WASHINGTON – In a week of dramatic developments in the Middle East, the most dramatic development of all may have been the fact that the United States, long considered the region’s indispensable player, was missing in action.
As its closest allies cut deals with their adversaries this week over the Bush administration’s opposition, Washington was largely reduced to watching.
More painfully for President Bush, friends he has cultivated – and spent heavily on – in Lebanon and Iraq asked the United States to remain in the background, underlining how politically toxic an association with the U.S. can be for Arab leaders.
Over the past few days:
•The Lebanese government, which has received $1.3 billion and political support from the Bush administration, compromised with the Hezbollah-led opposition, giving the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization, a greater role in running the country.
•Israel ignored U.S. objections and entered indirect peace talks with Syria through Turkey, another longtime U.S. ally.
•The U.S.-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deployed military forces to Baghdad’s Sadr City slum under an agreement that specifically excluded U.S. troops.
•Saudi Arabia, a crucial oil supplier and long a major buyer of U.S. weapons, is quietly closing what could be a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia, according to a U.S. defense official.
State Department officials scoffed at the notion that the United States has been relegated to the sidelines.
Private analysts and some foreign diplomats, however, said that leaders in the Middle East, both friend and foe, are calculating with an eye to the era after President Bush – who visited Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt this month with little visible effect.
Others said that by refusing to talk to adversaries and using bristling “with-us-or-against-us” rhetoric, Bush has cut his administration out of the game. Under Bush, U.S. diplomats have had few substantive discussions with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which in 2006 won elections for which the White House had pushed.
“In that sense, we’ve dealt ourselves out of the picture,” said Richard W. Murphy, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria, and an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration.
Added Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “The United States has taken a really hard-line position on all these situations, without being able to deliver in the end.
“We see the countries of the region trying to find a different policy, to try to move these situations forward. This is going on across the board.”
Three years ago, Lebanon was a symbol of the kind of Arab democracy the Bush administration envisioned. A Western-backed reform movement, spurred by the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, drove out a generation-long Syrian military presence and made electoral gains against Syrian-backed factions such as Hezbollah.
But every year since Hariri’s death, America’s sway in Lebanon has diminished and Hezbollah’s has risen.
An 18-month political stalemate erupted in violence this month, with Hezbollah and its allies taking over much of Beirut but stopping short of laying siege to the government.
The strategy paid off this week, when Arab mediators in Doha, Qatar, negotiated a peace agreement that fulfilled Hezbollah’s three main goals: keeping its vast arsenal intact and untouchable; winning veto power over all government decisions; and tweaking election laws to better reflect the growing Shiite population.
America and European powers could do little but watch. Murphy, referring to Lebanon, said: “Maybe we didn’t do quite enough, and said too much.”
Firas Maksad, a well-connected Lebanese-American analyst in Washington, said U.S.-backed Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and members of his March 14 movement urged the Bush administration not to take too public a role, for fear that they’d be labeled American lackeys.
The State Department was eager to help and frustrated “at being held back by Beirut,” Maksad said.
A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, disputed that account. Siniora’s government merely asked Washington to tone down its rhetoric as the Doha talks got under way, he said.
U.S. officials argued that the outcome wasn’t as favorable to Hezbollah as it seemed. The group, they said, has hurt itself badly with Lebanese Sunnis and Christians by turning its guns on Lebanese, rather than on Israel.
Storefront posters in downtown Beirut celebrating an end to the crisis, however, were telling. “We all say thank you, Qatar,” they read, underscoring who mediated resolution of the crisis.
Similarly, in the talks between Israel and Syria, it was Turkey that stepped into the role of “honest broker” once played by the United States.
Rice and Bush were aware of Israeli-Syrian contacts in recent months, U.S. officials said. But they made little secret of their deep skepticism about the worth of talking to Syria, which Bush has shunned far more than any of his recent predecessors.
“It’s like I’m from Missouri. … Show me,” the State Department official said.
Israel, though, appears to have decided that it’s worth trying to peel Syria away from its larger patron, Iran, Israel’s principal adversary, and Syria seeks to retrieve the strategic Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.
Into the vacuum stepped Turkey, a large pro-Western Muslim nation with good ties to Israel and Syria. It gained credibility in the region for refusing to allow U.S. troops to use its territory to invade Iraq in 2003.
“Turkey has carved out the middle ground,” said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “It’s a success story.”
The proposed arms deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia is yet another example of a country trying to make inroads on traditional U.S. turf. Russia’s state-controlled arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, has been marketing aggressively in the Arab world, according to a senior State Department official.
News reports from Moscow value the deal at $4 billion, although U.S. officials said it might be smaller.