Collision of Illusions : the West and the Middle East

Talk at the Lennart Meri Conference, Tallinn, 24-26 May


Geopolitics relies on a combination of directions that are not necessarily determined by geography but rather by the components and priorities of the national interest.

Some slogans are crystal clear : “Drang nach Osten, Go West Young Man, the North-South relationship, Ostpolitik”. In the case of Europe, one can ask where the South begins. Beyond the Mediterranean Bassin ? Or a bit higher on the southern parts of the European continent ? How much entangled are the Near -East, the Middle-East and Africa. For France, the Maghreb is clearly South but it is very much linked to the Machrek which is South-East (Near East) with Turkey and Egypt being in a pivotal position.

Collision : the Arab “Spring” or Upheaval has sparked in the midst of a major enduring financial and economic crisis, the worst that Europe and America have known since the Great Depression of 1929.

Illusion : the “Father of all speeches” : Obama in Cairo (4 juin 2009) : Big Bet , no Buck !

As a reminder think about the total failure of the Mediterranean Partnership launched by French president Sarkozy with the support of Colonel Muhammar Khadafi in 2008. It is an excellent example of the many contradictions in the present relation between the North and the South”.

The president of the United States wanted to focus on the roots of Muslim disarray manipulated by salafist propaganda and exacerbated by Al Qaida leaders. Time was ripe for democracy, justice and freedom. Even if Obama did not mention corrupt dictators the message was crystal clear. It was heard and welcomed by those who had suffered repression in the past and by those many young men and women eager to bring change in their life and the governance of their country. Therefore from Tunisia (West) to Yemen and Bahrein (East) within a space which resembled very much the “Greater Middle East”) people rose in the spring of 2010.

That was indeed a sincere bet. Nonetheless it was a risky one. One can argue that such a bold initiative in a period of a major financial and economic crisis looks like a sorcerer’s apprentice diplomacy. Part of the bet is that a Muslim democracy can exist since the government has been democratically elected. Even if the majority is Islamist it is the will of the people (as recently demonstrated in Pakistan). But in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, once elected the majority disregard the minority and the right for a legal opposition to speak. It organizes the governance in order to keep the power and nullify the risk of political change in the next elections. Despite the difficulties it has created since 2003 between Turkey and the US and Israel, the “Turkish model” –if it exists - has very much inspired Washington and several EU countries [1].

Who can be considered a moderate in the Middle East ?

The key problem stems from the inability of western countries to discriminate between the moderate muslims and the radical salafists. NATO in Afghanistan has kept asking : “Who is a “good” Taliban ? That line of separation can be drawn only by the local leaders and the population who supports them or not.

How can the West define a “moderate” Islamic group ( there is no clerical hierarchy !) and make sure such a group is able to prevail against extremists ? Indeed it is impossible consider the Brothers to be a totally coherent entity. There are many components. They are different in each state, sometimes in each city (for instance the salafist component is more powerful in Alexandria than in Cairo. The Brothers in Syria have called upon Turkish support and intervention. Moreover such a balance of powers fluctuates overtime, circumstances and volatile alliances.

The example of Moaz Al Qatib in Syria is illuminating. An opponent to the Assad regime, a scientist and a very religious man, he has enjoyed respect and seemed to be a leader capable to bring together the many components of the Syrian opposition. But when he tried to bring together the different players inside and outside Syria he went under harsh criticism from the extremists and their supporters who reject any form of compromise. On April 2013, the salafist group Al Nosra has publicly declared its obedience to Al Qaida precisely in order to destabilize Al Qatib, even if it was not the only reason.

One of the major problem stems from the profound certainty that over time, one day or another Israel will be wiped out from the map. It does not necessarily mean all the Jews but certainly a Jewish “Zionist” State. So “Time and God is on our side”, no matter the hurdles and the duration of the process.

To escape that vision the only alternative relies upon the new generation. No U.S, no Israeli flags were burnt in Al Tahir square. Young people using social media have built loose organizations that were able to rally at the right moment. But they failed to transform that power into a structured political organization.

They have sown the seeds, but were not present at the harvest.

But in November 2012, the Israeli military build-up against Gaza triggered a set back to the old mindset.

The Middle East as an unstable system

When the Middle East is shaken it takes at best ten years to stabilize.

