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Middle Eastern

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The Last Days of the Old Middle East

16 September 2020

President Donald Trump declared “the dawn of a new Middle East” in Washington on Tuesday as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrein signed public agreements with Israel for the first time.

Not “peace agreements”, as Trump claimed, since neither country has ever been at war with Israel. Just documents involving an exchange of ambassadors, trade deals and the like. And it was significant that while Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were there in person, the UAE and Bahreini rulers just sent their foreign ministers.

The only thing that actually happened on Tuesday, however, was that two Gulf mini-states went public on ties with Israel, especially in the arms trade, that had previously been not actually secret, but at least discreet. Apart from that, it’s still the same old Middle East, as corrupt, violent and dysfunctional as ever.

The last time Israel fought an actual war against any of its Arab neighbours was in 1982, a full-scale invasion of Lebanon that ended in a prolonged Israeli military occupation of the southern part of the country. That’s long over now, although Lebanon remains a ghastly mess, but all the region’s other wars trundle on uninterrupted.

The second Libyan civil war continues into its sixth year, with a cast of foreign participants and supporters that now includes Russia, Turkey, France, Egypt and the UAE.

The atrocious foreign military intervention in Yemen, led by Saudi Arabia but involving most of the autocratic Arab states and their Western arms suppliers, is only one year younger and still killing around 5,000 a month.

The Syrian civil war is in its ninth year. It has killed at least half a million people and driven almost half the population from their homes. It may be creeping towards an end now, with only one province still in rebel hands, but the rebels have Turkish military support and the Russian air force fights for the Assad regime.

Iraq is enjoying only its second year of relative peace since the US invasion of 2003, but the signs are multiplying that Islamic State is going to launch a major come-back bid there. The collapse of the oil price has left much of the population destitute. Urban youth are in open revolt, with hundreds shot dead by the police this year.

And when something genuinely new does crop up in the endless churn that distinguishes the region’s politics, it is often unwelcome.

Saudi Arabia, once the stable, conservative linchpin of inter-Arab politics, has turned into a loose cannon, starting unwinnable wars (like Yemen), funnelling money and arms to jihadi extremists (in Syria), and commissioning the cold-blooded killing of critics of the regime (as in the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).

Overshadowing all these wars, and actually driving some of them, is the religious and strategic confrontation between revolutionary Shia Iran and the conservative Sunni monarchies and dictatorships of the eastern Arab world. That’s what those huge Arab arms purchases are for, not for fighting Israel.

Indeed, Israel is a silent partner in this region-wide cold war between the Sunni Arab states and Iran; that’s what made the little ceremony at the White House on Tuesday possible. There is no ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’: the major Arab players are already undeclared Israeli allies, and the Israeli army refers to its sporadic punitive strikes against the Palestinians as ‘mowing the lawn’.

Real change in this region happens with glacial slowness, if at all, but that does not mean that it is stable. On the contrary, it could tip suddenly into a radically different state. It almost did so in 2010-12, the years of the aborted ‘Arab spring’, and the forces that drove that uprising are even stronger now.

Half the population in Middle Eastern and North African countries is under 25. As populations have soared (Iraq’s has doubled to 40 million since the first Gulf War in 1990), economies have not kept pace, and living standards have fallen almost everywhere. A huge, mostly jobless young population living close to despair is now the Arab norm.

The oil-rich Gulf states used to be the exception to this rule, but no longer. The oil-price crash this time is not temporary: demand is falling and will continue to fall as the climate crisis and cheaper new ‘clean energy’ sources eat into oil’s traditional markets.

The pantomime at the White House on Tuesday was about tidying up a few of the loose ends of an old conflict. It would have a certain relevance if the future was going to be just more of the present, but that is not the case.

The timing is uncertain but the destination is clear: big changes are coming that will sweep away many of the existing regimes and reshape the politics of the region. Happy endings are not inevitable, but different endings are practically guaranteed.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 15. (“Not…ministers”; and “The oil-rich…markets”)

Washington: The Playbook is Back

It was striking, in US media coverage of Donald Trump’s first hundred days in office, that most observers noted with relief that his foreign policy has turned out to be less radical than they feared. In fact, it’s not radical at all. He has already fired cruise missiles at a Middle Eastern country, a ritual that has been observed by every American president since Bill Clinton.

The old Donald Trump was an “isolationist” who opposed US military intervention overseas unless US interests were directly threatened.. When it seemed likely in 2013 that President Obama would attack the Syrian regime over its alleged use of poison gas on civilians, Trump tweeted: “The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.”

And lo! Obama did not attack Syria after all, although it had crossed the “red line” he had drawn in a statement the previous year.

On sober second thought – and after being warned by James Clapper, his Director of National Intelligence, that the evidence suggesting that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime was responsible for the gas attack, while robust, was not a “slam dunk” – Obama decided not to launch cruise missiles at Syria. (Curiously, there was no Trump tweet praising Obama and taking credit for his change of mind.)

