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The U.S. Road to Nowhere in the Middle East

It is obvious that U.S. policy in the Middle East is in dire need of an overhaul. In London and New York, major newspapers are publishing obituaries not only for Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, but even for the non-performing “Asia pivot.”   In mere two days last week, Israel pulled out of the nine-month old peace talks, and in Asia, Obama was promising Japan a “Trans-Pacific Partnership” that his Congress took off the “fast track.”  In other words, no agreement on the horizon.

The announcement of a deal between Fatah and Hamas, genuine or tactical, expressed what everyone already knew: the idea of a process for the sake of a process would lead nowhere, and the context defined by the U.S.-directed talks was getting the Palestinians—in their weakest position ever—a deal that would be impossible to sign.  The U.S. is either unwilling or unable to pressure Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take this eternal process somewhere other than the usual dead end alley.

On the Iranian front, one needs only read the Persian press to get a sense that the opposition to a permanent agreement on the nuclear program is rapidly mounting.  And the U.S. spat over Iran’s choice of the Ambassador to the United Nations weakens the Iranian president.  Once this hard-line opposition reaches a certain critical mass, it will be easy to predict the results. Those in the West who want a deal with Iran will then be left with the difficult job of explaining why they toughened their conditions to a point where President Rouhani couldn’t go.

In the case of U.S. relations with the Gulf monarchies, the fashion in Washington now is to talk about different objectives and a marriage collapsing. But are not “differences” an intrinsic feature in relations between any two given countries? The issue here is not differences; it is precisely that these differences imply that the two sides may move “against” each other in a very polarized region. In the current conditions of the Middle East, there is no space to express differences verbally and stop there. There is always “something” that forces action or reaction—a lot of “somethings” in fact.

The example of Egypt is expressive. The country is about to collapse economically. And if it does, we will certainly see another Syria-like civil war.  In moments like this, it is action that is needed. Instead of properly understanding the real crisis there, we are back to hearing the West insisting on rapid economic reform and quick lifting of subsidies to energy and bread as a condition for loans and grants. Only when it is too late will we hear loud criticism of the dismal economic aid offered by the United States and the European Union to the Arab Spring countries and of the insistence on implementing severe “reforms” in a socially explosive context.

It is not different in Syria. The same attempt to find a middle road, where there are no middle roads, goes on.  “Assad must go,” but we will not aid those who are fighting to get him to go. “The opposition includes some very bad guys.” Then why don’t you support Assad? “No, we cannot because he is also a bad guy also.”  Then what will you do?  “Nothing,” followed by comments such as, “let the bad guys kill each other,” that attempt to make this “nothing” look smart. Or, “Syria is not important to US interests.” Nonsense. The moderate opposition could have been helped early on to prevent extremism from growing and Assad from killing more civilians. But doing nothing was safer.  In the end, it is the Syrian people that are dying.

There is a sense of virtual reality about the Middle East that is deeply rooted in Washington and the European capitals. It is not real reality. And, dangerous as it is, this virtual reality gives leaders the chosen subjective space to do nothing, or very little, and call it a policy. Doing nothing and calling it prudence hardly conceals its real name: paralysis.  A leader is the one who does something in real life and is ready to stand the real tests of leadership.

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