Sean Cleary
Al-Arabiya (Opinion)
July 12, 2011 - 12:00am

All of us need to change gears, and direction, in our approach to the challenges of the world between the eastern Mediterranean and Central Asia. The turmoil in the Arab world must focus our minds, causing us to look beyond past habits and present uncertainty, to define and create a future that offers hope for generations to come.

Efforts by the United States over the past ten years to counter what two different administrations have seen as threats to US interests in the Gulf and Afghanistan, have not brought benefits to many who dwell there.

This is chiefly because the US can’t solve the problems of the region: Only Arabs and Israelis, Iranians, Afghans and the citizens of Pakistan and India can. And few have grasped the implications of this fact – although US President Obama’s remarks on the Middle East on May 19 reflect some important insights!

Washington’s efforts to displace the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and engage Pakistan’s armed forces in that effort; its decision to invade Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, then seek to crush rebellion while trying to promote democracy and economic welfare; its attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional influence; and its intermittent and inconsistent encouragement of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, were intended to serve its needs. This is inevitable, and proper.

Outside parties, even those with as much economic and military firepower as the United States, can see the region only through prisms shaped by their beliefs and prejudices, which are the product of their cultural histories and worldviews. Their policies are crafted on that basis, even when their intentions are pure. Furthermore, both their power and their insight are limited: not only can foreign powers not compel obedience; the results might be no better if they could.

But our collective failure to act successfully is cause for serious concern. Globalization and the perverse effects of inconsistency, neglect and short-sighted opportunism by different actors have forged dangerous links between the domestic and interstate conflicts that involve Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

The futile clash of wills in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands over the decade, to misery for millions, and to the destruction of livelihoods and critical infrastructures on a grotesque scale.

If a comprehensive peace is not crafted, rising sectarian tensions will lead to more destruction, on a still greater scale. The Arab revolts across the southern shore of the Mediterranean and the western side of the Gulf, have introduced a dangerous new element of volatility, especially as they mirror the turbulence in the body politics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, to the east.

All too many regional actors are harming the interests of their own communities. In part this is because the intensity of the life-and-death struggles in Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and more recently in Libya, Yemen and Syria, has caused participants to narrow their focus to what is needed to survive. In part, it is due to a lack of faith that co-existence is still possible. But it is also because governments in the region have no strategic vision, no transnational institutions to encourage its emergence, and no mutual security regimes to sustain one.

So Iran, trapped in the belief that Washington seeks the destruction of its Islamic Republic, diverts funding that it can ill afford, and disproportionate research and development efforts, to creating a military nuclear capability that it will never be able to use. Fearful of Washington, and wishing to maintain a semblance of Muslim solidarity, it rationalizes its stance with poorly crafted diatribes against Israel, and support and encouragement for proxy forces in Lebanon and Gaza.

These groups accept this help because no other assistance is forthcoming, and use it to advance sectarian agendas that frustrate national unity, creating fissures to be exploited by others.

Arab monarchies, long unnerved by Iran’s fragile and fractious ascendency, by the tilt in favour of Shi’a power in the Gulf after Saddam’s fall, and most recently by turbulence in poorly-governed Arab republics to the west, are driven to dispensing financial patronage to their subjects, strengthening their military arsenals, inviting the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco into the Gulf Cooperation Council, and edging closer to Washington while assuaging Iran.

Pakistan, whose civilian authority has been hollowed out, clings to a military doctrine that defines India as the proximate and substantial threat to its survival, requiring deployment of some 60 percent of its armed forces along its eastern frontier, and requiring “strategic depth” to its rear, extending far into Afghanistan. The need to maintain ties to the Taliban follows logically from this, whatever undertakings Islamabad may give to Washington about a joint struggle against Al Qaeda. Likewise, keeping Indian forces tied down in Kashmir, and the significant expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, now the largest in the region, have a strategic logic if – but only if – premised on the assertion that national security demands the allocation of extensive resources to preparations for the risk of another military confrontation with India.

India, although it has the benefits of democratic governance, rapid economic growth, great strategic depth, and a huge population, does less than it could, to ameliorate this strategic dense macabre, and channel the energies of both states into more constructive collaboration. Kashmir engages the amour proper of both Islamabad and New Delhi, and encourages each to distrust the other, and to try to outflank it. Thus India engages with Afghanistan, to Pakistan’s rear, and with Iran, to the south-west, and flirts with the notion of providing naval security for the sea lanes of the Gulf. All these would be excellent ideas in a better-integrated region, but serve as irritants at present, prompting nervous reactions in Islamabad.

