Posts Tagged Arab world

Is Obama’s initiative still alive?

The Washington Spring — 6 —

The United States has been on a diplomatic merry-go-round in the Middle East over the past few weeks. In an effort to understand what’s really happening, I’ve been following it closely, listening to the many statements and reading the op-ed pieces.

Are the Americans pursuing the solution that President Obama sketched out in his speech at the University of Cairo on June 4? Are they trying to establish a ‘comprehensive’ regional peace, one that reckons in all countries and peoples and takes into account all their claims and concerns, and of which the keystone would be the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel?

Or else are they falling back on the usual way of dealing with the conflict? Are they returning to a long process of negotiation, inviting the various players to come together and patiently build mutual trust, while Washington merely plays the role of intermediary or facilitator?

As I see it, only the first path can lead to peace, and I am convinced that if it were to be followed through, it would benefit all the peoples in the region. If the first path were to be taken, everybody — including many of the hardliners in Israel, Palestine and the entire Arab world— will one day have reason to be pleased. The second path, on the other hand, has never led to anything but disillusionment, a hardening on every side, and renewed violence.

Having unambiguously stated my position, I hasten to add that as I write these lines, I cannot yet say which way American diplomacy is heading. Both hypotheses are plausible, and I don’t yet know which will be borne out. Sometimes I tell myself that Obama’s initiative is at a standstill; at other times, I think it might be taking shape.

The logic of a blog

If I weren’t keeping this online journal, I would wait to be sure before expressing an opinion. But the point of keeping a blog is precisely to allow myself, as a concerned observer, to articulate my feelings at every step, to reveal my way of thinking, of inquiring into things, of analysing and reflecting upon them. The point is to articulate all this to others, of course, but also to myself, because when I make myself write and put thoughts into sentences, I become aware of certain things that otherwise would remain muddled.

Now that I’ve opened this parenthetical statement, I will take it a little further to say that, whenever I inquire into something and try to understand it, I keep two golden rules in mind. The first is that we live in the communication age, which means that statements made by political leaders should be taken not at face value but as formulations of what they’ve chosen to convey. The second is that we live also, paradoxically – and happily! — in the age of transparency, which means that anything we want to know, and anything that some would keep hidden, is accessible somewhere on the Web. You simply have to know how to look, and above all how to assess what you find — how to sort between those statements that bring the truth to light, and those that blur it, whether deliberately or not.

But I close the parenthesis now to return to my opening question — does the American diplomatic activity in the Middle East signify that Obama’s initiative is being carefully put into place, or else is it already being reconsidered, not to say abandoned?

What seems to support the first hypothesis is that the American officials going to the region are the very men and women whose contribution to a peace treaty would be essential. Such a treaty should include the creation of a Palestinian state on territory from which Israel would retreat; security measures to ensure the Israelis don’t perceive such a retreat as a threat to their safety; a normalisation of relations between Israel and its neighbours; and, most certainly, the establishment of a substantial development and compensation fund — financed by the Americans, the Europeans, the Japanese, the Chinese and also by the oil-producing nations — to encourage the Palestinians as well as the Israelis to be steadfastly committed to the path of peace.

Importantly, the American officials who visited the region in the last few weeks have the authority to give assurances on the military and security aspects of any eventual peace accord. The visitors included Secretary of Defence Robert Gates; General James L. Jones, National Security Advisor to President Obama; Ambassador Dennis Ross, who has ultimate control of the Middle East in the National Security Council; and former senator George Mitchell, the president’s Special Envoy to the region, who is charged with managing the dialogue with the various players.

This is encouraging, up to a point. To my eyes, however, it isn’t yet enough to dismiss the second hypothesis — that the process is at a virtual standstill and might still be derailed. I am convinced that things cannot move forward unless Israel is reassured. And it is critical that any measures taken to reassure Israel do not make the peace treaty unacceptable to Palestinian leaders or indeed, the rest of the Arab world.

Let me be more precise: everything to do with the balance of military power doesn’t worry me. That the future Palestine will have no army will no doubt shock Arab opinion. But when you think about it, only international safeguards can provide the future Palestine any real protection; and rather than embark on a ruinous arms race, it would be well advised to follow the example of post-war Japan and pursue economic success behind the shelter of its internationally guaranteed borders.

On the other hand, if the Al-Aqsa mosque, for instance, remains under Israeli control, no peace treaty will be worth signing, since extremist movements will continue to muster support all over the Muslim world, from North Africa to Indonesia, over the issue, for hundred of years.

In other words, everything genuinely to do with security has a place in any treaty; anything to do with territory and symbols must be handled with great care.

