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Region-building in the Middle East

01 July 2004

While various summits in June have introduced several plans to promote political reform and cooperation in the `broader' Middle East, none of them is likely to change the desperate situation of that region. Without any doubt, these plans, which clearly follow the spirit of the EU's Barcelona process initiated in 1995, are steps in the right direction. However, they are not enough. They amount to giving aspirin and applying small plasters to someone who has suffered from a heart attack. The Middle East's afflictions are so complex and serious that they need another kind of treatment.
In spring 2003 President George W. Bush applied shock therapy to Iraq, but this therapy did not work as expected. The current political transition, endorsed by UNSC Resolution 1546, has certainly raised new hopes. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the bad security situation in the country might still make the completion of that transition very difficult. The wishful prospect of Iraq's new democracy expanding across the region has not worked either; for instance, the war in Iraq has led to neither more democracy nor more stability in Saudi Arabia, and terrorism is growing.
President Bush's shock therapy for the region has not worked because it is grounded on old Hobbesian methods. The assumption that forceful regime change would have prompted a friendly regime in Baghdad, which would have accepted an American military presence in Iraq, ignored basic twentieth century principles such as self-determination and democracy. The use of armed force - necessary as it is on some occasions - cannot be utilised today to impose a regional order while disregarding international legitimacy.
The Middle East needs a wholly different approach, inspired in the Kantian tradition of international relations. The circle of violence there must be stopped and replaced by a region-building process that ushers in a more positive atmosphere. Many deem this idea a senseless dream, which is understandable because old realist thinking cannot explain such schemes - and neither can it explain the European Union or the role of human rights in international relations. What is less understandable, though, is that many of those Hobbesian experts accepted the senseless idea of a democratic domino effect in the Middle East in the wake of a military intervention in Iraq.
Region-building is perhaps the most powerful, yet the most underestimated, feature of international politics in the last half century. This long-term therapy is the only possible solution to the Middle East's numerous problems; however, its implementation raises many thorny issues.
First, none of the previous experiments in region-building can be imported as such to the Middle East. However, we can draw lessons that are applicable to the region from all of them: the Marshall Plan, European economic integration, CSCE-OSCE, the 1991 Madrid Conference, NATO's Partnership for Peace, the Barcelona process and the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe.
Second, region-building in the Middle East is such a huge undertaking that neither the United States nor the European Union can attempt it on its own. It goes without saying that local actors alone are unable to halt perverse historical dynamics. Therefore, the appropriate synergy between the three interlocutors must be found. The current vicious circle of violence must be transformed into a virtuous triangle.
Third, the profound transatlantic understanding needed to design an ambitious plan for the region is not conceivable in the current political circumstances. Following the November US presidential elections, irrespective of the result, a window of opportunity to discuss Middle East issues in depth will open.
Fourth, isolated treatment of specific conflicts and situations in the Middle East (Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iraq's reconstruction, Iran's nuclear ambitions, political transitions, etc.) is no longer possible. We need to tackle all problems simultaneously in order to reach consequential agreements through strategic horse-trading. An international conference is perhaps the best way to start.
Finally, region-building in the Middle East will be a long-term process that must be based on a new balance of interests. An historic agreement that takes into account territorial, political, energy, economic and nuclear issues must be reached.
In the coming months the options will be clear: either we continue to attempt to manage periodical crises, which weaken both Europe and the United States, or we launch an ambitious regional plan that promotes peace in the region and reinforces both transatlantic allies' positions.