WASHINGTON – The Middle East is in flames. During the past week, war erupted among the Palestinians and their government collapsed. A Shiite shrine in Iraq was bombed – again – as the new U.S. military strategy showed no sign of diminishing the violence. Lebanon battled a new al-Qaida faction in the north as a leading politician was assassinated in Beirut. And Egyptian elections were marred by irregularities, including police obstructing voters, in a serious setback to democracy efforts.
U.S. policy in the region isn’t faring much better, say Middle East and U.S. analysts.
“It’s close to a nightmare for the administration,” Ellen Laipson, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, said from Dubai. “They can’t catch their breath. … It makes Condi Rice’s last year as secretary of state very daunting. What are the odds she can get virtually anything back on track?”
Each flash point has its own dynamics, but a common denominator is that leaders in each country – Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – are pivotal U.S. allies.
“The people we rely on the most to help are under siege, just as we are,” said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution fellow and former National Security Council staffer. “Three of the four leaders may either not make it (politically) through the end of the summer or find themselves irrelevant by then.”
The broad danger is a breakdown of the traditional states and conflicts that have defined Middle East politics since the 1970s, said Paul Salem of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Beirut office. An increasing number of places – Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories – have rival claimants to power, backed by their own militaries.
Also, once divided by the Arab-Israeli conflict, the region now is the battleground for three other rivalries: the U.S. and its allies pitted against an Iran-Syria alliance in a proxy war regionwide, secular governments confronted by rising al-Qaida extremism, and autocratic regimes reverting to draconian tactics to quash grass-roots movements vying for democratic change.
Extremists are scoring the most points. “Gaza is the latest evidence that most of the trends are pointed in the wrong direction. It’s yet another gain for radical forces. It’s another gain for Iran. It’s another setback for the U.S., Israel and the Sunni regimes,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and State Department policy planning chief during President Bush’s first term. “The United States has not shown that moderation pays or will accomplish more than violence.”
A second danger is that conflicts now overlap. “You can’t look at Lebanon or Iraq or the Palestinians or Syria or Iran and try to deal with them separately. … They are politically and structurally linked,” said Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut.
Khouri said the United States deserves a good share of the blame for a confluence of disasters spawning pessimism and anger across the region.
U.S. officials counter that the Palestinians have demonstrated a sense of national identity and are not likely to want to split the West Bank and Gaza. Because the West Bank is the center of the conflict with Israel, a peace process remains viable, they say.
In Iraq, the second attack on Samarra’s mosque and the failure of the Baghdad security plan to lessen the death toll shows that U.S. influence and power is slipping away, Laipson said.
“The best that we can hope for is that, come autumn, the administration will be able to persuade Congress to support a much-reduced U.S. presence and avoid simply pulling out,” Haass added. “If we can do that, it will at least give the Iraqis more time to try to discover a national political identity and reduce the chance that Iraq will be seen simply as an American foreign policy disaster.”
In Lebanon, a beleaguered government faces a triple threat. The Army entered the fifth week of fighting a few hundred Fatah al-Islam extremists, who held out in a Palestinian refugee camp despite a U.S. infusion of arms and ammunition. The car-bomb killing of anti-Syria parliamentarian Walid Eido has deepened fears that Syria is seeking to reassert control after its 2005 withdrawal. Hezbollah is still blockading Siniora’s government – both politically and physically.
“What’s consistent about all three is wanting to get rid of the Siniora government. It’s not coordinated, but it will stretch the government to its limits,” Riedel said.
U.S. officials counter that Siniora has proven surprisingly resilient, despite Syrian attempts to restore its control. In Egypt, the detention of hundreds of activists, including candidates for parliament’s upper house, reflects the deteriorating state of democracy efforts.
But even former Bush administration officials blame Washington for the region’s latest woes. “The U.S. bears responsibility, both for things it’s done, particularly in Iraq, but also for things it’s not done, which is where the peace process comes in,” Haass said. “The president never developed his idea of a Palestinian state. He never used his leverage to help Egypt get launched on a trajectory of greater openness.”
The United States finds itself active in more Middle East theaters than ever but with less ability to influence events, said Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group. “It is very much now manipulated in places that it once thought it could manipulate.”