Israel, which has faced no serious military threat for two decades, displays a national psyche not unlike that of Pakistan. The Holocaust is undoubtedly an existential event, and a determination to ensure the security of the State of Israel, and the survival of Jewish communities, is right and proper. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent rejection of Israel’s 1967 borders as the basis of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine is only understandable, however, if one believes that Israel’s national security demands that it prepare for a war with Syria or Palestine. Even if one were to decide that this was a plausible scenario, there would be an obligation to plan to exclude it. Extending settlements onto Palestinian land to create facts on the ground, and deny the prospect of a sovereign, viable, contiguous Palestinian state, is a senseless provocation that threatens, not advances, Israel’s security.

All too often in history, conflict has been produced by a belief that it was inevitable, and by a failure to understand that statesmanship could create better outcomes. One cannot allow such a failure today. The decade ahead demands a new maturity.

Governments across this region have not yet shown the confidence needed to act collectively in the interests of their citizens. The habit of reliance on Washington, or, in an earlier time, on Moscow, London or Paris, to secure one’s position, rescue one when in crisis, or impose a solution when all else failed, was entrenched in the psyches of past generations. This did not encourage sober reflection, acceptance of limits, or recognition of the legitimacy of the interests of other states or parties.

The military and security establishments derived their power from the protection they afforded to the political class, and were allowed to act, often without proper controls, as long as they provided it. The fact that they were often saved from misadventure or overreach by their foreign mentors, whose interests they were also expected to serve, did not encourage creative learning.

But we have entered a different era. States and their governments must accept greater responsibility for their collective future, first because their younger, better educated and digitally connected citizens demand it, and secondly because global economic circumstances, and geo-economic shifts, dictate a lighter US regional footprint, with important geopolitical consequences.

The conduct of relations between states in a region, involves each pursuing its national interests in an environment in which the interests of others often diverge, but must be accommodated, if peace is to prevail. Managing this tension requires all states jointly to create an order that accommodates all their vital interests. Periods of peace throughout history have all been based on agreements on the values that constituted the order deemed legitimate at that time, and by a balance of power that allowed each state to be confident that its vital interests would be met.

So what would such an order look like in the region from the eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia?

The core components are:

1: A comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab states, involving the birth of a sovereign, economically viable, contiguous Palestinian state; restoration of the Golan Heights to Syria; recognition by all parties of Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity; and diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel by all Arab states under the resolution adopted by the Arab League.

2: A stable Iraq, based on the exercise of full power and authority by a government representing all Iraqis, free of external meddling.

3: Avoidance of a nuclear arms race in the Gulf, and rapid progress towards the creation of a nuclear weapon-free, broader Middle East.

4: One or more, interlinked, regional Treaty Organisations, incorporating all the states of the Gulf and the Levant, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

While this agenda is ambitious, its success is essential. No plan that pits Sunni against Shi’a, Israelis against Arabs or against Iran, or India against Pakistan, or any of these in any military alliance against others, can bring peace to the region. Nor can one rely any longer on US military power, either to shift balances or to maintain peace.

Three parallel, but eventually interlocking, endeavours might serve as points of departure. Each would involve structured discussions among the key regional states to address:

1: The intertwined issues of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Iran’s nuclear intentions;

2: The long-delayed comprehensive peace between Israel and Arab states; and

3: An integrated, collaborative and appropriately facilitated strategic dialogue between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, which would also address Kashmir.

Success is possible if [and only if] the governments of states of the region accept their responsibility for securing and maintaining peace and stability in the broader Middle East, and in South and Central Asia.

A central pillar of the modern era was created when a series of treaties, embodying the Peace of Westphalia, were signed in 1648, ending decades of religious wars, and establishing the basis of the nation state. Europe’s reconstruction after the Napoleonic Wars was effected at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, largely through Metternich’s vision and Castlereagh’s prudence; its rebirth after the devastation of World War II was due to the vision of Jean Monnet, and the political courage of French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman who proposed the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, to unite France and Germany, to make another European war “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.”

We need visionaries of that sort today, to create the future in this region.


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