The Middle East and America in 2005:
How the Region Has Changed

 By Juan Cole

Republished from Informed Comment, December 30, 2005, with permission.

Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan

The Bush administration has several major policy goals in the Middle East, which are often self-contradictory. They include:

  1. Fighting terrorism emanating from the region, which might menace the US or its major allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

  2. Ensuring the security of petroleum production in the Oil Gulf, which contains 2/3s of the world's proven reserves.

  3. Reestablishing order in Afghanistan and ensuring that the Taliban and al-Qaeda cannot again use it as a base for Muslim radicalism.

  4. Reestablishing order in Iraq and ensuring a government and system there favorable to US interests.

  5. Weakening or overthrowing the governments of Syria and Iran, primarily because they are viewed as threats to Israel. As part of weakening Syria, the US applied enormous pressure to get its remaining troops out of Lebanon.

  6. Pushing for democratization in the "Greater Middle East," even at the risk of alienating long-time US friends such as Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Some parts of the Bush administration are more committed to some of these goals than to others, and huge foodfights seem to be taking place behind the scenes over what priority to give them each or how useful some of them are to US interests. The Neoconservatives, for instance, are very interested in shaping Iraq, but seem much less interested in Afghanistan. The State Department seems generally very nervous about the Iraq misadventure and not very enthusiastic about democratization.

The major developments in the region of 2005 have been momentous, but what is striking is how little the over-all dynamics have changed.

Afghanistan conducted parliamentary elections, but old-time warlords from the 1990s such as Abdul Rasul Abu Sayyaf (once close to Bin Laden) seem likely to dominate it.

Pakistan's parliament is virtually hung, too paralyzed by disputes between the opposition, often led by the fundamentalist United Action Council, and supporters of military dictator Pervez Musharraf, to accomplish anything of note. The Muslim fundamentalists had seldom done well in Pakistani elections before 2002, but the electorate was angry about the US attack on neighboring Afghanistan and gave them about a fifth of seats in parliament, control of a major northern province, and partial control of another province. The Pakistani military and security forces continue to hunt down al-Qaeda, but few really big fish have been caught recently. Osamah Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who conspired to have 3,000 Americans murdered, remain free men.

Iran held presidential elections, won by the fundamentalist Shiite hardliner (and horse's ass) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad used many of the same tactics to get into power as Bush supporters did, including smearing his opponents, attracting the common people with false promises, posing as an outsider to the government despite being a consummate insider, benefitting from his party's dominance of the judiciary, and drawing on support from the religious right and the military.

The reformists in Iran under President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) had reached out the to US, seeking forms of "ping pong diplomacy" and expressing profound sympathy for America after the 9/11 attacks. The US government studiously ignored these overtures and kept sanctions on Iran, treating even the reformists as pariahs. The reformers were stymied at home by clerical hardliners' control of the judiciary and Khomeinist institutions that could strike down liberalizing laws, close newspapers, and exclude liberals from running in subsequent elections.

Ahmadinejad's victory is the triumph of the hard Iranian right. He has alienated virtually all Western diplomats hoping to work with Iran, pushing his country into renewed isolation in the space of only a few months. He has been particularly stupid in his pronouncements on Israel. He quoted Ayatollah Khomeini as saying that the "Occupation Regime" (i.e. Israel) "must vanish." He views the Holocaust as a "legendary epic," and clearly doubts it. He suggested that if it did occur, then the Jews should have been given part of Europe on which to make a state, rather than displacing the Palestinian people. (This is not a new talking point. King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia said the same thing in the late 1940s.) His statements were morally outrageous and historically ignorant, but he did not actually call for mass murder (Ariel Sharon made the "occupation regime" in Gaza "vanish" last summer) or for the expulsion of the Israeli Jews to Europe. Nor is he, as has been alleged, the head of the Iranian state. The Iranian president is something akin to the pre-Cheney US vice presidents. But Ahmadinejad seems to think that the world is about to end, and is fixated on the Mahdi or Muslim messiah, and is generally a demagogue. He has also banned rock music.

It seems most likely that Bush administration pressure on Iran, naming it as an axis of evil, making clear a desire to overthrow its government, and militarily surrounding it in Afghanistan and Iraq, pushed the Iranian electorate to the right. It is not known if Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon, but it is certainly trying to get nuclear energy. Likely by committing the US so heavily to Iraq, which did not have a nuclear program, the Bush administration has lost the opportunity to do anything serious about Iran's program, whatever its ultimate aims.

Ironically, the Iranian hardliners have been strengthened by the overthrow of the Taliban and the Baath Party. In Afghanistan, the warlords who are so prominent in the parliament and the executive often had strong ties to Iran, and Afghan Shiites did disproportionately well in the elections; they are often tied through the Vahdat Party to the ayatollahs in Iran. Afghanistan is friendlier to Iran now than at any time since the 1960s, when both were monarchies.

