Taking it seriously

Those who think that the difficulties the Americans are having in Iraq are going to make them rethink their commitment to effecting serious change in the Middle East and adopt some kind of a neutral hands-off stance vis-à-vis regional developments are, simply put, deluding themselves. In fact, the invasion of Iraq promises to be merely the beginning of a long period of direct American interventionism in the region. Whatever difficulties the Americans are bound to encounter along the way, whatever changes should take place at the helm, substituting Democrats for Republicans, conservatives for liberals, doves for hawks, or vice versa, could affect the choice of the particular interventionist strategy to be deployed, but it will have no impact on the interventionist policy itself. The United States has no option but to intervene. 

This is so partly on account of the many vital interests that the US has in the region–and yes, oil and the special relationship that exists between the US and Israel need to figure prominently here. But for the most part this has to do with the region’s imperviousness to change, whether as a result of soft international pressures or mounting internal demands.

The inability of this region to reinvent itself in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War at a time when much of the world, including many developing countries with much less potential and fewer resources than those of the Middle East, was experiencing rapid change has put the entire region in a rather precarious position–it is simply too vital and volatile to be left alone and unchanged.

The Barcelona Process that the Europeans launched in 1995 was designed to help the region, or at least parts thereof, to adapt to the new geopolitical and economic realities that the world was witnessing and deal more effectively with its various developmental challenges. But that approach, based as it was on soft diplomacy and a huge dose of pragmatism, has obviously failed to produce any of the desired results. The various Middle East regimes involved were simply too short-sighted and manipulative to commit themselves seriously to the more deep reforms and changes demanded of them.

As such, almost a decade has elapsed now since the launch of this process but only cosmetic reforms have been implemented. This is so not simply on the political level, but even on the economic level where countries that claim to have adopted more market-oriented policies have in practice only widened the scope of corruption of the ruling oligarchies.

In the meantime, the Americans have been watching and attempting to develop their own approach to the region, one based in no small part on the assumption that a successful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli struggle was bound to open up the region for investments and change. The disheartening collapse of the peace process in 2000 caught the Americans by surprise, and they had no clear alternative strategies to fall back on. The unwillingness of the current Bush administration to engage in the Arab-Israel struggle in the months following George W. Bush’s election seems to be more related to this lack of vision than to a lack of interest in the region or understanding of its importance.

September 11 changed all that. As a result, the Americans are now actively trying to come up with a new vision for change in the Middle East, one that is not centered on the Arab-Israeli struggle and that avoids the pitfalls and indecisiveness of the Barcelona Process.

The Greater Middle East Initiative will most likely prove only a first tentative attempt at constructing such a vision. Taking part in shaping it at this early malleable phase will help the peoples of the region take back some control over their lives and future. Ignoring it or wishing it away in the hope that the Americans will be disheartened is bound to backfire and will further radicalize the American approach to the region. In this, the inhabitants of the region, peoples and ruling elites alike, have much more to lose than the Americans. It is, therefore, in their interest to take the Americans and their initiatives seriously and to actively engage them whenever they show willingness to talk rather than bomb their way into our lives.

If the existing regimes in the Middle East appear too recalcitrant or bankrupt to show a more proactive attitude towards American initiatives, the region’s civil society activists and networks, as weak as they are, have no choice but to attempt to compensate. There is something on the table that can affect all our lives. We are invited to sit and take part in shaping it–how can we turn our backs on that?

(c) www.bitterlemons-international.org