This was the moment when Obama broke decisively with the foreign policy orthodoxy in Washington, and the think-tank “experts” and the reigning media pundits never forgave him for it. Towards the end of his second term, he explained his decision to Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, in the following terms.

“There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses….In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

It did not apply because destroying the Assad regime would just hand Syria over to the jihadi fanatics of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. It did not apply because the Russians might intervene to save Assad, perhaps leading to a direct US-Russian military confrontation. It did not apply because there was no support for an attack in Congress. And it did not apply because it was not even certain that the Syrian regime was to blame.

“Don’t do stupid shit” was Obama’s prime rule in foreign policy, and emulating George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein’s non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” definitely qualified as stupid. Even treating the Middle East as a region vital to American security was stupid. With the Cold War over and the United States no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it wasn’t even important any more.

Fast forward to 2016, and Obama must have been torn when he contemplated his successors. Hillary Clinton had worked for him and would preserve his legacy in domestic affairs, but she was totally orthodox in foreign policy and would follow the playbook wherever it led. Whereas Donald Trump, in his crude and simple way, actually shared Obama’s distrust of the foreign policy elite.

But with Trump it was just gut instinct, not a reasoned analysis of why the playbook was wrong. Once he was in office, and another poison gas attack in Syria landed on his desk, that instinct was swiftly overwhelmed by an even stronger urge to do something dramatic.

In politics, the Law of Mixed Motives always applies. No doubt Trump was truly horrified by the images of dead “beautiful babies”, but he was also aware that his policy successes in the first hundred days were sparse and that his popular approval numbers were way down.

So off went the cruise missiles, although the evidence that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack was even less certain than last time. It was purely a gesture, aimed mainly at the US domestic audience, and there has been no follow-up. But it did conform to the playbook’s rules, and the response by the “lamestream” media verged on the ecstatic.

Trump doesn’t give a fig for the playbook, but he does care about popularity. He campaigned as an isolationist, but now he has discovered that a little sabre-rattling abroad yields instant popularity at home.

He is surrounded by people who still believe in the playbook, and they now know how to press his buttons. There will probably be more “limited” military strikes with cruise missiles, not just in the Middle East but also in north-east Asia. And there may well be more wars, because sabre-rattling is not a precise science.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Don’t…more”)

Refugees, Sexual Harassment and Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s doors to a million refugees and migrants last year – three times as many as the rest of the European Union put together. Critics in Germany predicted a popular backlash, and warned that even her own Christian Democratic Party (CDU) would turn against her.

In the case of the CDU, at least, they were dead wrong. At the party’s annual congress on 15 December, Merkel’s speech – in which she did not retreat one inch from her frequent assertion that “we can do it” (accept and integrate the refugees) – got a ten-minute standing ovation that brought tears to her eyes.

Despite a dip in the opinion polls, she also still enjoys widespread popular support – or at least she did until the ugly events in the city of Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

In the crowds that gathered in front of Cologne’s railway station to celebrate the New Year, hundreds of young men in gangs began harassing and robbing German women. “All of a sudden these men around us began groping us,” one victim told German television.

“They touched our behinds and grabbed between our legs. They touched us everywhere, so my girlfriend wanted to get out of the crowd. When I turned around one guy grabbed my bag and ripped it off my body.” There were 379 complaints to the police, 40 percent of which involved sexual assault, and two accusations of rape.

Only thirty-one men were arrested in connection with these offences, a police failure that caused popular outrage. But the incendiary fact – which the police at first declined to reveal – was that 18 of the 31 men arrested were asylum-seekers, and all but five were Muslims. So there was a firestorm of popular protest about the Cologne attacks (which also happened on a smaller scale in Stuttgart and Hamburg).

The German authorities did their best to contain the damage. The Cologne police chief,
Wolfgang Albers, was suspended for holding back information about the attacks, and in particular about the origin of the suspects.

Chancellor Merkel felt obliged to promise that she will change the law which says that asylum seekers can only be forcibly sent home if they have been sentenced to at least three years in prison, and if their lives are not at risk in their home country.

The new law will say that migrants sentenced to any jail-time, or even put on probation, can be sent home no matter where they come from. It’s the least she could do politically, as the extreme anti-immigrant parties are already making a meal out of the Cologne events.

But what on earth made those young Muslim men, the beneficiaries of Germany’s generosity, think they could sexually attack young German women in public (and rob them while they were doing it)?

They were not professional thieves, and I very much doubt that they would sexually attack young Muslim women in public if they were back home. I suspect that they were mostly village boys who still believe the popular Middle Eastern stereotypes about good Muslim girls whom you must not harass, and “loose” Western women who are fair game for sexual assault.

