Friday, August 10, 2007

Middle East bazaarin climate of cold war

New York, Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
August 7, 2007

Rapid production and sale of arms cheapen the value of life. The US has a plan to flood the Middle East with arms going to “good” people to be used against “bad” people. In recent legislation, President Bush set forth a plan to sell and donate sixty-three billion dollars in weaponry to allies in the Middle East over the next ten years. Thirty billion will go as military aid to Israel, and thirteen billion will go as military aid to Egypt. Saudi Arabia and seven other Gulf countries are allowed to purchase twenty billion dollars worth of arms, if the Congress approves.

The 30-billion military aid to Israel, a 25 % increase over the last ten year period, will be easily approved by Congress. For Congress, Israel, a reliable ally can do no harm with more weapons.

The thirteen billion dollar aid to Egypt is likely to be contested, but it will ultimately be approved because Egypt, one third of the Arab world’s population, has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1979.

The twenty billon dollar arms sale assigned to the Gulf countries will be opposed by human rights groups, by friends of Israel and by Americans who want Saudi Arabia to be more vigilant in the war on terror. But in the end, Washington’s fear mongering directed towards Iran will facilitate the legislative authorization of the sale of advanced weapons to Arab countries which have no knowledge of how to use them.

Marketing of products sometimes requires a culture of survival anxiety. This is often how medicinal drugs are sold. Legislation for sale of arms also has its slick marketing in America: make the product indispensable. Regrettably, in order for the US to sell arms and maintain its dominance of the region Iran has become the focus of demonization, a great selling point.

It takes an accident-prone, provocative Iranian regime and a short-sighted, American Administration to misread each other and to create a new cold-war atmosphere in the Middle East. Iran decides to escalate its rhetoric against Israel and threatens to mobilize a controversial nuclear defense program. Iran meddles too deeply in Lebanon and in Palestine. By taking these provocative steps, Iran becomes marketable in the American media as a dangerous and evil empire.

It is not only Iran that is provocative. The US decides to invade Iraq for no good reason. Then the US and Israel threaten to attack Iran for no convincing causes. America mobilizes Sunni-minded Arab regimes to consider Iran as a Shia-obsessed enemy. Conveniently, America explains the Iraq civil war to the world as a product of growing power of the Shiite community.

Do we have the elements of a new cold war? The threat of the communism of the past is replaced by the threat of radical Islam. Iran is made to look like the Soviets. Iraq replaces Vietnam.

The similarities of past rivalry between the US and the Soviets and the current US-Iran hostilities are compelling, yet the differences are significant. These differences are too significant to make reliable predictions based on the past.

The cold-war paradigm follows a business model. Organizationally, the previous order of the cold war was based on how each of the two rival superpowers created a “client state” system. In return for foreign aid the client state compromised its sovereignty by complying with dictated foreign policy. The US was allied with right-wing client states throughout the world, and the Soviets were allied with left-wing regimes. Both superpowers actively and covertly manipulated regime changes.

Often war occurs when fear escalates disproportionately. In the new cold war, Iran does not measure up in size or power to the Soviets. But the “neo-cons” of Washington point out that Iran could mobilize over fifty countries in the Muslim world against the West. This is the “domino theory” of the old cold war.

Washington asks this rhetorical question: Does not Iran already have a client-state system that includes Syria, part of Lebanon (Hezbollah), part of Palestine (Hamas) and part of Iraq (insurgency)? Iran’s political alliances should not be taken lightly, but their impact is limited. Iran’s international partnerships are formed for self-preservation rather than for regional control. Syria, for example, is not cemented ideologically with Iran. If Syria were to be given back the Golan Heights, it would cooperate with the US.

In the Middle East, the US has its own client system including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. In Lebanon, the government is allied with the US and in Palestine the new West Bank government is supported by Washington.

Ideologically, the cold war rested on the concept of containment. The US contained the danger of the Soviets with nuclear deterrence, conventional arms and an informal, world-wide alliance of allied states. The Soviets reciprocated with a similar system of defense and strategic alliances. The cold war lasted seven decades until the Soviet economy collapsed and Eastern Europe transitioned to the new world.

But the world has changed since the cold war. The US cannot count on winning this round. The US is behaving in the Middle East as the Soviets did in Afghanistan. Now it is the US that is bogged down in Middle Eastern wars as the Soviets were humiliated in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The Muslims world is 1.3 billion people; every fifth person in the world is a Muslim. The tenacity and depth of the Moslem community are impressive. It is in this wider and peaceful community that radical Islam is finding shelter. Money and human resources are generated informally, covertly and without limits. If mishandled, radical political Islam will be long lasting and increasingly threatening. Political Islam is not a state to fight; it is an ideology. It is not a market economy. It does not collapse easily.

The best way to limit underground Islam is by allowing Muslim countries the freedom and the space they need to evolve their traditional political systems. Muslims need not be taught democracy; they have the necessary political values to build a democracy that suits their culture. Time and trust are needed. Muslim communities would, however, benefit most from industrial empowerment, cultural cooperation, and a climate of regional coordination.

Only Muslims can contain and transform the energies of radical, fundamental Islam. Fundamentalism will prosper as a mode of defense as long as the West is viewed by the Muslim world as enemy number one. The US rush to sell arms to its Middle East clients is counterproductive.

The old cold war is gone. Good riddance.

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