A Chronology

1952 July : Nasser takes power in Egypt, Regime change in Syria,

1953 December : Mossadegh is overthrown by a coup supported by the CIA and MI 6

1956 December : Suez expedition France, the UK and Israel, defeated by the US and the USSR.

1958 February : Egypt and Syria form the United Arab Republic, which will last for there years.

July : revolution in Bagdad ; Kassem takes power

July : US intervention in Lebanon ; British forces protect Jordan

1962, September : revolution in YEMEN

1963, February : military coup In Irak ; the Baath party overthrows Kassem

1963, March : military coup in Damascus ; the Baath party take power

It has become a commonly-held view that the longstanding fear of communism and the Soviet Union has been replaced by Al Qaida. It may seem sexy, yet it does not sustain close examination of the causes of the duration of instability :

- Ethnic and religious complexity,
- Semi-artificial borders as a legacy of colonialism (creating for instance a serious Kurdish problem)
- Disputes over sovereignty upon the location of huge oil and gas resources,
- No solution to the Palestinian problem,
- Persistent deeply rooted hostility against Israel.
- Failure of a democracy supported by the middle-class.
- Local military powers as a factor of economic stagnation.
- Finaly, the schizophrenic approach of the Western : deal with and support to “petro-monarchies” and small but gas stuffed States which are themselves ambiguous : Qatar and Saudi Arabia support values which are opposed to democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and men and women equality.

Collision of illusion (again)

Western media look at the so called “arab street”, and at demonstrations. They offer images that build volatile perceptions. Enthusiasm and sorrow. But images are not reflecting the reality of the balance of power. Despite Wikileaks the world is far from being transparent. Amazing plot theories circulate all over the region. They are nurtured by the reality of a non-democratic political life which is structured along unstable interests, changing alliances among clans and tribes. Plot theories reflect the fragmentation of a non-democratic political life made of permanent conspiracies similar to small Italian States at the time of Nicolo Machiaveli. There were 17 secret services in Syria under the Assad regime. A new Western post/neo imperialist plot against the Arab world ? But who can afford it ?

Is it relevant to amalgamate US and EU policy towards the region ? certainly NOT !
You can train soldiers… can you train citizens ? Programs for democracy… for sustained development. The US and the EU have developed significant capabilities through well funded programs which have proven to be useful but not decisive in front of the competition of local opponents. Over time the radical Islamists have demonstrated an impressive capability to build and use charities and through that patient continuous effort get the upper hand.

Dictatorship Nostalgia does not solve problems

Some people regret the “good old stability”. It would be foolish to regret dictators. They justified political and social repression as a necessary tool to oppose Muslim extremists and the related terrorism. On the contrary they have destroyed the rise of democracy. Consequently they have nurtured salafism as the only possible alternative. In desperation, many members of the enlightened class have finally joined the Muslim Brotherhood and sometimes more radical groups. Sayid Qotb [2] was an Egyptian, just like Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Others put forward the risk of the break up of countries, the boundaries of which were decided by the former colonial powers : Libya, Syria.

The federal solution in Irak remains very fragile.

Years ago western countries had the power to impose their views according to their sometimes conflicting interests. Now even the United States is no longer in a position to impose its views and decide on the lines of new boundaries.

After the end of the Cold War it has been indeed the vision –and illusion- of the neo-conservatives to restructure the “Greater Middle East” according to US values and interests.

The West : neglect and weakness

1 US limited power and waning interest in the region.

The need for energy ressources is evolving. Everyone tries to boost new sources. Shale gas, more nuclear power and new “green” energies. The highly publicized rebalancing or “pivot” of the United States towards Asia is sometimes considered as a historic change in american strategy which takes into account the declining value of both Europe and the Middle East. Europeans must take care of their own limited security problems on the continent and in their “southern” near abroad. Assuming that a NATO European defense pilar can take over those missions, assuming it is true that the greatest opportunities and dangers are now Asian centered, it will take time and require many ajustments. It would be naïve to consider that history has ended in Europe and in the Middle East.

2. European structural weakness towards the Middle East

But the West is neither willing, nor capable to support and strengthen democracies in the ME. Western diplomacy is weakened by many structural problems :
First, as mentioned above, the EU is not in a position to deliver. Mrs Ashton is not capable to impose anything. However traditional national diplomacies have not proved more relevant since they have not been able to implement any solution. Other formulas such as the “Quartet” (US, EU, Russia, UN) have never provided more than wise advises and compelling plans. There is no EU Common policy. Therefore each country plays its own cards, connects with the others and the US if necessary.