I once lived in Istanbul for a while with my wife and two little boys, and we had the same experience as most other Westerners: when my wife was out with me or with the children, she was treated with respect. When she was out alone, she was the target of constant sexual harassment.

At least once a day, as young men passed her in the crowded streets, she would suddenly experience the full frontal grab – and if she protested, they would simply laugh at her. So I taught her what a Turkish woman would say if the same thing happened, and it did help. She still got molested, but when she rebuked the attackers in Turkish they were overwhelmed with shame and panic, and disappeared into the crowd as fast as possible.

This was back when Istanbul only had three million people (it now has 14 million), but already my Turkish friends were moaning about how their city was being “villager-ised” by people migrating from the countryside. Even Turkish women who looked too “Western” were being harassed, and they blamed the ex-villagers.

When you take in a million refugees, more than half of them from the Middle East, you may expect them to include a few religious fanatics who may be or become terrorists. They will also include a considerably larger number of ignorant hicks who think that it is not a crime or a disgrace to attack non-Muslim girls sexually.

No good deed goes entirely unpunished, and this is part of the price Germany will pay for its generosity. It’s not an unbearable price, even if it involves one or two more Islamist terrorist attacks than would otherwise have occurred – and in a couple of years most of the young Muslim men who attacked women in Cologne will have figured out that being free, as German women are, does not mean being immoral or freely available.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 8 and 9. (“The German…events”)

After the Iran Nuclear Deal

The thing to bear in mind about Tuesday’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) is that without it Iran could get nuclear weapons whenever it wants in a short tme. It has the technologies for enriching uranium, it could make the actual bombs any time it likes (every major country knows how), and the sanctions against Iran could not get much worse than they are now.

If you don’t like the current deal, and you really believe that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, then your only remaining option is massive air strikes on Iran. Not even the Republican Party stalwarts in the US Congress are up for committing the US Air Force to that folly, and Israel without American support simply couldn’t do it on its own.

Then what’s left? Nothing but the deal. It doesn’t guarantee that Iran can never get nuclear weapons. It does guarantee that Iran could not break the agreement without giving everybody else at least a year to respond before the weapons are operational. Sanctions would snap back into place automatically, and anybody who thinks air strikes are a cool idea would have plenty of time to carry them out.

So the deal will survive. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can fulminate about how it is a “an historic mistake” that will give Tehran “a sure path to nuclear weapons,” but he cannot stop it.

Netanyahu is obsessive about Iran, but even his own intelligence services do not believe that Tehran has actually been working on nuclear weapons in the past decade. The Israeli prime minister has burned all his bridges with US President Barack Obama, and his Republican allies in the US Congress cannot stop the deal either.

John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the deal will “hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” and he can probably muster a majority in Congress against it. (Congress, as Washington insiders put it, is “Israeli-occupied territory.”) But he cannot muster the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Obama’s inevitable veto.

There will be a 60-day delay while Congress debates the issue, but this deal will go through in the end. So far, so good – but this is not happening in a vacuum. What are the broader implications for Middle Eastern politics?

Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution 36 years ago, Iran and the United States have been bitter enemies. They have not suddenly become allies, but they are already on good speaking terms. Since almost all of America’s allies in the Arab world see Iran as a huge strategic threat, they are appalled by the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement.

That is not a done deal yet. While Iran strongly supports Bashar al Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, Washington still advocates Assad’s overthrow and arms some of the “moderate” rebels. It even supports Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels who now control most of Yemen, and publicly accepts the Saudi claim that the Houthis are mere pawns who are being armed and incited to revolt by Iran.

But nobody in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that the civil war in Yemen is an Iranian plot. Very few believe any longer that Assad can be overthrown in Syria without handing the country over to the Islamist fanatics who dominate the insurgency there. And the most powerful force among those fanatics is “Islamic State”, whose troops are already being bombed by the United States in both Syria and Iraq.

The highest US priority in the Middle East now is to prevent Iraq and Syria from falling into the hands of Islamic State and its equally extreme rival, the Nusra Front. Iran is giving both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments military support that is essential to their survival, so there is obviously the potential for closer US-Iranian cooperation here.

By contrast Saudi Arabia and Turkey, currently America’s two most important allies in the region, are pouring money and weapons into the Nusra Front in Syria, which is why it has been winning so many battles against the Assad regime in recent months. The prospect of an Islamist regime in power in Damascus is acceptable to Riyadh and Ankara, but it is deeply unwelcome in Washington.

So yes, a grand realignment of American alliances in the Middle East is theoretically possible now that the long cold war between the US and Iran is over. In practice, however, it is most unlikely to happen. The long-standing military and economic ties between Washington and its current allies will probably triumph over cold strategic logic, and American policy in the Middle East will continue to be the usual muddle.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Iraq”)