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A new Middle East, but not Condi's

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FM: John Whitbeck
Transmitted below is an interesting -- and encouraging -- perspective from Beirut-based journalist Rami Khouri, published in the DAILY STAR (Beirut).

Copyright (c) 2008 The Daily Star

Saturday, May 24, 2008
A new Middle East, but not Condi's

By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star staff

The Doha agreement that resolved the immediate political crisis in Lebanon is the latest example of the new political power equation that is redefining the Middle East. It reflects both local and global forces and, 18 years after the Cold War ended, provides a glimpse of what a post-Cold War world will look like, at least in the Middle East.

Several dynamics seem to be at play, but one is paramount: the clear limits of the projection of American global power, combined with the assertion and coexistence of multiple regional powers - Turkey, Israel, Iran, Hizbullah, Syria, Hamas, Saudi Arabia and others. These regional actors tend to fight and negotiate at the same time, and ultimately prefer to make compromises rather than perpetually wage absolutist battles.

The Doha accord for Lebanon was much more than simply a victory for Iranian-backed Hizbullah over the American-backed March 14 alliance. It was the first concrete example in the Arab world of a negotiated, formal political agreement by local adversaries to share power and make big national decisions collectively, while maintaining close strategic relationships with diverse external patrons in the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The Lebanese agreement (unlike the failed Fatah-Hamas unity government agreement) is likely to succeed because all the parties know that to live together peacefully they must make mutual compromises. This accord has been forged in the furnace of Middle Eastern demographic and political realism, in contrast to the hallucinatory absolutism that often drives US-Israeli policy in the region.

The US was not fully defeated, but it was fought to a draw. Recent events put into concrete political form the most powerful force that has defined the Middle East in recent decades: the willingness of individuals, political movements and some governments to openly defy, challenge, resist and occasionally fight the United States, Israel and their Arab and other allies. The US since 2004 has explicitly, repeatedly and passionately singled out Lebanon as an arena where Hizbullah and other regional Islamist forces backed by Iran and Syria would be faced down and defeated. Next week, the US, though its Lebanese allies, will face these forces from across the same Cabinet room table, not as bludgeoned and defeated foes, but rather as partners and colleagues in the national-unity government that is to be formed. When Hizbullah and Hariri exchange kisses, befuddled Condoleezza Rice should take care not to fall off her exercise bicycle.

The US is a slow learner in the Middle East, where the terrain is strange to it, the body language bizarre, the fierce power of historical memory incomprehensible, and the negotiating techniques other-worldly. But the US is not stupid. It learns over time that if you retread a flat tire over and over again, and it keeps going flat on you, perhaps it's time to buy a new tire if you hope to move forward. Now that we have a draw in the broad ideological confrontation throughout the Middle East that pits Israeli-Americanism against Arab Islamo-nationalism, we should expect the players to reconsider their policies if they wish to make new gains.

This, however, is not the most significant development this week that reflects the limits of American power in the Middle East. The remarkable manifestation of how the US has marginalized itself is the conduct of the Israeli government. The US has pushed the Israelis hard to do two things in the past two years: to not negotiate with Syria and to not engage Hamas. What has Israel done? It has been wisely negotiating with Syria via Turkey, and engaging Hamas on a truce deal through the mediation of Egypt. Hold on, Condi, this gets even worse.

It is no big deal in Washington when nearly 500 million Arabs, Iranians and Turks ignore and defy the US. But when Israel - the only democracy in the Middle East, America's eternal ally, and the bastion of the epic modern struggle against fascism, totalitarianism, Nazism, communism and terrorism - ignores the United States, that is newsworthy.

So we now have a rare moment in the Middle East: Iran, Turkey, all the Arabs, Hizbullah, Hamas and Israel all share one and only one common trait: They routinely ignore the advice, and the occasional threats, they get from Washington. Condoleezza Rice was correct in summer 2006 when she said we are witnessing the birth pangs of a new Middle East. But the new regional configuration is very different from what she had in mind and tried to bring into being with multiple wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and Lebanon, and threats against Iran and Syria. The new rules of the political game in the Middle East are now being written by the key players in the Middle East, which should be welcomed.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
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