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The crux of the matter: The Middle East after 11 September

01 September 2002

In the last two years or so, the situation in the Middle East has been quickly evolving from instability to war, while neither the local actors nor the United States, individual European countries or the European Union have been able to react to prevent it.
Many new factors shaping the region are making it more dangerous. First, the bilateral links between some Arab countries and the United States have weakened. Americans have noted that the worst terrorists come from the best allies, which means that the old differentiation between ‘nice’ and ‘rogue’ states is too simplistic. Popular discontent in some Arab countries (towards both their governments and Western policies) has led to a transnational terrorist network that is the current enemy.
Second, the United States has a new adversary that cannot be identified with a flag or a territory and employs new methods. Bearing in mind the unequivocal defeat of conventional Iraqi forces in 1991, the rapid occupation of Afghanistan and the awful effectiveness of the 11 September attacks, those who want to hurt the West have surely learnt that the most preferable option for them is not to attempt to overthrow a government and attain power in a state (which would make them vulnerable), but to explore the many possibilities offered by terrorism.
Third, following the wreckage of the peace process, Ariel Sharon’s Israel has decided to play an assertive role in the region that is far from the cooperative posture it maintained in the 1990s. The idea of the ‘new Middle East’, in which Israel would have had a central position and would have been, for instance, a regional leader in IT and services, has been abruptly replaced with an ‘old Middle East’ dominated by a déjà vu confrontation between Israel and the rest. In this context, one cannot expect that Israel will not respond if Iraq attacks its territory, as was the case in 1991.
Fourth, the Iraqi government has transformed itself into a cancer for the region, but the doctors do not wholly agree on the right therapy. Indeed, it would be a hard task to attack Iraq, occupy its territory and assure state-building at a reasonable cost for both the Iraqi population and the international community. The question is, can we heal Iraq without affecting the unstable balance in the region?<br />Also, the use of nuclear weapons and other WMD is now more probable than ever in the Middle East. In addition to the terrorist threat, many states are pondering the nuclear option. Israel sees it as a defensive tool. Some factions in Iran believe it is a way of counterbalancing Israel. In Pakistan, the overriding theme is the nuclear arms race and the balance of terror with India. And in the mind of the Iraqi tyrant, the name of the game is presumably not deterrence but sheer destruction.
Finally, the fact that Pakistan was (and still is) a key actor in the Afghanistan campaign establishes a new link between the Indian subcontinent conundrum and the Middle East puzzle. The terrorist network that had its safe haven in Afghanistan has probably expanded its influence eastwards. Thus, part of the price for keeping stability in Afghanistan appears to be instability on the Indian-Pakistani border, and that is a high price to pay.
Faced with a dangerous situation, governments in the region are not capable of finding responses, trapped as they are between their own interpretation of regional disputes and their poor economic and democratic record. The United States is the leading external power, but its policies in the region, which are mainly based on maintenance of the status quo, were designed in the 1970s, the 1960s or even earlier, and do not take into account the numerous transformations that are taking place. Without any doubt, terrorism must be tackled, and there may be no other option but to overthrow Saddam Hussein by force, but these two moves do not imply a new strategy for the wider chessboard. The Europeans, for their part, by and large follow America’s leadership, because they are not capable of defining an innovative approach towards the whole region.
Therefore, although a new policy for the Middle East is badly needed, we have chosen continuity. And yet the present situation is having a negative impact in the West, because of the impending terrorist threat, the risks associated with local war and the tensions it introduces into the transatlantic relationship. On several occasions in the last thirty years the Middle East has exported trouble to the West: the oil shock and Palestinian terrorism in the 1970s, the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, and lately the 11 September attacks. Now it seems that we are passively waiting for a new outbreak of violence, which will hit us head-on.