Needed: A Nuanced Middle East Policy

Let's not get too enthusiastic about democracy in the Middle East. The elections in Lebanon are a welcome development, with the coalition led by Hizbullah and tied to Iran being defeated by a more liberal, Western-leaning slate. But we've seen this before.

In 2005, a lot of us were carried away by the prospect of brave voters flooding to the polls in Iraq and Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt. A year later Iraq was bloodier than ever, Lebanon was at war with Israel, Hamas had taken over the Palestinian parliament and the only Egyptian politician brave enough to challenge Hosni Mubarak for the presidency had been thrown in jail.

That caution aside, it would be a mistake to miss the signs that something is changing for the better just now. For most of modern history, to turn the dictum of Carl von Clausewitz on its head, politics in the Middle East has been the continuation of war by other means. At the international, regional, national and even local level, everything seemed to break down to ideological battles. The Cold War gave way to the clash of civilizations: The world was divided into those who were with us, and those who were with the terrorists.

What was missing, particularly in Washington, was an understanding that politics in the Middle East could be a game of nuance, where complex constituencies with complicated and often conflicting agendas have to be taken into account. And while that is most obvious during free election campaigns, it's true even in monarchies and under authoritarian regimes. What I think and hope we are seeing now is a much more subtle appreciation of the role that politics short of war--indeed, instead of war--can play in reshaping the region.

President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo last week was an evocation of that fresh approach.  Lebanon's elections over the weekend were a window into it. And what may be most surprising is the role that Saudi Arabia, which is utterly undemocratic but highly political, is playing at many different levels. Its long-term goal is to preserve its regime by stabilizing the region through any political and diplomatic means available. And its current challenge--much like that of the United States--is to stop the Iranian political momentum that has been building for the last several years.

In Lebanon, the Saudis gave massive financial support to the victorious coalition of Saad Hariri. As long ago as March, one well-connected operative from Riyadh was telling me privately but with evident pride that his country had spent more in Lebanon, a nation of 4 million, than the record-breaking $715 million Barack Obama's campaign spent in the United States. And even if my source was indulging in wild hyperbole, the extent to which Beirut had become a kind of electoral e-Bay for vote buyers from Riyadh and Tehran made international headlines.

But the defeat that the Lebanese handed Hizbullah at the polls on Sunday will only be a minor political setback for the mullahs in Tehran if the United States and its key Arab allies--Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan--do not develop a coherent political strategy throughout the region. And my sense from talking to leaders in all these countries is that they think we're not there yet, even if Obama is trying to move American policy in the right direction.

At the core of their concerns is the Arab-Israeli problem. Washington's Arab allies still see that conflict as the single political issue used most effectively by Tehran against their regimes. A demagogue like Iran's current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, far from the scenes of confrontation, can play to popular emotions. Arabs everywhere see Israel's treatment of the Palestinians as a gross and inexplicable injustice, and from a political point of view that puts the signers of peace treaties with Israel, the Egyptians and Jordanians, in a dangerous position. It's also rough for would-be peacemakers and stability seekers like the Saudis. 

"Israel is the key for Iran to enter the Arab world," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told me when I saw him in Paris last week. "If Iran threatens the Arab world, it is threatening it through problems that arise out of the Arab-Israeli conflict."

The same kind of logic carries over to the question of Iran's nuclear program. Politically speaking, no regime in the region, whether democratic, authoritarian or monarchal, can convince its people that it's acceptable for Israel to have undeclared nuclear weapons but not for Iran, a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to acquire similar technology. That's why present and aspiring peacemakers want to see Israel as well as Iran under pressure on the issue. "The only way to stop nuclear proliferation," said Saud, "is to say outright, probably through the United Nations Security Council, that development and possession of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is illegal."

And, finally, that's why the Saudis, the Egyptians and Jordanians are so desperate to have a solid, workable deal with Israel concluded, not just talked about. As they see it, they have made a very good offer: a comprehensive peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world in exchange for an end to Israel's occupation of the lands it took in 1967, including East Jerusalem, and a "right of return" of refugees to the new state of Palestine. Obviously all this would have to be subject to negotiation, but, from a political point of view, that's difficult for Arab leaders to acknowledge publicly. As they see it--and, more important, as their people see it--past "road maps" for "confidence building" have done nothing but give hard-line Israelis more time for settlement building in the occupied West Bank. "Negotiations without an end is not something that the Arabs will accept," said Saud. "They have learned their lesson."

So, no, peace and democracy are not at hand just yet in the Middle East. Iran has lost an electoral battle, nothing more. But if Arab leaders continue to play politics instead of preaching war, then at least there's a chance to start building a more stable and, eventually, a more democratic future for the region.

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