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It is just more than two centuries since Napoleon’s arrival in Egypt heralded the advent of a modern Middle East; but now – some 80 years after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, 50 years after the end of colonialism and less than 20 years after the end of the cold war – the American era in the region has ended.
Visions of a new Europe-like Middle East that is peaceful, prosperous and democratic will not be realised. Much more likely is the emergence of a new Middle East that will cause great harm to itself and the world.
The American era was one in which, after the Soviet Union’s demise, the US enjoyed unprece-dented influence and freedom to act. What brought it to an end after less than two decades? Topping the list is the Bush administration’s decision to attack Iraq and its conduct of the operation and resulting occupation. Gone is a Sunni-dominated Iraq, strong and motivated enough to balance Shia Iran. Other factors include the demise of the Middle East peace process, a failure by traditional Arab regimes to counter the appeal of radical Islamism, and globalisation, which has made it easier for radicals to acquire funding, arms, ideas and recruits.
What will the new Middle East look like? The US will continue to enjoy more influence than any outside power, but its influence will be reduced from what it once was. Washington will increasingly be challenged by other outsiders, including the European Union, China and Russia. Even more important, though, will be the challenges emanating from local states and radical groups.
Iran will be one of the two most powerful states in the region. It is a classical imperial power, with ambitions to remake the region in its image and the potential to translate objectives into reality. Israel will be the other powerful local state, but one that is in a weaker position today than it was before this summer’s crisis in Lebanon. No viable peace process is likely for the foreseeable future. Israel’s government is too weak, unilateral disengagement has been discredited, there is no Palestinian partner able and willing to compromise and the US has forfeited much of its standing as an honest
Iraq at best will remain messy for years to come, with a weak central government, a divided society and sectarian violence. At worst, it will become a failed state racked by all-out civil war that will draw in its neighbours.
The price of oil will stay high, with Iran and Saudi Arabia benefiting disproportionately. Regional institutions will remain weak.
Militias, both a product and a cause of weak states, will emerge throughout the region wherever there is a perceived or actual deficit of state authority and capacity. Terrorism will grow in sophistication. Tensions between Sunni and Shia will increase. Islam will fill the political and intellectual vacuum in the Arab world and provide a foundation for the politics of a majority of the region’s people.
All of this justifies great concern but not fatalism. There is a fundamental difference between a Middle East lacking formal peace agreements and one defined by terrorism, interstate conflict and civil war; or between one housing a powerful Iran and one dominated by Iran.
To be sure, there are things that can be done. Avoiding an over-reliance on military force is one. Force is not terribly useful against loosely organised militias and terrorists who are well armed, accepted by the local population and prepared to die for their cause. Nor is there reason to be confident that carrying out a preventive strike on Iranian nuclear installations would do more good than harm. Military force should be a last resort here.
No one should count on the emergence of democracy to pacify the region. Creating mature democracies is no easy task. Those who grow up in democracies can still carry out terrorism; those who win elections can opt for war. More useful would be actions that reform schools, promote economic liberalisation, encourage Arab and Muslim authorities to speak out in ways that de-legitimise terrorism and shame its supporters, and address grievances that motivate young men and women to take up terrorism.
Diplomacy is also called for. One step that could only help would be to establish a regional forum for Iraq’s neighbours to help manage events there akin to that used for Afghanistan. This would require ending US diplomatic isolation of both Iran and Syria, which in any event is not working. It would also be useful to revive diplomacy in the context of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, still the issue that most shapes and radicalises public opinion in the region. The goal at this point is not to bring the parties to Camp David or anywhere else but to begin to create conditions under which diplomacy could usefully be restarted.
No quick or easy fixes exist to solve the problems of this critical region. The Middle East will remain a troubled and troubling part of the world for decades to come. The challenge will be to contain the effects and to hasten the arrival of something better.
The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. This article is based on his essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs