The Middle East Waiting Game

The Middle East Waiting Game

Mini Teaser: Many in the Islamic world experience their own internal class of civilizations.

by Author(s): Claude Salhani

Iran's rulers say they will negotiate with the EU-3--Britain, France and Germany--over its nuclear ambitions. Then they say they will not. Then a yes from Tehran is followed by another no. Ahmedinejad muddles the cards further and diverts attention by making inane and outrageous statements regarding Israel.

Syria does much the same thing. Asad orders his army out of Lebanon, but his intelligence units remain operational even though he said that they, too, had left the country. If we are to believe the accusations made in Paris by former Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam, Syrian intelligence went into high gear in Lebanon and started a campaign of assassination against anyone who dared to speak out against the regime in Damascus. It is politics under the abaya.

Asad pÅ re became a grand master at playing the waiting game. He passed on some of his tactics and talents to his son, Bashar. Whenever he disagreed with the White House resident of the time, Asad would retrench and wait out the four-year term. Hafez lasted thirty years. During his time at the helm--from the moment he took power in a bloodless coup in 1970 until his death in 2000--he dealt (or at times avoided dealing with) six American presidents: Richard Nixon--the first U.S. president to visit Syria--Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. More recent developments in Damascus, such as the distancing of Khaddam and others of the "Old Guard", indicate that Bashar is following in his father's footsteps and that, so far, he has managed to outwit Bush.

Syria continues to support radical Palestinian and Lebanese factions by sending money and military supplies. Quite often Syria tells the United States one thing and then does another. When the pressure mounts, Syria temporarily prevents foreign jihadists passage into Iraq. Once the heat subsides, they return to their old habits. Bashar would have made his papa proud. Guess who the winner is--so far, at least--in this conflict?

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, another big winner in the waiting game, has been in power since 1981. Mubarak is also one of the biggest recipients of U.S. aid. He preaches democracy but in reality continues to rule by decree, with the help of his police forces. He puts on a good charade for the West, demonstrating a similitude of democracy.

Despite this, changes are slowly creeping into Egyptian politics. There is an ever-growing opposition to Mubarak's rule coming together under the banner of the Kifaya ("Enough!") Movement. In the latest elections, held late last year, Mubarak's party lost considerable ground to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. But still Mubarak won. Twenty-five years later he remains in power.

The results of the waiting game are not encouraging. Yes, the Taliban was ousted from power in Afghanistan, but the country remains largely unstable. The government installed with the help of the United States and its allies controls little outside Kabul, the capital. The Taliban, much like the opium produced by Afghan farmers, is making a comeback.

The democracy promised in Iraq as a result of Saddam's removal and the de-Ba'athification program is nowhere in sight. Yes, Iraq did hold three rounds of balloting, but crime is higher than ever and the insurgency is getting worse. Many Iraqis fear civil war is about to break out. Some claim it already has.

In the great Middle East waiting game, Saddam Hussein is the only Arab leader to have lost to the United States. Saddam's bad luck was that he didn't know how to play the waiting game like the rest of the region's leaders. His ego--which was far larger than the statues erected of him--got the better of him. He was arrogant and challenged the United States. You would think that the first Gulf War would have taught him something about messing with Texans. Obviously, it didn't. He could have demonstrated that he did not possess weapons of mass destruction, but chose to remain somewhat vague about it. He lost.

According to the neoconservative plan, Iraq was meant to be the first step in a longer list of rogue countries slated for change, compliments of the U.S. military. The tripartite "Axis of Evil", consisting of Iraq, Iran and North Korea, was on its way to becoming the "single axle of evil", once Iran was taken out of the equation, after Iraq. But Iraq is where that plan stalled. No sooner had the first of Saddam's statues hit the pavement on Fardous Square in central Baghdad than the other countries slated for change, mainly Syria and Iran, began propping up the anti-American resistance. Suspecting they could be next in line for regime change, Damascus and Tehran invested heavily in the waiting game. Tehran and Damascus--and to some extent even some of the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries--funneled assistance in one form or another to Iraq's Sunni insurgents. For the leaders of Syria and Iran and the Iraqi insurgency, outlasting Bush is synonymous with victory.

While leaders in the region use time to their advantage, they are also adept at redirecting general frustrations over their own repressive policies towards the United States. To try to better understand how things sometimes work, think of the young woman on that London-to-Riyadh flight after she donned her head-to-toe abaya; what you see on the surface is not necessarily what lies beneath it. And what lies beneath the surface can be very deceiving.

Since the horrific September 11 attacks, the question of hate remains at the forefront of discussions. From Albuquerque to Washington, President Bush has told crowds of supporters that the reason why "they" hate us is: "Because they hate freedom." (Pause for effect) "It's because they hate America." Even given Bush's tendency to keep explanations simple, that answer is far too one dimensional.

Most people in the Middle East don't hate Americans. But if you are an opposition politician trying to garner support or a terrorist leader recruiting followers, Americans often represent a more convenient target than, say, the corrupt government. But contempt for the corrupt governments of the region can also be directed America's way, as Washington is seen supporting those regimes.

A case in point was the Bush Administration's policy during last January's elections in the West Bank and Gaza, when it funneled about $2 million toward Fatah and dispatched scores of political advisors through Republican Party connections, as part of a last-minute effort to give the party an advantage over Hamas. Such actions reinforce a general perception in the Middle East that the United States--particularly under the Bush Administration--has no friends in the area, only interests. Washington's strategy backfired most dramatically with Hamas's recent electoral victory.

In addition, the United States is often blamed for pushing Western influences on the Arab and Muslim world through the marketing of everything from Coca-Cola to Hollywood dreams. Many people, particularly the more conservative, regard such exports as a cultural intrusion that is enervating the region's younger generations.

Add to those social restraints mounting frustration over an inability to participate in any political decision-making. Look at Kuwait, which promised the United States that it would hold free elections after American soldiers died in battle to protect it in the Gulf War. Kuwait's prime minister is still appointed by the emir--not elected. In countries where criticism of the government by the local media can be punishable by imprisonment or even death, as was frequently the case in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, lashing out against the United States is often the only permissible expression of discontent. And more often than not, it is the Americans working in the region who get caught in the crossfire of that hate.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International in Washington, DC, and a senior political analyst. He specializes in Middle East affairs, Islam and terrorism.

Essay Types: Essay