Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Rice Doctrine: Will Arab regimes buy into the new story?

Joseph Samaha, in a two-part series in Al-Akhbar, on Saturday and Sunday September 29 and 30, explains the latest version of the US State Department's Grand Scheme for the Middle East.

Citing a Sept 15 policy speech by Rice's right-hand man Philip Zelikow, as well as the recent Rice press-interviews, Samaha says the new scheme is as follows: In order to face up to the alliance of "extremists" (Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah) there needs to be an alliance of "moderates", which would include, in addition to the US and the main European countries, the following: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the Siniora government in Lebanon--and Israel. Samaha underlines the fact this is the first time the US has tried to put Israel side by side with the big Arab regimes in its Middle East strategy. And this is in fact the first issue that has to be dealt with, because there is a risk that such a role for Israel could destablize some of the "moderate" regimes. Something has to be done about that, and that something is of course related to the issue of Palestine.

Quoting from the Zelikow speech, Samaha says the idea is to implant in the Arab regimes a "feeling" (actually I guess he said "a sense") that there will be progress on the Palestine issue, and a "view" to the effect that the parties will "trying" sustain such a policy. Samaha underlines "feeling" and "view" and "trying" to point up the fact that the US isn't proposing anything actually be done along those lines; it is a question of perceptions. And events since the Zelikow speech confirm that. But that is what Rice will be marketing to the "moderate" Arab regimes this week, and Samaha says it will be amusing to observe the chattering of the regimes and their controlled news media, to the effect that a solution to the Palestinian crisis is upon us, and the only thing standing in the way is the eradication of the extremists. His implicit point being that the regimes and their populations are all too familiar with this marketing of illusions, and welcoming will be formal and superficial. That is the short version of the Samaha articles.

(Samaha doesn't discuss this, but it is useful to remember by way of background, how different the latest Grand Scheme for the Middle East is from the prior Grand Scheme, which was the promotion of democratic reforms in the region, starting with Iraq).

With respect to the recent Israel-Hizbullah war, Samaha, who is Lebanese, underlines the absurdity of the US marketing strategy in the following way. Essentially the new schema or template for all Mideast conflict and all wars is "extremists versus moderates", so the Lebanon war was "really" between the aggressor Hizbullah, acting for the extremists, and the moderate regime of PM Sinoira.

(Israel, according to the recent Rice briefings, was merely helping to establish an "appropriate environment" for a victory of the moderates. Analogously, in Palestine currently, the Israeli "assistance" is taking the form of an economic blockade designed to show that the extremist Hamas is unfit to govern.)

The funny thing is, Samaha writes, that to those of us who lived through the war, it seemed as if the bombing and other destruction was being carried out by the Israelis, not by Hizbullah. On New Authorized view, we are supposed to think of this as having been an Arab-Arab war between moderates and extremists. His point: This might be a little hard to sell.

On the more general question of "distribution of roles" in the new US scheme, Samaha notes that the role of the Arab regimes will be secondary (presumably things like providing military bases, post-war cleanup, and so on), while the Israeli role will be primary, so there is the question how that will sit with the Arab regimes. Similarly, the scheme calls for the big, dictatorial Arab regimes (including Saudi Arabia and Egypt) to step in and assist the smaller-but-democratic Arab regimes (Lebanon and Iraq), so that too is a potential fault-line. For instance, assistance to Lebanon and Iraq is based on the idea of cleaning up after the Israeli and American violence, not perhaps the most attractive concept.

But the main point, as noted above, is that marketing of this scheme depends on the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: A satisfactory Palestinian settlement. Will the Arabs believe in it?

The US administration, Samaha says, is hoping that the shock of the Israel-Lebanon war will have caused the Arab regimes to "wake up" to threats posed by the extremists, overcoming any concern or skepticism on the Palestine issue.

You can read the Zelikow speech here, but I suggest it would be quicker and easier to learn Arabic and read the Samaha version. The Zelikow language is very tough if you don't know the insider jargon. Or you could skim. Samaha concentrates on Zelikow's "Section X, Israel and its Neighbors".


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