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Who Goes There? Friend or Foe?

July 2, 2008
Barry Rubin

Here's the most important thing I can tell you about the Middle East.

For more than a half-century, the region's politics revolved around Arab nationalism. Individual states sought to have influence, leadership, or just to survive. The Arab-Israeli conflict was an important issue in this framework, though not the sole or even the most significant one.

Now, as Celine Dion sings, "Those days are gone." Today, the centerpiece is a struggle between two blocs, one well-organized, the other weak and facing internal conflict. The former is the Tehran-led alliance of the HISH (Hamas-Iran-Syria-Hizballah); the latter is just about everyone else, call it the coalition of the unwilling.

And as in the words of the song, these regimes say, "Hard to be sure, sometimes I feel so insecure."

But they don't follow through on the chorus by proclaiming, "All by myself, don't wanna be, All by myself, Anymore."

After all, while Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates don't want to be dominated by Iran or ruled by radical Islamists, they find it rather hard to work together or with their best potential allies.

The region now faces many overlapping problems: HISH's ambitions, Iranian nuclear drive, Iraq, Lebanon, radical Islamism, terrorism, and the struggle for power in each country. Oh yes, and there's the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, largely reduced from the Arab-Israeli conflict. And while that last one makes the top forty, it really doesn't make the final four, in objective if not always in perceptual terms.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and you don't have to be friends to have a common need to work together. During World War Two, Stalin's Soviet Union became the vital ally of the democracies.

Yet you also need someone on whom you can depend, at least to follow their own interests. During World War One, German leaders referred to their alliance with Austria-Hungary as being shackled to a corpse. At times, contemporary Arab leaders--especially the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA)--seem to want to imitate French King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette or Czar Nicholas and Alexandra in bringing revolutions on themselves.

Still, their behavior is understandable. They want to use the radical appeal of Arab nationalism, Islamism, anti-Americanism, and xenophobia to divert attention from their own failings while mobilizing support for themselves as the true defenders against all those big and little satans out there. At the same time, they are happy to appease their foes if possible.

A particularly blatant example is Kuwait's foreign minister who denounced those who want to wage a false jihad at home. He explained that instead of murdering innocent Muslims, young people should kill Israelis instead. Much of the regimes' "anti-terrorist" rhetoric is merely really aimed at shifting the targets away from themselves.

On one hand, the Saudis host a global interfaith dialogue conference; float a peace initiative toward Israel, fight domestic terrorism, and battle Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon. On the other hand, they aid terrorists and spread extremist forms of Islam. Egypt is horrified by radical Islamism but refuses to go all-out against Hamas. The official media demonize the West and Israel, while the official Islamic religious apparatus endorses terrorism against Israel and in Iraq.

The question of this era, then, is how does one make the parallelism of interests among those facing the HISH and radical Islamism something that can be implemented in practice?

There are powerful factors pushing Arab regimes and a portion of the populations toward indirect cooperation. Kuwaitis remember what Saddam Hussein did to them; Saudis fear Shia power; Iraqis are angry about foreign support for terrorism against them; Lebanese Christians, Druze, and Shia Muslims don't want to have Hizballah telling them what to do.

Yet on the Arab side there are also huge limitations to cooperation.

  • Their adversaries are unrelenting. They will not make peace, moderate, or live up to any compromise deal they sign. These include not only the HISH but other Islamist elements which may be both revolutionary and  anti-Iran, notably Muslim Brotherhoods and al-Qaeda.
  • Working with the West and Israel could undermine the regimes at home.
  • The Arab rulers simultaneously manipulate propaganda and believe their own statements.
  • What is worst of all, however, is how the unrelenting are backed up by what we can call the inconvincible, that is a radicalized public opinion. There is no moderate silent majority. The rulers cannot go over the heads of a few extremists to appeal to a public preferring coexistence, peace, human rights, and stability. Even if the rulers helped create this radicalism of the masses, it isn't just a matter of easily reversible false concsioucness based on regime propaganda but is rooted in many other things as well.

In short, while the rulers have the advantage of guns and resources, the radical opposition has the asset of the regimes' incompetence, corruption, and a public opinion open to their arguments. To shake this combination will take many decades, at best.

But what about the West and Israel? They can also sell out the Arab side due to a strong temptation to deal with the radicals and not with the moderate--or perhaps I should say the less radical--forces.

By apologizing, conceding, refusing to defend themselves, or by negotiating, exaggerating the potential for moderation, and dropping sanctions, they can strengthen the extremists and undercut the regimes. When that happens, the regimes know they might better cut their own deal. So while there are arguable reasons to bargain with Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, or Syria, such a strategy splits the anti-HISH alliance and starts a race toward appeasement.

In the Dion song, "Love so distant and obscure, Remains the cure." But this is politics. The best one can hope for is the wisdom to build on coinciding interests and courage to stand up to unrelenting enemies.

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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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