I don’t yet know what the proposed peace treaty will look like once the current negotiations have finished. Frankly, I won’t allow myself to put words into anyone’s mouth. I will simply keep my eyes, ears and mind open. I continue to hope, but I remain cautious.

(First published in French on July 29th).

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I’ll admit I’m slightly impatient

The Washington Spring — 5 —

When I listened to President Obama’s speech in Cairo on the 4th of June, it struck me as a seminal statement, one intended to found a lasting solution in the Middle East and an historic reconciliation between the West and the Muslim world. The two outcomes go hand in hand. That is what I wrote at the time, and I stand by it. However, I admit to a degree of impatience on the matter. I don’t see a new approach to peace taking shape; rather, it seems to me as though we’re returning to the usual diplomatic practices, which thus far have helped only to perpetuate the conflict.

Of course, some will retort that a conflict that has been going on for decades cannot be settled in a few weeks. This is true, on the surface — but only on the surface. Equally, some argue that by taking small steps, the belligerents can only draw closer to peace. Both arguments seem obvious and logical; but, in my opinion, they are misleading.

In a conflict of this nature, where the populations live in deep, mutual distrust, any proposed solution must be comprehensive, so that each party knows exactly where it will be standing at the end of the process; otherwise, one paves the way for escalation and brinkmanship, which plays into the hands of hardliners. This is exactly what has happened in the Middle East over the past few decades. We have seen a proliferation of initiatives, meetings, plans and roadmaps; as a result, the most intransigent factions on both sides gained the upper hand.

In his speech at the University of Cairo, Obama showed that he was aware of this reality, and that he wasn’t going to be drawn into the quagmire. He made it clear that he wouldn’t be satisfied with the role of an intermediary or facilitator. “We cannot impose peace,” he said, “But privately, many Muslims recognise that Israel will not go away. Likewise, many Israelis recognize the need for a Palestinian state. It is time for us to act on what everyone knows to be true.”

This last sentence describes the voluntarist line that the president had in mind. He wasn’t inviting the various parties to meet and share their points of view. What good could it do to hear them for the hundredth time? Everyone knows what each side is obliged to assert in public and what they quietly admit to on the side. It is now up to “us” — meaning the United States — to act.

His envoy George Mitchell flew to the Middle East bearing the same message: an all-encompassing plan is imminent, and Washington expects everyone to embrace it. The rumour in Washington was that the plan’s broad outlines would be made public as early as the 15th of June. But in the ensuing weeks, we started hearing proposals that sounded hopelessly familiar, such as the idea that Israel should temporarily suspend settlements and, in return, the Arab nations should give El-Al overflight rights. In Washington jargon, these are known as ‘confidence-building measures’, but I think they should be called ‘momentum-breaking measures’ instead. And I do get the feeling that the momentum has slowed down significantly.

I hope it’s my impatience talking. I hope that, il the near future, I will have reasons to publish on this blog a humble and fervent mea culpa. I hope I will get the chance to say that this slowdown was due to events in Iran, or to the need to draw up an appropriate peace plan, or to other factors, but that the new administration remains clearly committed to ending a conflict which, though it looks local, has in fact become a global one, and one of the most toxic.

(First published in French on July 26th).

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In Sherlock Holmes’ Day

first_edition_1887The Washington Spring — 4 —

I will begin today’s article with a brief literary reminiscence. It concerns Sherlock Holmes’ very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, in which the narrator, Doctor Watson, first meets the famous detective. Holmes is looking for a fellow lodger, and a mutual acquaintance brings them together.

“Dr Watson, Mr Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?”

Holmes merely chuckles, and not until the following day does he explain how he worked it out. After going through a long list of deductions, he reaches this ironclad conclusion:

“Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

In the novel’s first paragraph, Watson tells us that he went to the Indies in 1878 as an army surgeon, but just as he was about to join his regiment, “the second Afghan war had broken out.” He found himself safe and sound in Kandahar, But says that he would have “fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly…”

The book was published in 1887. I suppose that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers knew what he meant by the “second Afghan war.” Personally, I must confess that I’ve lost track. Even if I consider only those Afghan wars in my own lifetime, I’m no longer sure which one we’re up to. The fourth? The fifth?

All this to say that, when President Obama announced that he would withdraw his troops from Iraq but reinforce his contingent in Afghanistan, I wasn’t convinced his decision was a wise one. The US Army had to withdraw from Iraq, of course. They never should have gone there in the first place, and once they had occupied it, they certainly shouldn’t have acted the way they did. I am not sure that the situation will be properly fixed after the Americans leave definitively; but I am sure that their military’s prolonged presence there did nothing to help.

