President Bush appears to have encountered the limits of American power. Hence, his approach to extremist elements in the Middle East has become more nuanced in his second term, and the results are increasingly confusing.
Take Iran. While continuing now and then to threaten Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program, Bush is looking for ways to buy into the European Union policy of offering Iran economic incentives in return for its decision to moderate its policy. The administration presumably has in mind a mixture of carrots and sticks, but the E.U.’s attitude toward wayward Middle East states is usually described as, “Speak softly and carry a big carrot.”
That approach worked with former Soviet bloc states in the 1990s and is currently working with Turkey, but thus far it has proved largely unsuccessful with Arab states and Iran. Under these circumstances, Iran will almost certainly continue to develop nuclear weapons clandestinely, along with supporting Islamic extremist terrorists that attack Israel and undermine the Palestinian Authority.
Recent high-level leaks indicate that the administration is similarly moderating its approach to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite terrorist movement-cum-political party. The leaks were quickly denied, even as the E.U. moved to fulfill an American and Israeli request and declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah, with Iran’s backing and Syria’s acquiescence, is today the key ideological and financial supporter of the radical Islamic Palestinian organizations that threaten the new reformist government of Mahmoud Abbas in Palestine. In effect, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria threaten Bush’s admirable plan to create a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Hezbollah is also the organization that murdered hundreds of American marines in Beirut more than 20 years ago.
Bush and his advisers believe they have spied a chance to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and restore and enhance Lebanese democracy. Hezbollah, which supports Syria, is the principal political vehicle for the Lebanese Shi’ites, who now number about 40% of the population. The huge pro-Syria demonstration it organized in Beirut on March 8, followed by the parliament’s renomination of pro-Syrian Rashid Karami for prime minister, put paid to the euphoric and naive hope that the Lebanese “good guys” could easily win the day.
If anyone — the United States, the anti-Syrian Lebanese or Israel — now chooses to confront Hezbollah, as they must if Lebanon is to be liberated and democratized, the results might be counterproductive because Hezbollah will fight back. Lebanon’s Shi’ites, long the poorest and most backward of that country’s many religious-ethnic-political sects and now potentially its most powerful political actor, have their own private army, exercise direct control over the border with Israel and wield significant influence over the radical Islamist Palestinian groups.
All in all, the administration appears to have had a good run in the Arab Middle East in recent weeks, with electoral and other developments in Lebanon, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq seemingly benefiting “freedom.” Unlike in Iraq, most of these developments reflected the exploitation of chance or unrelated events, rather than the realization of some neo-conservative master plan.
The opportunity to end the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and restore democracy there only gathered speed with the tragic assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The campaign to reform and democratize Palestinian society was prompted by the unexpected death of Yasser Arafat. American-European coordination regarding a tempered approach to Iran is more a consequence of the administration’s need to mend its fences with Europe than of a fundamental change in its perception of Iran.
Yet there are real contradictions among these separate paths to “freedom.” The administration’s drive to democratize the Arab world is allowing the Shi’ites in Iraq (where they are a majority) and now possibly in Lebanon (where they are a plurality) to exercise far greater political influence than before. Coupled with Washington’s lighter touch on Shi’ite Iran, this is signaling revolutionary change in the Sunni-Shi’ite balance throughout the Middle East, from Beirut to Tehran.
Yet apparently no one in Washington has thought very deeply about this. Look how hard the Iraqi Sunnis are fighting Shi’ite hegemony there. The rest of the Sunni Arab world may behave similarly.
While greater nuance is what critics of the neo-conservatives have been demanding in the Middle East, this is supposed to imply deeper analysis and more intelligent planning. Perhaps, then, American-European collaboration vis-à-vis Iran is just a clever American way of ensuring that when the diplomatic-economic approach fails and Washington does go after Iran more forcefully, the Europeans will support the United States. Conceivably the growing pressure on all fronts, now including Lebanon, that the administration is applying to Syria will eventually pay off in regime change or at least radical policy changes in Damascus, thereby justifying whatever tactical concessions were called for regarding Hezbollah.
But this is not the picture the Iranians are getting. They might be forgiven if, in their view, they are about to achieve some of their long cherished strategic ambitions — with Washington’s acquiescence, if not its actual blessing: to go nuclear despite international protests, and to radically empower Arab Shi’ites and alter the balance of power in the Middle East.
All this, in the name of “freedom.” That, potentially, is quite a trade-off.
Yossi Alpher, former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org.