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The U.S. needs to discard its
old relationships in the Middle East




October 17, 2001

LONDON - As the bombing progresses the crater America has dug for itself gets ever bigger. It is not so much that the bombing has stirred up a hornets' nest in neighbouring Pakistan where militant fundamentalist allies of the Taliban and Qaida itch to get control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, it is that it has destabilised America's carefully nurtured tight relationship with the main pillars of the Islamic world - Saudi Arabia with its massive oil wealth and holy sites, and Egypt, with its large population and inbred sense of historical destiny.

If these long-lasting, diplomatically and militarily tight relationships become undone, then the whole script of the Middle East story will have to be re-written. There will be no reliable fixer of the world oil price; there will be no trustworthy Arab interlocutor with the Palestinians; Israel will be totally surrounded by enemies who have lost all patience with its prevarications; indeed, probably, there will be no one to hold back the stealthy preparations that both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have made to go nuclear.

Suddenly, rather late in the day, the shrewder American commentators have come to see the quandary they are in. The editor of the International Herald Tribune, David Ignatius, writes that "the U.S. has the allies it deserves in the Islamic world". And the New York Times editorialises that "decades of equivocation and Hobbesian calculations have left American relations with Saudi Arabia in an untenable and unreliable state".

The belated awakening of some of the foreign policy cognoscenti of America to the essential fragility of the U.S. relationship with the Arab world is long overdue. If it had been realised earlier the growth of the power of Osama bin Laden could have been avoided, the Israeli-Palestian quarrel could be over and done with and democracy, that fragile desert plant, might have sprouted a few more leaves.

The essence of the problem is this: while on the one hand the pro-Western Egyptian and Saudi leadership has never had any deep sympathy for the fundamentalist radicals, neither government has ever felt motivated to shut down or seriously counter their ceaseless propaganda against Israel and America. Indeed, they have regarded the wild talk as a safety valve, more acceptable than calls for more democracy or respect for human rights within their own political order.

This balancing act - and it was always a precarious one - could last only as long as there seemed to be progress on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and as long as that day arrived before the militants had made too many preparations of the kind that led to September 11th.

But there was always a kind of inevitability about D-Day. Everyone who followed the Middle East knew about the growing power of the violent fundamentalists, their handiwork has been revealed since the days of the Reagan presidency and his disastrous intervention in the Lebanon. But Washington, supinely followed by its Nato allies, always had an interest in, if not suppressing the evidence of what was afoot, minimising it.

It lived with the ambiguities of the Saudi government, never contemplating that as long as America guaranteed the regime's security that Saudi Arabia would ever refuse it the right to make use of its large and sophisticated base. It never guessed that Egypt which it has subsidized since the days of Camp David to the tune of $2 billion a year would not in America's great hour of need rally itself to give America cover - a visible Arab military ally, whose imprimatur would be sufficient to quieten the anxieties of the rest of the Muslim world.

Instead, America has been left almost naked in its quest. True enough, the 56-nation Islamic Conference has roundly condemned the bombing of New York and Washington, but their statement, if read for what is omitted, is very much the bare bones of a supportive declaration.

Even in the West, ones senses, for all the rhetoric of the leadership of Germany and France, a wish by much of the citizenry to hold back from serious military involvement. Only Britain has rushed forward, despite Prime Minister Tony Blair's original conviction that bombing might be counterproductive.

So now America finds itself far out on the longest of limbs. Only good fortune can save its immediate face - the unlikely event that the bombing does "smoke out" bin Laden. But even his capture would no more end the terrorism than did the capture and eventual killing of the great drug baron Pablo Escobar halt the drug trafficking from Colombia. Like drugs, the problems that disturb the Middle East are demand led - in this case by a large, if not yet a majority, slice of Islamic public opinion.

Undoubtedly, however, his arraignment would give time for everyone to catch their breath. Yet the bombing offers only a small chance of such success. Meanwhile, the longer it continues the more it disturbs and riles public opinion. The big changes can only be momentarily deferred. They have to happen sooner or later when sooner is now and later is three months at the most.

It means that America has for the first time to use its political and financial muscle to push Israel to dismantle all its settlements on Palestinian land as a precursor to a final agreement, not as part of it. It means that the U.S. and Europe must stop trying to settle the petrodollar problem by marketing sophisticated armaments to the Middle East.

Rather they must seek truly rapid ways of cutting down their dependency on Middle Eastern oil, unshackle themselves from the unquestioning political support of these governments and push more openly and honestly for a marked improvement in human rights practices.

This does not mean not being engaged or friendly with these governments. Quite the contrary. All out embargoes never did anyone any good, as relations with both Iraq and Iran have shown. (If and when sanctions are used they must be used with discrimination and care, primarily aimed at the military sector.)

None of this will mean that the bitter spirits of Osama bin Laden will go away. But it will drain the swamp in which his mosquitoes hatch. As for him, he should be pursued with the same diligence that the Israelis once hounded Adolf Eichmann. With quiet police work not noisy war work.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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