America, Scattered to the Desert Sands

Israel, Syria, Hezbollah and Lebanon: their conflicts are being resolved amongst themselves. And the USA is no longer needed for that resolution.

The disintegration of a president and the fall of a world power, these were the themes of George Bush’s recent trip to the Middle East. In Lebanon, a country of four and a half million, Prime Minister Siniora didn’t have time to receive the so-called most powerful man on earth. In Egypt and the Gulf States, America’s last friends turned their backs in disgust when Bush enthused anew about “democracy,” at least until the end of his public speech.

What a contrast to his predecessor: Bill Clinton was able to credibly negotiate between Israelis and Palestinians and between Syrians and Israelis right up until nearly the last moment of his administration. He went into the history books as the smiling US President behind the Oslo Accords in 1993. Bush, on the other hand, goes down as the would-be conqueror of Mesopotamia and the man responsible for Guantánamo. A man with no credibility, he invites only hate and contempt.

But that’s not enough. There are worse things for a superpower than hate from all sides. Simply being no longer necessary, for example. That’s the message continuously trickling out of Middle East news reports. The countries involved make better progress without American help. Three examples:

First: Israelis and the Lebanese Hezbollah are currently negotiating a prisoner exchange, soldiers for militiamen. Two Israeli soldiers kidnapped in July 2006 are to be exchanged for five Hezbollah militiamen. Naturally, since they imposed a no-talk rule on themselves when it comes to Hezbollah, it’s not the United States involved in these negotiations, rather it’s German agencies that have already made a name for themselves for dealing. Strategic wind power in the North Sea, constitutional advice in central Asia and prisoner exchanges in the Middle East: Germany leads the world in deals. Even modest niche-foreign policy needs nurturing, but when it comes to constant nurturing of a subject, the erratic Bush is lacking.

Second: Turkish politicians have been translating from Hebrew to Turkish to Arabic and vice-versa for a year. Using quiet shuttle diplomacy, Prime Minister Erdogan, his Foreign Minister Babacan, and above all Erdogan’s Arabic-speaking Foreign Affairs Chief Counsel, Ahmed Davutoglu, have been pulling invisible strings between Damascus and Jerusalem. Something like that can only succeed with tenacity and patience. This is where Turkey’s efforts to maintain and deepen good relations with Israel are paying off while its relationship with Syria has been totally revolutionized. Ten years ago Ankara and Damascus were near war with one another. Today Erdogan explains to western governments what President Assad was really trying to say in his last outrageous sounding speeches back then.

Whether the negotiations to get Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria are successful or not is dependent on many small issues: How stable is the Israeli government? Will Israel really give up the Golan Heights? How will Iran try to prevent Syria from forming closer ties with pro-western nations? Does Damascus really want to distance itself from Hezbollah? Is America prepared to let Syria out of the penalty box? Here, America still plays a minor role in a very indirect way. Bashar al-Assad doesn’t want to give in to Israel only to later be slapped with more sanctions from the United States. He’s waiting, therefore, for a positive signal from Washington.

But the negotiations have come about against America’s wishes and despite George Bush’s policies. The American president regularly overwhelms the Syrians with tirades lacking concrete political basis. This originates from a strategy agreement with his gunslinger Vice President Dick Cheney or the fundamentalist Neo-conservatives in his administration’s environment. Bush’s eruptions often thwart a much different policy accent vis-à-vis Syria put forth by his State Department or the Europeans. That’s how you make yourself unnecessary. If the Israelis and the Syrians want negotiations, they’ll have them regardless of what Washington thinks.

Third: In Lebanon, Washington had to swallow a defeat that loomed as large as the trauma Great Britain experienced with the Suez Canal crisis. In 1956, attempts by Great Britain, France and Israel to pry the Suez Canal from the hands of the Egyptian nationalist and nationalizing Nasser came to naught. America and the Soviet Union intervened and the British retreated, signaling the end of British dominance in the Middle East.

Something comparable happened in Lebanon in May. The Americans encouraged the allied Siniora government to take away the strategic telephone network used by the Shiite Hezbollah militias. Siniora, a Sunni, did as Washington ordered. Hezbollah rose up and conquered the Sunni, Druse and Christian areas of the country and established itself as the lone military power in the nation. Bush didn’t lift a finger and apparently choked on triple burger that prevented him from answering, even with a measured response, to what was happening in the Beirut drama.

But it happened without him. A week later when Bush wanted to meet with Siniora, Siniora had more important things to do, namely to attend the meeting in Doha where the Lebanese factions met and came to a power sharing agreement. The negotiations were led by Sheik Hamad al-Thani, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates. Qatar endured years of American criticism of its satellite television station al-Jazeera, which since continues to merrily broadcast. With equal nonchalance, al-Thani pulled off a Lebanese reconciliation conference.

All the same, al-Thani couldn’t change history. What was sold outwardly as a compromise is actually a contractual stipulation cementing the ruling role of Hezbollah in Lebanon, veto rights for the Shiites in all governmental affairs, and the equitable involvement of Hezbollah and its allies in governing.

What does this mean for America and Israel? If these two countries should again prompt the Lebanese government to disarm or strategically weaken Hezbollah, Hezbollah, as a part of the Lebanese cabinet, can then simply vote against it. Only Israeli soldiers or American Marines will be able to take action against Hezbollah. And they will be uncomfortably reminded of Israel’s defeat in the summer war of 2006 against Hezbollah. America wasn’t needed in Doha, the results went against US interests, but America will have to live with that.

From these three examples, Middle Easterners have learned that things can happen even without America. To be sure, the superpower has a large footprint in the region with over 100,000 troops in Iraq, and it will continue to send Condoleezza Rice to the fortress-like mega-embassies it has in every Arab country. Nonetheless, any meaning and any important role America had in the region that was left to him by his predecessor was sacrificed by George Bush. Bush’s remaining influence is more negative: he can still cause immense damage, he can start an insane war in the Gulf, he can still utter many unconceivable stupidities.

When he’s gone, the Middle East can take a deep breath and only hope his successor will keep out of the region’s affairs. Whether US isolationism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be beneficial in the long run is still an open question, but not much else could improve America’s image between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf.

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