite the absence of an overt sectarian preference. Consequently, it is progressively being sucked into that historic battle within the heart of Islam. That is an odd position for the bastion of secular politics and herald of democracy to find itself in — one with costly consequences.
The ultimate paradox is that the United States, at the moment, enjoys a diplomatic position which, on balance, is far more favorable to its designs than it could have imagined but a few months ago. Even as its popularity in the region plummets, even as its influence over allied regimes declines, even as its paralysis over Syria highlights its diminished prowess, the restored diplomatic map appears to official Washington as something to celebrate. Does it in fact qualify for celebration? An answer depends on how one assesses two other problematic issues. One, does the American strategy re. Iran, Palestine, terrorism etc. make sense? If not, then reconstitution of the old coalition simply reinforces momentum along the same failed avenues. Two, how much of a liability will lowered status and influence be in the future? The latter is unknowable – in good part because it depends very much on the aims and purposes for which the United States might wish to mobilize that influence.
Coping with paradox and ambiguity never has been an American forte. The Obama White House’s peculiar self-satisfaction and insularity makes it all the more susceptible to the vicissitudes of a world it does not comprehend.