In Iraq, both the Jan. 30 election and that of Dec. 15 cemented Shiite fundamentalist political control of the country. The United Iraqi Alliance, now a coalition of all three major religious and political currents among Iraqi Shiites, had 140 seats (a simple majority) in the Jan. 30 elections, and will likely have 130 seats in the new parliament, such that it can easily form a government that can survive votes of confidence requiring 51 percent support for the prime minister. The fundamentalist Shiites got the constitution they wanted on October 15, enshrining strong elements of Islamic law and ensuring that the southern Shiite provinces will control all future petroleum finds in the oil-rich south.

An Iraq dominated by religious Shiites will certainly be on very friendly terms with iran, as I argued in Salon last summer. Far from causing the pillars of Khomeinist power to tremble in Iran, the Bush administration has larded the region with new and powerful allies of Tehran.

Shiite fundamentalist power in Iraq and Iran will translate into new monetary and diplomatic resources for the Shiites of the region, a prospect that terrifies the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Likewise, the Shiites of southern Lebanon, supporters of the Hizbullah and Amal parties, will benefit from Iraqi patronage. The Lebanese Hizbullah has historical ties to the Iraqi Dawa Party, which the prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim Jaafari, leads.

The year 2005 was one of both tragedy and triumph for the Lebanese. Lebanon, a multi-ethnic country of only 3 million persons, is the Rhode Island of the Middle East. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lebanon fell into civil war and prolonged instability. The United States greenlighted a plan to pacify the country with Syrian troops in 1976. Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon in 1982, also destroying a good deal of what was left of Beirut with indiscriminate artillery fire and bombing. From 1989, the Saudis intervened to help restore stability, brokering a new political bargain amongst the Christians and the Muslims and their allies. In the south, the Shiites became radicalized, in part by the Israeli occupation and the civil war, and in part through Iranian influence, and Hizbullah came to dominate that region of the country. In 2000, they finally succeeded in forcing the Israelis back out of their country. The post-1989 reconstruction of Lebanon depended heavily on Sunni politician Rafiq al-Hariri, a billionaire protege of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, on the disarming of the militias everywhere but the Shiite south, and on continued Syrian peacekeeping.

The new stability came at a price, of heavy-handed Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. Electoral districts were gerrymandered in 1999 to favor pro-Syrian parties and candidates. The anti-Syrian rightwing Phalangist Party popular among some Maronite Catholics, had collapsed in the 1990s. Bashar al-Asad, Syria's young president, especially promoted president Emile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian Maronite general, both to repress anti-Syrian forces and to marginalize even pro-Syrian politicians close to the old guard in Damascus against whom Bashar was trying to assert himself. Lahoud seemed indispensable to Bashar, but the Lebanese president serves only a 6-year term according to the constitution. Bashar intervened to have the constitution amended to give Lahoud three extra years. Most Lebanese were appalled and outraged. Even the pro-Syrian prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, resigned in protest.

In February of 2005, a truck bomber pulled up beside al-Hariri's motorcade and detonated his payload. Although he was himself a Muslim radical with ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq (he had lived in Saudi Arabia and had fought the Americans in Iraq), the bomber appears to have been put up to the assassination by Syria or some of its Lebanese allies. [I initially wondered if Hariri was hit by al-Qaeda, and it was plausible at the time, but subsequent events have established, let us say, a pattern.] The assassination of the widely admired Hariri provoked mass popular mobilization. Lebanese Christians, a large section of the Sunnis, and the Druze minority formed an alliance to force Syrian troops out of the country. Demonstrations hundreds of thousands strong were mounted in downtown Beirut. The sentiment was not universal. Demonstrations by Hizbullah and the Shiites, implicitly pro-Syrian, were almost as large. The Saudis, afraid of instability, intervened with the Syrians, and in the end Syria withdrew its troops that spring. The parliamentary elections in Lebanon (not a new thing; Lebanon has been having parliamentary elections for many decades) held in May produced a win for the reformist, anti-Syrian coalition, though the Shiite Hizbullah and Amal parties also did very well. Once the issue of Syrian presence was settled, the various parties proved perfectly willing to ally with one another despite their duelling demonstrations and counter-demonstrations of the spring. Still, the reformists secured from the international community an investigation of Hariri's killing, which finally elicited a damning report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, implicating not only the Syrian regime but even Bashar al-Asad's own brother.

In the aftermath, there has been an uneasy relationship between President Lahoud and the cabinet, full of seething reformists convinced that Lahoud might have had a hand in Hariri's assassination. Anti-Syrian figures went on being blown up for the rest of 2005. Old-time communist thinker Georges Hawi was killed. Then popular current affairs interviewer May Shidyaq (Chidiac) was nearly killed by a bomb last fall. In mid-December, Jibran Tueni, the editor in chief of the respected al-Nahar newspaper, was killed by a huge bomb blast. Tueni had been severely critical of Damascus. Tueni's killing seems likely to inspire the reformists in parliament and on the cabinet to redouble their efforts to force the resignation of President Lahoud. It appears that elements of the Syrian Baath or its Lebanese allies are afraid that the new government in Beirut is attempting to drive them from power altogether, pursuing them to Damascus through the United Nations and the United States. The bombings carried out against media figures are a Mafia-like warning: Lay off, or else.

