America, Look Behind You! Turn Around! Turn Around!
By Barry Rubin
America: A freight train is heading your way and you’re standing right on the tracks, looking in the wrong direction.
Or perhaps it is like a horror film in which the killer sneaks up behind the hapless victim while the movie audience yells: “Turn around! Turn around!” And then blood spatters across the screen.
Unfortunately, in this case, that might be our blood, and it won’t be produced by the studio’s special effects’ department.
Today, U.S. policy and the dominant current thinking are not based on realpolitik but international affairs as a popularity contest. Its motto might be, “The nice will inherit the earth,” as the Obama administration tries to prove that it is not like that mean old Bush.
Before we get to the oncoming train, consider two small but indicative examples.
Scene 1: The UN committee planning the Durban-2 pro-racism, I mean “anti-racism,” conference. Libya chairs the committee, Iran is the vice-chair, Cuba, the rapporteur, and Russia is presiding. The plan is designed to ensure that the conference limits free-speech, bashes Israel, and enshrines Muslims as the world’s only and perpetual victims.
The U.S. representative stands to propose amendments. Is the speech a thunderous denunciation of dictatorships and a defense of liberty, even given the graciousness required in the diplomatic arena? Not exactly. Here is the key sentence: “I hate to be the cause of unhappiness in the room….I have to suggest [amendments] and I offer my sincere apologies.”
How’s that for speaking softly and carrying a big pillow? [U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt a century ago famously described diplomacy as, “Speaking softly and carrying a big stick.”]
Scene 2: The camera pans and the screen fills with an invitation to a conference being held by the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. The purpose is defined as asking, “How should Europe engage Russia to put relations between the West and Russia on a more positive and sustainable basis?” There is no room for pressure, opposition, or criticism as part of the package; no hint of the need for flexibility to be accompanied by toughness. Russia invaded Georgia, fought a surrogate war against Azerbaijan, blackmailed Ukraine and Lithuania. It has opposed sanctions on Iran, sold huge amounts of arms to Syria, and committed real human rights’ violations in Chechnya.
It is the dawning of the age not of Aquarius (as the film “Hair” once said of the utopia predicted in the 1960s) but the Age of Aquarium, in which the sharks are put in charge of the fish.
U.S. policy is putting the emphasis on conciliation with Iran and Syria, a soft line toward Pakistan, despite its lack of cooperation on fighting terrorism against India or in Afghanistan.
The only thing you can do with a strategy of carrots without sticks is to make carrot cake.
Now consider what is sneaking up on the U.S. government as it hands out candy:
–On March 29, local elections will be held in Turkey. If the current government wins these municipal races, especially in Ankara and Istanbul, it will be encouraged to go even further down the road toward an Islamist transformation of the country. Whatever happens internally, where the nature of Turkish society forces it to go more slowly, Ankara’s foreign policy is increasingly aligned with that of the radicals in the region—not only Hamas but also Syria and Iran.
Turkey’s many friends are hoping that moderation and its traditional political virtues win out. But what’s happening there may well be the most important political event in the Middle East since the Iranian revolution thirty years ago. Think of what it means if, in whole or even part, Turkey goes from the Western to the radical camp and clearly this is a world-changing event.
Then on June 7 comes the Lebanese elections. Given the vast amounts of money Syria and Iran have spent, their use of violent intimidation, and the moderate other side’s demoralization due to the Western abandonment of them, it is likely that the Iranian-Syrian clients will take over Lebanon’s government. This does not mean a Hizballah-ruled state but four allied forces will dominate: pro-Syrian Sunni Muslim politicians; Michel Aoun’s Christian forces; and the two Shia Muslim groups, Hizballah and Amal.
Already, Lebanon’s president and former armed forces’ command Michel Suleiman is very close to the Iran-Syrian orbit. Both Lebanon and Turkey attended the radical forces’ summit in Qatar, rather than the relatively moderate countries’ meeting in Qatar.
This does not mean that Lebanon will be annexed or militarily reoccupied by Syria, or that Lebanon will become an Islamist state internally. But it does mean that Lebanon will become a reliable ally of what Syrian President Bashar al-Asad calls the “resistance front.”
In the region, these two developments will be perceived as two big victories for Tehran and a sign that the Islamist-radical side is the wave of the future. And what is the United States doing to fight, stop, or manage this visible crisis? Nothing.
Finally, on June 12, presidential elections will take place in Iran itself. The likelihood is the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, either fairly or through manipulation of the election. The Iranian ruling establishment, which might have been persuaded to endorse a less extreme candidate if there had been enough Western pressure to make the incumbent look bad, has backed an openly aggressive and antisemitic candidate.
Even though Ahmadinejad is not the real ruler of Iran, he and his allies are working to make him so in the future. And of course his reelection means not only that Iran is waging a campaign to get nuclear weapons, it will mean that it is moving at the fastest possible speed with the least likelihood of compromising, and the most probability of using such a weapon (or persuading Israel to act militarily to stop that process). By years’ end, or shortly after, Iran might have nuclear weapons.
In short, 2009 is looking like a year of massive defeat for the United States and its friends in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Washington is blind to this trend, pursuing a futile attempt to conciliate its enemies, losing time and not following the policies desperately needed. Instead, the United States should put itself as leader of a broad coalition of Arab and European states, along with Israel, to resist Islamism and Iranian ambitions.
Alas, the new administration is playing while the region burns. Turn around! Turn around!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To subscribe to Gloria Center publications for free, write [email protected].