Ripples in the Middle East?


IT IS not hard to discern the equivalent of a spring in the step in the recent output of the commentators and analysts who either supported the American aggression against Iraq, or criticized it desultorily only after they saw it developing into a what looked like an unmitigated disaster. Through the nearly two years of bomb blasts and bloodshed, many of them kept their eyes trained on the unrelieved gloom of the clouds overhead. Their motivated patience has lately been rewarded: they have espied a silver lining.

Many of them were never quite convinced by the argument (even while offering it themselves) that the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime – which was undeniably brutal but possessed no weapons of mass destruction, had no links with Osama bin Laden’s outfit, and posed no military threat even to its neighbours let alone to any Western power – was sufficient justification for a war that claimed casualties in the hundreds of thousands and destroyed what remained of Iraq’s infrastructure. The war of attrition that followed the invasion, the indiscriminate assaults on population centres such as Najaf and Fallujah, the sordid tales of what went on at Abu Ghraib and so many other detention centres, inclined some of them towards questioning their own enthusiasm for the new century’s first major conflict.

Lately, however, a seemingly propitious set of circumstances has persuaded them to renew their faith in the foresight of the neo-conservatives who accompanied George W. Bush into power in 2001, and whose influence in Washington has grown with the advent of his second administration. After all, didn’t these neo-cons claim that all they wanted was to spread democracy (never mind the fact that the in the documents they produced, they seldom bothered to disguise their hegemonistic intent)? And aren’t there signs that a wave of democracy is about to crash through the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and beyond, taking its cue from the elections in Iraq?

So, even if the attack on Iraq violated international law and the elaborate excuses offered for it were largely fictitious, hasn’t some good come of it after all?

Well, there can be little question that the Middle East could do with a lot more democracy – provided the dispensation translates into high levels of popular participation and representation, rather than ersatz electoral exercises designed to replace one set of oligarchs with another, chiefly on the basis that the latter are expected to be more sensitive to Washington’s whims.

One doesn’t have to be embedded in a conservative American think tank to recognize that the region is awash with mediocre despots, and that large numbers of Arabs are hungry for change. Almost none of them, however, would be willing to countenance a fraction of the price paid by Iraqis for the privilege of regime change. Besides, the fate of Iraq isn’t the only reason for being wary of US motives and designs. Even a perfunctory glance at 20th-century Middle Eastern history serves as a reminder that some of the least defensible Arab regimes have owed their longevity, if not their very existence, to crutches made in the USA.

Let bygones be bygones, argue some of the apologists; Washington’s record in the region is indeed murky, but now behold the new, improved United States, the harbinger of democracy and liberal virtues.

Even if this illusion had some basis in fact, there would be cause to question the American method of exporting these ideals. But the fact is that liberal values are under attack in the US itself – a phenomenon witnessed under every recent Republican administration, although this time around it has adopted a more virulent form than during the Nixon or Reagan years. And democracy has suffered setbacks across many of the nations involved in the assault on Iraq, where governments either symbolically or more substantially contributed to the neo-con project in the face of overwhelming popular disapproval.

What’s more, double standards are still rife in the Middle East. There’s Israel, of course – a systematic violator of human rights that ignores UN resolutions with impunity, sanctions terrorist attacks on foreign soil and almost certainly harbours arsenals of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, yet rarely attracts anything other than love letters (and unlimited largesse) from Washington. But even if Israel is left out of the equation, it would be impossible to claim with an iota of credibility that the US is even-handed in its regional approach. To take but one instance, Iran and Syria have been branded outposts of tyranny. However, even those inclined to accept that description, perhaps with a quibble here and a tiny reservation there, are left wondering why the most repressive and regressive state in the region is conspicuously spared such epithets, while a paltry degree of participation in virtually meaningless Saudi municipal polls is hailed as a symbolically significant concession.

