9/11 and the Middle East

Even as the United States and other predominantly Western world countries marked the tenth anniversary of destruction and death wrought by al Qaeda in the United States, the sentiments expressed by world leaders suggest a large degree of uncertainty about the consequences of that event. Looking down the road we see a United States continuing, even though limited, presence in Afghanistan, and also a winding down of President George W Bush’s major intervention in Iraq. The controversy over this latter event will continue.

George Bush chose to take a different path from his presidential predecessor and father, George W H Bush, who resisted all advice to follow the US defeat of Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s intervention in Kuwait (the so-called Persian Gulf War) and brought US troops back home. Today President Obama has indicated a certain learning of lessons from all these events by the tentative approach which his administration has taken to US participation in the pursuit of Colonel Gaddafi, even as former Bush officials Rumsfeld and Cheney have been publishing books celebrating the Iraq and Afghanistan expeditions.
But even as the process of withdrawal takes place, the Nato governments‘ gaze remains rigidly fixed on the Middle East and bordering lands like Afghanistan. Unexpected indeed have been the uprisings and overthrow of governments in Egypt and Tunisia, both quite firm allies of the United States, the former being a critical one. Today, from a US and allies view, it would be a bold official who would predict the outcome of current events in Egypt. As we indicated last week too, there seems a certain amount of hesitation among the Nato powers about seeking to directly influence the uprising in Syria as was done in respect of Libya. And in addition, in spite of the diplomatic interventions of the Arab League with the Syrian regime, Nato’s main protagonist in the area, Egypt is diplomatically crippled from devoting its attention to influencing the various manoeuvrings in the region.

But more than that, Egypt itself finds that partly as a result of its own political difficulties, a central underpinning of Middle Eastern diplomacy which it was partially responsible for constructing, would appear to be coming apart. And the same perspective must dominate thinking in Turkey, a parallel Nato ally in Middle East diplomacy. For domestic influences in Egypt have responded harshly to the Israeli killing of some of its soldiers, an incident which in normal times  Mubarak’s  combination of rigid internal domination and direct diplomacy with Israel would have smothered. Instead mass demonstrations and an actual invasion of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo have occurred, while the ruling military are hardly listened to by the protestors. The Israeli Ambassador has had to flee Cairo.

A consequence is that, for the time being, a key linchpin of Israeli, and indeed Nato, diplomacy towards the Middle East, President Anwar Sadat’s 1978-1979 peace treaty with Israel, appears to be coming unstuck precisely at a point when it seems to be extremely necessary. That point is, of course, the decision of the Palestine authorities to seek recognition as a state by the United Nations General Assembly of their area defined by its 1967 borders, a move which, in spite of US hesitation appears to be gaining ground at the UN. And it is in that context that relations between Israel and Turkey, a country with rising influence in the Middle East-Asian area, have deteriorated as a result of the  attack in May last year by the Israelis on the  so-called Gaza Freedom Flotilla, leading to the death of eight Turks. This incident, however, followed deteriorating relations between the two countries centred on what Turkey has deemed to be a degree of intransigence by Israel in coming to terms with the Palestinian-Gaza issue. This intransigence Turkey has perceived as a major impediment to the normalization of relations in the Middle East which can clear the way towards a reconstruction of diplomatic relations that would include its neighbour Iran. Turkey, a state populated by Muslims though with a secular constitution, has always had an amicable relationship with Israel since its early (1948) recognition of that state, and obviously feels that the Government of Israel is refusing to reciprocate, and in Turkey’s view, to see the beneficial potential of a resolution of the Palestinian issue in particular.

This is much the same position that Turkey now takes towards American diplomacy in relation to Iran, especially after the US rebuffed its joint diplomacy with Brazil, towards finding an avenue for Iran on the nuclear capability issue  Now, undoubtedly Turkey is perceiving the hesitation on Palestinian recognition by the US in much the same light, and rather finds itself like Saudi Arabia which, in respect of the uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain, has been insisting on negotiated solutions to the domestic problems in those countries. And it is interesting that the leadership of Iran has been going in a not dissimilar direction in seeking to persuade Syria to find a domestic solution. For all these countries – Turkey, Syria, Iran, with somewhat porous boundaries – recognize the spill-over effect of domestic political deterioration, in much the same way that the Government of Pakistan seems to approach the issue of intervention in its neighbour Afghanistan, sometimes much to the chagrin of the United States.

Some of these emerging states in the Middle East Asian area also recognize that one of the possible consequences of the post 9/11 prolonged American-Nato interventions in their geopolitical arena is a certain weariness on the part of the United States, reflected in part, as we have suggested, in President Obama’s external relations policies towards what are called “trouble spots.” In consequence, the complexities of UN diplomacy are obviously tending to increase, requiring more than the dominating hand of one superpower to ensure resolution of difficult issues. How the emerging regional powers in the Middle East and surroundings – whether Turkey or Iran, or currently politically constricted Egypt – treat that new context will determine whether over the years from now, there will be as much turmoil as exists today in the area.

Of course, interesting as the details of conflict and conflict resolution in the Middle East are, the dominating fact registering in our minds must be that in 2002 the price of oil averaged just over US$27 and today, with Libya added to the turmoil, it has shot up to well over $100. As time goes on, will 9/11 have much relevance as to how we play? Or is it, that as many now suggest, that world has disappeared except for memories, and like Turkey and other countries we will, relatively small as we are, have to find a new diplomacy to assist our own global survival?

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