Why Success Is Not Important

US success in the Middle East will be best judged in the next three months not by the greatness of its victories, but how it deals with failure

In today’s Asharq Alawsat, Hada Al Husseini wrote an op-ed declaring that the next 3 months are paramount to the US Middle Eastern policy.  In a certain light, Husseini is correct; the next three months are very important for the US.  On the other hand, the three months following will be just as important.  Besides the use of a pretty arbitrary timeline, Husseini makes some pretty ambitious and unqualified claims in what amounts to an article of pure hope rather than realistic journalism.  Rather than pushing unwarranted importance on the next three months, the deteriorating situation shows that future successes in the region are not dependent on the next 90 days.

The article covers Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Israel and Saudi Arabia, so it clearly covers many of the US goals and hopes for the region.  In essence, Husseini says the US goals in the region are:

  • In Iraq: the US is hoping for calm atmosphere for the March elections and a quick withdrawal without violence;
  • In Afghanistan: the US hopes to work with the Taliban to convince the latter not to provide a safe haven for Al Qaeda while continuing to eye a peaceful 2011 withdrawal;
  • In Iran: the US wants to impose international sanctions on finance and trade in order to pressure Tehran.  Washington also hopes to provide security or train security forces in the gulf states to protect infrastructure (oil wells):
  • In Palestine: the US hopes to convince Abbas to return to direct talks without preconditions (read: without a settlement freeze) while starting indirect talks between junior members of both governments:
  • In Syria: the US hopes to restart peace talks between Syria and Israel after peace is made with Palestine: and
  • In Lebanon: the US hopes to pursue peace talks with Israel after peace is made with Palestine and Syria.

Clearly this is an ambitious plan.  Of course, Husseini could not have meant that the US hopes to complete all of these goals in the next three months; the best Washington can hope for is to make the initial steps required for some of these goals.  Husseini greatly simplifies the US Mid East plan (necessary for an op-ed and not a full essay), but she refuses to acknowledge the difficulty of completing any of of these goals and, furthermore, tries to convince the reader that significant steps must be made in the next three months.

Concerning the timeline set be Husseini, she must certainly know that arbitrary timelines in the Mid East are useless.  If nothing happens in the next three months, the US will certainly look bad (and peace becomes more unlikely), but it would be equally likely that everything would fall apart after three good months.  Failed peace talks between Palestine, Syria and Israel (both talks broken off in 2008 after the beginning of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza) should signify that there are no real steps forward in peace talks with Israel until they are complete; they are liable to fall apart at any moment.  Furthermore, peace between Lebanon and Israel will take years as a necessary outcome (if not prerequisite) is the dismantling of Hezbollah – something that is not likely anytime soon.

But let us go through point by point.

Concerning Iraq, Husseini says, “As for Iraq, what US President Barack Obama fears most is chaos. Therefore, he wants the elections to be held in a calm atmosphere.”  The hope for a calm atmosphere for elections was dashed as soon as the new thug government disregarded the Iraqi judiciary and banned nearly 700 candidates for the March elections.  The ban – supposedly to clear the government of ex-Baathists – targets various Sunni and secular parties and creates a clear sectarian atmosphere in Iraq.  Unfortunately, the March elections have already been deemed illegitimate by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi – the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq.  Baghdadi has also called for Sunnis to boycott the election and has called for more attacks to disrupt the ‘illegitimate’ elections.  The decision to uphold the ban precludes any possibility of calm elections.

[tweetmeme] Concerning Iran, it is possible for the US to win international sanctions on Iran in the upcoming months.  Russia is more open to targeted sanctions and the US is pressuring China not to veto any UN resolution, but even international sanctions will do little to halt the nuclear process in the Persian country.  Iran has shown that sanctions do not soften its stance – although they do end up hurting the country.  Indeed, the son of the disposed Shah has urged the west to drop sanctions and, instead, do more to support the opposition.  There is little proof that sanctions will do more than undermine the Iranian opposition and give the government a scapegoat and way out.  Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest that a new Iranian regime would resist the continuation of the nuclear program – much to the chagrin of those who are ignorantly pushing for regime change.

Concerning Palestine, it is possible that indirect talks could begin soon, but without a serious push to stop settlement construction in East Jerusalem – impossible because of Israeli domestic politics – direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas are impossible – due to Palestinian domestic politics.  The combination of the recent evolution to the right in Israeli politics and Obama’s failed demand for a settlement freeze last year have created a situation in which constructive peace talks are nearly impossible.  For serious movement in peace talks, one of the two sides must severely change their view of what peace looks like – an evolution that would be political suicide in Palestine or Israel.

Concerning Syria, the recent war of words between Damascus and Tel Aviv have made the possibility of peace talks in the next several months, well, impossible.  I suppose that after Israel and Palestine reach a peace agreement, movement can be made on the Syrian front – perhaps before, if the US, Syria and Israel clearly commit to serious trust-building political maneuvers.  Currently both Assad and Netanyahu (not to mention Lieberman) are far too suspicious of each other for diplomatic concessions.

Finally, peace with Lebanon is not coming anytime soon.  Not only has Syria continued to provide weapons to Hezbollah (something that also hurts the possibility of Syrian-Israeli peace), but PM Hariri has also announced that the Lebanese government would stand behind Hezbollah in any confrontation with Israel.  Hariri’s comments were simply a reaction to the Israeli promise to hold all of Lebanon accountable for Hezbollah’s actions, but they do represent the level of hostility and mistrust between Israel and Lebanon.

Husseini does make some viable claims.  The US could make progress in Afghanistan and could start to provide more defense for the Gulf states, but the inviability of serious progress on most of the above mentioned fronts make a three month timeline ridiculous.  The US has created many problems for itself in the region and virtually none of them will be corrected in three months – many not in three years.  This, of course, is not to say that the US cannot do anything productive in the next 90 days, but the success of the US Mid East policy goals (all of them) cannot and does not rest of the actions of the US in the next three months.

All fronts should be watched intently, but history and a sense of realism will easily tell you that the situation in the Mid East on May 13 will greatly resemble that of today.  Lebanon and Syria will still be at odds with Israel, Hezbollah will still be strong thanks to Syrian help, Iran will still be moving forward in its nuclear program and Iraq will have suffered through a painful and possibly illegitimate election that may push Baghdad closer to Tehran.  Indeed, despite the hope of Husseini, the situation is more likely to deteriorate before it gets better and, thus, it is importantly not to success or failure from the upcoming events.

Photo from Al Jazeera

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