The rhetoric of Lebanese politicians toward Syria has become blunt and acerbic. The Hizbullah, Shiite fundamentalists who benefit from the Syrian-Iranian alliance, rejected the idea of blaming or punishing Syria for Tueni's death, and pulled out of the government, creating a national crisis that remains unresolved. Lebanon is polarized and tense in a menacing way that bodes ill for stability or national unity. The withdrawal of Syrian troops was a great national achievement, but so far this story is a fraught one. One worries about the stability of the country. Lebanon needs stability. Tourism was down 11 percent this year. Per capita income is still below that of 1975, by a third. Economic growth has slowed from the 6 percent achieved in the mid-1990s to 2 or 3 percent.

Then there were big demonstrations by the Shiites of Bahrain, demanding that the king give them a truly democratic constitution (he appoints the prime minister and the upper house, which can over-rule the lower house.) Bahrain has a Shiite majority but a Sunni king and political establishment.

And, in Egypt, which deserves more space, the Muslim Brotherhood went from having 17 representatives in parliament to over 70 and became the de facto opposition party in the country. In the old days, the government of Hosni Mubarak would not have allowed so many from the MB to be seated. Is this development a good thing? Having a slightly more representative government is always to the good, but the Muslim Brotherhood is not exactly a force for progressivism in the region.

Ariel Sharon went through with his poorly conceived unilateral withdrawal of colonists and Israeli troops from Gaza. He rejected the idea of having a negotiating partner, having no real consultation with Gazans. Predictably, in the aftermath there has been continued fighting between the Gazans and the Israelis. If this goes on, Israeli troops will be drawn right back in. In the meantime, Israelis continue aggressively to colonize the West Bank and the area around Jerusalem, in ways guaranteed to generate violence for years to come.

Washington's interventions in the Middle East have created a failed state in Iraq that has no military power to speak of, has threatened the Oil Gulf with destabilization, and has in various ways contributed to the ascension of political Islam. Shiite fundamentalist parties rule Iraq. The Islamist warlords are back in the Afghan parliament. Hardliners have been strengthened in Iran, and are creating a Tehran-Baghdad alliance. Sunni Arab Iraqis are turning to fundamentalist Islam in large numbers, forsaking secular Arab nationalism. Some are growing close to al-Qaeda-type organizations. The Lebanese Hizbullah has rich and powerful new allies. Lebanon is free of foreign military forces, but is threatened with renewed sectarian conflict. And the Muslim Brotherhood is emerging as a possible successor to the long-lived secular military regime in Egypt.

Are Americans safer because of the political developments in the Middle East of 2005? The widespread instability introduced into the region by aggressive US policies seems more portent of menace than harbinger of peace. The one development that might have made us safer was the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but it was done in a hamfisted way that likely guarantees continued conflict and continued bad press for the US, the coddler of the Israeli hardliners. Otherwise, the US may have started some political tsunamis in the region, but the waves have not yet come ashore.

As for Bush's goals:

  1. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are still at large, so the war on terror is not won.

  2. Security in the Gulf is endangered by the Iraqi guerrilla war, and oil prices are very high, benefitting Iran and Saudi Arabia. Oil security is in doubt.

  3. Resources to do Afghanistan right were diverted to Iraq. Afghanistan has a very weak government that might well not survive on its own. Suicide bombings are on the uptick. Oldtime warlords are back, as members of parliament.

  4. Order has not been reestablished in Iraq.

  5. The Syrian and Iranian governments have not been noticeably weakened. Iran is flush with extra petroleum income this year. The US may yet decide that it needs Damascus and Tehran, if it is to have a soft landing in Iraq.

  6. Lebanon is more democratic at the end of 2005 than at its beginning, but also much less stable. These changes had little to do with the US. Egypt's elections were not free enough to accomplish much, and there is a question as to whether the US really wants a Muslim Brotherhood take-over of Cairo. The MB hates the Camp David accords and would immediately abrogate them. The Bush administration has said nothing publicly about the demand of Bahraini Shiites that a more democratic constitution be enacted in that country. Iraq has had two elections, but they have been deeply flawed, such that basic security could not be guaranteed candidates or voters, most candidates could not campaign, the electorate did not know the personalities for whom it was voting (but rather voted for ethnic lists), and some candidates were killed. The elections have exacerbated sectarian tensions of a sort that could pull the country apart, and they brought fundamentalist Shiites to power. Whatever is going on in Iraq, it is not a model that most Middle Eastern states would want to emulate.

I'd give the Bush administration a "D" (60 out of 100) on the Middle East this year. Support for the end of two military occupations, in Gaza and Lebanon, pull up the averages. But much of the policy is self-contradictory, in disarray, or likely to cause some wars. None of that makes us safer.

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