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New formulas for the Middle East

01 January 2004

It is very difficult to tell a friend that he or she is wrong. And yet, pointing out our friends' mistakes is the best way to help them - even though this sincerity may not always be well received. In the Middle East, we the Europeans should tell our transatlantic friends that American policies are not working satisfactorily. The capture of Saddam Hussein or other positive developments on the ground will not offset the overall unstable situation in Iraq. Transition to democracy and independence are stuck in cumbersome negotiations between the Iraqi communities, and nobody can anticipate whether those negotiations will guarantee both the end of terrorism and territorial integrity. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American mediation since the Aqaba summit last June has not led to practical measures for the application of the Quartet's `road map'. Private initiatives, such as the unofficial Geneva peace accord, have been more instrumental in exposing the Israeli and Palestinian governments' short-sightedness than external pressure on the parties. Finally, President George W. Bush's policy of confrontation vis-à-vis Iran was not the best way of engaging Iran in the peaceful track. The trilateral British-French-German initiative of October 2003 has eased tensions and allowed for serious international action to curb possible Iranian nuclear proliferation ambitions.
Faced with American Middle East policies that are not attaining the desired results, the Europeans are too shy. True, some of them are more vocal than others when they publicly criticise US policies. The trouble is that all of them are too timid when it comes to putting forward alternative policies. The Europeans should develop new proposals for the Middle East, elaborating on common grounds that already exist between them. They should ask themselves: what Middle East region do we want to have in 10-20 years' time?
The most difficult issue, of course, is Iraq, on which Europeans are divided. However, there is potential consensus on the crucial role that the United Nations must play in the transition towards democracy and independence. If transition is to be supervised in a neutral fashion, an increased UN role seems indispensable. Also, taking into account past colonial experience, the Europeans know very well that foreign military control of natural resources cannot be sustained forever. On the other hand, serious degradation of the security situation in Iraq would run counter to European interests. Therefore, it seems paramount to develop a new, more ambitious transition plan, whereby the international community would be directly involved in the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq and the Europeans should promote such a plan.
The Europeans basically agree on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on how to deal with Iran. There is no credible alternative to a negotiated two-state solution to the former, along the lines of the Clinton parameters and Taba negotiations. While the current Israeli and Palestinian governments do not seem ready to follow that path, the external actors, notably the United States and the EU, should insist on a peaceful resolution of the conflict that allows the two peoples to live side by side in peace. On Iran, the Europeans share the view that nuclear proliferation is unacceptable. However, constructive relations are possible if Iran respects human rights and international law.
In sum, the EU and its member states should define new formulas to stabilise the Middle East once and for all. The objective would be to offer peoples of the region the opportunity to organise their lives in peace both internally and internationally. To do that, the fatal circle of periodic outbursts of violence in the region must be broken.
An alternative European long-term project for the region would ultimately also benefit the United States. Indeed, both American and European interests in the Middle East would be best served if the region were stable and at peace. Hence the utility of the European input. In the Middle East, the Americans need the Europeans because the latter have innovative ideas (which the Americans do not acknowledge willingly). Reciprocally, the Europeans need the Americans because their ideas cannot be put to work without American muscle. Any convincing global political formula for the Middle East requires the appropriate combination of European expertise and American energy.