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 More Insight from Professor Barry Rubin:

By Barry Rubin

It can certainly be claimed that no world area is more closely—even obsessively—watched than the Middle East. This is quite understandable for many reasons, including the fact that many of the world’s crises, much of the world’s violence, and most of the world’s diplomatic energies are connected with that region.

And yet, despite all this, a tremendous transformation has happened in that nexus of global interests while being most incompletely comprehended. In short, the Middle East is totally different from the way it had been for the preceding half-century in ways that will profoundly affect the United Kingdom and every other country in the West.

To comprehend how much the region has truly changed, we need only consider its main features from the 1950s until well into the 1990s and even just past the last turn of a century. In those days, a trio of critical factors defined the tale.

First, the Arabic-speaking world was dominated almost totally by Arab nationalist doctrine, with all regimes and large movements being of that persuasion.

Second, much of Middle East politics consisted of dizzying maneuvers and mutual subversions among nationalist regimes seeking regional hegemony—usually Egypt, Iraq, and Syria—or those trying to play off the elephants to survive—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the rest.

Third, Arab regimes lined up in two blocs, with more radical, anti-status quo military regimes and their client movements siding with the USSR, and more conservative monarchies seeking Western support in self-defense.

By the 1990s, this regional order was unraveling in the face of evidence that Arab nationalist ideology and regimes had failed. After all, they hadn’t built a united Arab nation from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to Saudi Arabia’s Persian Gulf shore. Nor had they expelled Western influence, destroyed Israel, or generally brought their people high living standards, much less freedoms.

The winds of change were blowing, but in which direction?

It was easy to believe in the 1990s that moderation was on the ascendant. Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait, the fall of the radicals’ Soviet bloc sponsors, and start of an Arab-Israeli peace process all seemed good omens. Some dreamed democracy would replace dictatorship, outrun Islamists, and bring bright tomorrows.

That was not, however, what happened. The culprit was not Western policy errors or insufficient effort. Rather it was the continuing power of traditional ideas, the regimes themselves, and the societies over which they presided. The very few liberal voices were overwhelmed by a message with far more mass appeal, that of the Islamists.

Both opposition groups agreed that the existing order had failed but had opposite solutions. Moderates proposed peace with Israel, cooperation with the West, democracy, women’s rights, and modernization. After all, this was the blueprint used successfully in much of the world and held as an ideal by those yearning to imitate that outcome. But it didn’t work that way in the Middle East.

For rulers, reform portended anarchy and the specter of Islamist takeover. For the largely traditionalist masses, liberal solutions were too dangerous and unfamiliar. To Islamists, it represented treason. They argued that failure arose from too much, not too little, Westernization. In effect, they proclaimed: you may have been hitting your head against a stone wall; your mistake was not doing it hard enough.

Thus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ushered in the new era with an August 15, 2006 speech to his tame Journalists’ Union. The West, Israel, and moderate Arabs, he claimed, wanted a region “built on submission and humiliation and deprivation of peoples of their rights.” Instead there would be, “A sweeping popular upsurge…characterized by honor and Arabism…struggle and resistance.”

This result is the new Middle East of Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

First, everywhere Islamists seriously challenge nationalists. In seeking to seize state power and not give it back. This rivalry is spilling over among the growing number of Muslims in Europe, especially since Islamists are far more proportionately stronger there than back in the Middle East.

Second, two blocs contend for regional power. The better-organized, more coherent side is led by Islamist Iran, with junior partner Syria, Lebanese Hizballah, Palestinian Hamas, and Iraqi insurgents. Also on the Islamist–but not Iranian–side are Muslim Brotherhoods and al-Qaida. All want to destroy Western influence, Arab regimes, and Israel.

The other grouping consists of the other Arab states, Israel, and the West. Yet this alignment is weak, disorganized, and full of internal conflicts.

Fourth, the “moderate” side’s adherents have parallel interests in containing Iran, preventing Islamist revolution, and countering high levels of terrorism and instability. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean these forces are cooperating.

In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice senses the change but is over-optimistic about it. Rice argues there is now a high level of cohesion among regional American allies, even if those countries don’t want to speak or act publicly.

Yet Arab regimes are timid. They know their own people accept many radical notions (taught them by the Arab nationalists themselves for decades) and want to avoid confrontation with radicals if possible. Thus, for example, much of the nationalists’ “anti-terrorist” rhetoric is a plea for gunmen to slay Israelis or Westerners rather than attack governments and institutions where they live.

Consider the bizarre politics of Iraq, where—despite parallel U.S. and Saudi interests in stopping Iran—the Saudis help Sunni insurgents who kill American soldiers and try to force them out.

Quite possibly, the greatest danger of Iran getting nuclear weapons is not that they would be fired at Israel—though this is a rather chilling prospect—but that these arms will turn the balance in the two-bloc struggle. Once Iran has atomic bombs atop long-range missiles, Arab states will rush to appease Tehran, Western countries be even more prone toward appeasement, and Muslim masses likely to queue up in front of the radical Islamist recruiting stations to enlist on what they perceive as the winning side.

This massive struggle, not al-Qaida’s sporadic terror attacks, is the real main issue for the region, perhaps the world, in decades to come. The battle will be fought out more in Arab states through terror civil war, and revolution, than on the Israeli or Western fronts. Western ability to influence events will be limited

A solution will not come from concessions to a side which is roughly the Middle East equivalent of German-led fascism or Soviet-spearheaded Communism. Struggle, steadfastness, and strategic alliances are keys to victory and survival. Fresh from musings about history’s end we’ve been thrust into a new era of traditional international power politics and ideological contention which seems set to become the twenty-first century’s main feature.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center in Herzliya, Israel, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include The Truth About Syria; The Tragedy of the Middle East; and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East.

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