November 22nd, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
For decades the Middle East has posed many challenges to American presidents. It seems every U.S. president wants to make history by helping negotiate a lasting peace in this difficult region.
Few people feel a lot of optimism about this, however.
Palestinians argue that they are a people under siege, a nation under occupation. Many in Israel feel the same deep fear — they are a nation under siege by their neighbors, surrounded on all sides by an overwhelming and committed group of enemies.
Both sides feel that their very survival is on the line, and both see negotiations between Israel and Palestine as talks about the very future of the entire Middle East.
The stakes are high and the scenario is, as always, potentially explosive. The result is an almost systemic cynicism and pessimism from both sides and nearly all the spectators.
But there are some significant new factors at play now which could change the entire dialogue. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts — whether you generally supported or opposed them — have influenced some major changes in the Middle East.
These could have great impact on the future. And other changes have caused a new situation in at least three major ways.
A New World
First, with the Cold War over, the whole context of Middle East issues has been altered. From the 1950s until the 1990s, almost everything discussed about Middle East peace was done in the context of U.S.-USSR relations.
The world was bipolar, and Middle East diplomacy followed this pattern.
Today, in contrast, there are many additional players. Russia still has interests in the area, but with the development of its own oil reserves these interests could be less strategically vital.
In fact, Russia’s economy has become an oil economy in the past 10 years. Disruption of oil from the Middle East could boost the Russian economy and increase European openness to Russian trade and cooperation.
As usual, Britain, France, Germany and others have a real concern for what happens in the Middle East. It’s no longer a U.S./Soviet-dominated game, and the U.S., Israel and Palestine have to deal with input from many more actors who have a stake in the game.
The Pacific Century
Second, China is on an epic journey of worldwide economic expansion. It is investing massively in Southern Asia and Africa — buying resources, land, businesses, transportation and communication companies and assets, etc.
It is also investing in Latin America, Oceania, Europe, North America and the Near and Middle East. This includes both public and private investment, but top Chinese leaders are unconvinced there is a real difference.
China hasn’t tipped its hand yet on strategy, but with all this ownership it certainly cares about major international talks — including in the Middle East. The U.S., Israel, Islamic states and everybody involved in Middle East diplomacy will have to deal with growing Chinese clout.
This is a reality, a growing one at that — and it will be for a long time to come.
The Joker in the Deck: Iran
Third, the Middle East itself has changed. It’s not your grandfather’s Middle East anymore. With the major shift of power in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also in Pakistan and newly emerging economic power India, the political environment is much altered since the 1990s.
Instead of a Jewish-Muslim divide, the major conflict in the new Middle East may well be the growing division between the Sunnis and Iran.
Indeed, if “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a naturally cooperative stance (one hesitates to use the word “alliance”) between Israel and all of Iran’s potential Islamic enemies is probably inevitable. It is already gaining momentum.
The conflicting agendas of Israel and Palestine are still very real, and they are increasingly couched in a region where Israel is sided with the Sunni states against Iran.
The list of those on the same side as Israel in this emerging conflict could bring a number of very interesting questions.
Where will Saudi Arabia stand? Egypt? Jordan? Iraq? Pakistan? Syria? Yes? No? Maybe? What about India? And where will the European Union stand?
For that matter, where will the U.S. position itself in a world where it is increasingly struggling to balance its own budgets and meet its own financial obligations? How long will the American people agree to keep spending money on Middle East issues?
Certainly the U.S. will want to maintain its alliance with Israel. But what else will it be able to afford? And with President Obama and the U.S. in general falling in popularity in the Islamic world, it is unclear what is ahead.
Of course, Iran’s push to be nuclear could impact this — drastically — in either direction. A nuclear Iran could strengthen an Israeli-Sunni alliance, for example. Ironically, an Israeli or American military response to Iran could do the same — or the exact opposite.
In a world so changed, even the experts aren’t convinced they know what’s ahead.
What is Needed from Americans
America became the world’s sole superpower in 1945, and within a decade Israel had been formed as a Jewish state and the USSR had become a second superpower.
The Middle East divide between Israel and its neighbors has been a constant for nearly all of America’s time as world leader.
Today all the constants are shifting. The Middle East arguably ended the superpower roles of both Great Britain and Russia, and the U.S. must consider its actions carefully to avoid being a third casualty of this conflicted region.
Still, America has real and lasting interests in the area, not the least of which are its historical alliance with Israel and, of course, oil.
The old lines in the sand have been blurred in the past 15 years, and many American citizens and leaders are unclear about what this means.
As the debate over the mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks on the trade towers shows, some Americans feel less than friendly toward Islam. Others are strongly supportive of the traditional American values of religious freedom and tolerance. This debate is argued in strong words and often heated tones.
But this makes it even more challenging for American leaders to know where we stand on Middle East issues.
If an Israeli-Sunni alliance continues to grow, for example, how will most Americans respond? And if the conflict with Iran turns violent in the months ahead, as nearly all experts predict, the stakes will rise again.
American leaders will have a hard time effectively representing American values until American citizens clarify what role and direction they want the U.S. to take in the Middle East. A few things have changed, and many stay the same.
Unfortunately, too often the American people have reacted knee-jerk and with shallow understanding to what goes on abroad. The future of the Middle East is too important for such tepid citizen involvement.
American citizens need to study up on the Middle East so they can decide where they stand — and thereby help guide and support their leaders in principled, wise and effective Middle East policy. This issue will not go away any time soon.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.