Having made that clear, I must make a remark that no historian of the Middle East can readily contest: the least one can say is that Iraq is not a guerrilla warfare country. It took the Americans’ accumulated mistakes, blunders and gaffes for them to end up with such a war on their hands, in such bleak physical and humanitarian circumstances.

Afghanistan is another kettle of fish. It is the quintessential land of endless guerrilla warfare, as the British, Soviets and various other foolhardy powers discovered to their cost. And even if the American president wants to lead his campaign differently, even if he asks his troops to listen to the local population and he promises to reform the prisons, it remains an extremely risky bet.

The historic reconciliation that Obama is pressing for must materialise and produce tangible results before the Afghans – and Muslim nations in general – will accept an American military operation on their land. That certainly isn’t the case today. We are only at the beginning of a long road full of pitfalls, and it is foolhardy to behave as though we have already reached safe haven.

(First published in French on July 21st).

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Shame on them all

Something eludes me in the story of al-Megrahi, the Libyan official who has just been released in Scotland.

If he is guilty of a crime as dreadful as the Lockerbie bombing – that is, of using a bomb to destroy an airliner and cause the deaths of 270 people -, why has he been released after just ten years in prison?

If he is innocent, then why were some people surprised to see him greeted with flowers upon his return home?

I won’t speculate on his guilt or innocence. One thing, however, is absolutely certain: if this man did indeed commit the abominable act of which he is accused, he did it not for his own account, but for that of his superiors. This is a patent, incontestable fact. Yet no one seems embarrassed to receive these same superiors with all the usual fanfare, or to accommodate their every whim. No one thinks twice before being photographed at their sides, or before signing lucrative contracts with them. Yet when al-Megrahi’s masters pose in photographs alongside the underling who paid for their crimes, we are supposed to be outraged.

Many of those familiar with the affair – notably, some of the victims’ parents – are convinced that the trial was shamefully rigged, that the Libyan official wasn’t guilty at all but rather served as a scapegoat to protect the real perpetrators, whether Libyan or not. Indeed, the Scottish Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, implied as much when he decided to free al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds. Because even if the man suffers from an incurable disease that leaves him little time to live, he could have been conscientiously treated in a British hospital. Certainly, he should never have been allowed to return home – not unless there are serious doubts about his culpability.

Everything leads us to believe that certain people have struck a sordid bargain for oil, or for commercial or political gain. Plenty of clues point this way. If this is indeed the case, then there are some who have no business lording it as though from some great ethical height. By dint of compromising values in the name of ‘realism’, by dint of interpreting principles according to what’s currently convenient, the West will eventually lose all moral credibility; as for her adversaries/partners across the Mediterranean, they never had much moral cradibility to begin with.

I don’t know whether, one day, the truth about the Lockerbie bombing will come completely to light; whatever that truth might be, however, one thing is certain: the affair exposes the moral failure that marks our times, a failure in which no leader – not in the West and not in the Arab world – hasn’t played a part. It is a failure from which no one can walk with head held high.

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The Washington Spring – 1 -

15 July 2009.

The course of events in the United States and the rest of the world since Barack Obama’s election amounts, for me, to a fortuitous spring — one that follows a long-drawn-out winter.

The word ‘spring’ preys on my mind, arousing both hope and concern. Hope, because for the first time in a long time, we have a world leader who understands the necessity for an historic reconciliation between the West and the Arab world, and who understands the need for the United States to restore its moral standing.

But also concern, because the word — which, in recent decades, has been applied to events such as the Prague Spring at the end of the sixties — contains within it a sense of fragility, and even the connotation of a fleeting sunny spell that runs counter to the relentless course of history, and which is sure to be swept away.

Indeed, we may wonder whether, a few years down the track, Obama’s election will look like the beginning of a new era or else a brief excursion, a final attempt to prevent the world from sliding into the abyss. I write these words in a state of uncertainty. My hope is that he succeeds. It is more than a hope — it is a fervent prayer. I dare not imagine what will become of the world should Obama fail. If that were to happen, then the only people who will thrive and cheer will be those who adhere to suicidal ideologies, who exploit hatred and never-ending conflict and who cannot conceive of a reconciled world.

Though I put my trust in Obama, in his vision and political skill, the task that he is expected to pull off is so Herculean that his success is far from assured. It is too early to reach any conclusion, of course. The president’s mandate began barely six months ago, and at this stage it is enough to take stock of what has been promised without demanding results. For my part, I see many encouraging signs, but also some causes for concern.

For the time being, then, I will limit myself to this preamble; but I have resolved to come back, over the coming days and weeks, to the Washington Spring and the many expectations it creates. A few of these have already been met, while others have already been thwarted. Most, however, are still up in the air.

(First published in French on July 15th).

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