The EU members and the EU as such can offer a helpful hand for the arrangement of small tactical details. By far, they are not able to put pressure on the local players to impose their views on what is essential. An audacious German diplomacy initiated by Joshka Fisher (2000 and on) vis a vis the Palestinian Authority stumbled gently on the Israeli position on settlements and East Jerusalem. The leverage of western governments remains very much under the influence of the power of the pro-Israel lobbies not only in the US but also all over Europe.

A third element of weakness -a new one- is related to the economic crisis. Bluntly put : at the very moment when Arab societies take the road of change, they are supported by western words not deeds. Most of NATO members, if not all, are strained in resources but also morally tired of expeditionary adventures with no result such as Afghanistan.
The United States does not want to engage militarily in the Middle East. No more boots on the ground. That explains why Washington was so reluctant to support France and the UK in Libya and has refused to intervene directly in Syria. But it creates additional confusion since Washington cannot or should not talk about “red line” in the case of use of chemical weapons while the President himself declares that the United States will not intervene militarily in Syria.

So far, all the western military operations have been successful : Mali, Libya but only on a close margin, at the very limit of the capabilities. Nowadays European forces cannot afford to stay too long for political reasons but also because of the strain upon the required resources to sustain the military activity at the required level of duration. In Libya, the September 11th 2012 agression in Benghazi and more recently (April 2013) in Tripoli demonstrate how dangerous the situation remains and how unpredictable the outcomes are. Those events suggest a new strategy : “get in, strike, pull back”.
In the end does that means that Fortress Europe and Fortress America will completely withdraw from the Middle East ?

European strategic interests in the Middle East can be divided into two categories of goals –positive and negative- both very much interconnected.

- The risks of terrorism (negative goal).
- The risk of proliferation (negative) and the related importance of the civilian nuclear market, (positive goal).
- The risk of massive immigration (negative).
- The (positive) opportunity of a huge market for defense and security products as recently demonstrated by the US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Should the Middle East become less important it would still remain dangerous maybe more than ever. If geographic proximity matters more for European States, globalization does not allow the US to be disconnected from that area.
Now we must consider the other side of the coin. Have the governments in the Middle East entered in the process of handling their future on their own and with the support of new partners in the world ? Is the “Rest” replacing the “West” ?

Indigenous Arab solutions :

Now the financial leverage of the West seems to be outpaced by wealthy newcomers : Saudi Arabia, Qatar. The efficiency of the real financial aid remains to be checked. Investment in modern infrastructures such as information and telecommunication requires competent people capable of using smart technologies.

Politicaly, the Arab League is not able to reach any agreement when the issue is so sensible that it could affect each member’s national interest. Remember the interdiction flight zone over Libya. No such thing happened for Syria.

Partnership with the BRICS ?

The already Emerged powers : China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Russia ?
A close examination demonstrate that the BRICS have so far no intention to develop a coordinated approach to the ME. By far the prefer bilateral relations with each country in the region. China enters very cautiously into the complexity of the politics of an almost unknown area. India has its own interests (and population) in the Arabic peninsula. Brazil and South Africa are new comers who will struggle with problems related to their own respective continent where they have immediate and longer term interests. More interesting and -who knows ?- more promising is Russia, as the heir of the Soviet Union. Is Russia making a strong come back in the ME ? Through its engagement to support Mr Assad in Syria ? The much vaunted Russian military presence, arms sales, technology transfer and naval facilities are more than overestimated. So far Tartus military harbor is just a rusty place.

The world has entered a transition period but in the Middle East and in Europe, where the crisis bites, the ordinary people ask for rapid solutions and a better life. The EU has been pouring money in Palestine without results. But the budgets are shrinking. Recently France has been obliged to reduce its contribution to development programs in Africa and the ME. Long term assistance has become a luxury that Qatar and other rich countries can afford. The West is adjusting its perceptions to realities, its capabilities to its needs. Today’s world is in total restructuring until the end of the crisis and the related adjustments of power among nations. “Eppur si muove” said Galileo.

[12003, Ankara refuses the access of Irak to US forces through Turkey ;

2010 Mavi Marmara naval incident : israeli forces storm a turkish humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Today secretary Kerry tries to fic the problems. The European are pleased by the democratic transition and the reduction of the power of the military by prime minister Erdogan but several countries become afraid of the rise of islam its practices and symbols (the “veil”).

[2Born in 1906, one of the main thinker of radical islam. Accused of conspiracy against the State, he was hanged in 1966.