This isn’t the only strand of hypocrisy. And there is particular cause for alarm when it finds expression unwittingly. When George W. Bush declared last week, “I don’t think you can have fair elections [in Lebanon] with Syrian troops there”, what are the chances that he paused even momentarily to wonder why that should be so, given that in his view it’s clearly possible to hold fair, free and groundbreaking elections in Iraq amid a vastly larger US military presence?

But then, perhaps that’s an unfair question. If Bush were capable of sorting such matters out in his head, chances are he wouldn’t have revelled in his role as chief recruitment officer for all manner of Islamists terrorists. It is nonetheless somewhat strange to hear the strongest demands for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon coming from the only two countries with occupation forces on Arab lands: the US and Israel.

However, notwithstanding this shameless display of pharisaism, conditions within Lebanon appear to suggest that if a Syrian military role in that country was ever necessary or desirable, that is no longer the case. Locally, the movement for a withdrawal gained momentum following the unfortunate assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut on February 14th. The US and Israel immediately pointed their fingers at Damascus, and large numbers of Lebanese appeared to concur, despite the absence of any evidence implicating Syria in the crime.

Although Hariri resigned as head of government last October in protest against Syrian interference and may have been instrumental in instigating the much-cited UN Security Council resolution calling for a withdrawal (albeit without naming Syria), he wasn’t on exceptionally bad terms with the government of Bashar Al Assad. At the same time, it is hard to believe anyone in Damascus could have been in any doubt about what such a spectacular “hit” on the streets of Beirut would portend for Syria.

It is not inconceivable, of course, that some wing of Syrian military intelligence hatched the plot without referring it to the government – and, if so, it has done its nation a monumental disservice. But there are other suspects who may have had a clearer motive not so much for targeting Hariri in particular, but for sparking unrest in Lebanon and, perhaps, destabilising Syria. It has been suggested that Iraqi insurgents may have hoped to widen the war by embroiling Syria. Again, that’s not impossible, but it seems a bit far-fetched; besides, the operation required a sophistication of which such perpetrators are unlikely to be capable. It is equally unlikely that any US agency would risk direct involvement in such a deed. Israel, on the other hand, had even more to gain than the US from an event that would inexorably increase pressure on its Syrian foe, and in the longer term may even lead to a loss of sponsorship for the Hizbollah militia – the only Arab force to have inflicted defeat on the Israeli army. And Mossad has considerable experience in targeted assassinations.

But that doesn’t add up to proof of culpability: it’s only speculation, and it must be hoped that an independent international investigation will nail the culprits.

Despite having presided over a deeply flawed administration, Hariri is associated in the popular view with Lebanon’s reconstruction, however lopsided, following the dastardly 1975-90 civil war. His death, it is said, could lead to a more profound Lebanese rebirth. Last week the protests in Beirut forced the resignation of Omar Karami’s pro-Syrian government. At the weekend, Assad announced the pullback of Syria’s 14,000 troops; although the US State Department reacted with characteristic impetuosity, almost everyone else heaved a sigh of relief.

Assad has invariably gone out of his way to placate American concerns, while at the same time trying not to antagonize the so-called hardliners in his government, whose mindset probably harks back to the days of a more radical Syria. Like almost every other Arab state, the country cries out for reform and rejuvenation. But the consequences of external coercion could prove unpalatable for everyone. The impetus for change must come from within, and Syrians alone must decide the shape it takes.

That holds true also for all other countries in the region, from Iran to Sudan. And although it must be hoped that democratisation will gather momentum, on present evidence – a passing nod to pluralism from Hosni Mubarak, limited franchise local polls in Saudi Arabia, minor concessions in other Gulf states, the inconclusive “cedar revolution” in Lebanon – the region is experiencing ripples of change rather than a tsunami. One could argue endlessly over the precise correlation between each ripple and developments in Baghdad, but even the wholesale relegation of despotism within the next few years wouldn’t add up to post hoc justification of Iraq’s devastation. Nothing can change the fact that the war was a criminal act. And wishful thinking alone cannot transform a silver lining into a rainbow.

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