An imperial twilight

PRESIDENT Bush swore not to negotiate with terrorists and radicals in his speech at the Israeli Knesset last month, comparing those who favoured such negotiations to the British and French politicians who had appeased Hitler's Third Reich in the 1930's.

By Matein Khalid (At Home)

Published: Wed 11 Jun 2008, 11:21 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:22 PM

Yet the United States, mired in an unwinnable war in Iraq and facing a crisis of credibility with its own Arab allies after a succession of military and diplomatic blunders by the Bush White House in its twilight months in power, no longer has the ability to set the regional geopolitical agenda.

Both America's enemies and friends in the Arab world have scrambled to cut their own deals as it becomes increasingly evident that the imperial colossus whose diktat has shaped the regional agenda ever since the October 1973 Yom Kippur War could well disengage from its tortuous politics under a future President Obama.

The US diplomatic impotence was highlighted by the historic deal hammered out by Lebanese political power brokers in Doha, the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations in Ankara and the Egyptian intelligence channels used by the IDF to communicate with its sworn foe Hamas to defuse the time bomb in Gaza.

In Doha, Hezbollah's primacy was acknowledged by the Lebanese government and its Sunni, Druze and Maronite allies. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora backed down in his attempt to take control of Hezbollah's military communications network and Beirut's airport security after the Shia militia escalated the violence, overran Saad Hariri's Sunni enclaves in West Beirut and Walid Jumblatt's stronghold in the Druze Chouf.

In essence, Hezbollah challenged the legitimacy of the Lebanese state, humiliated Siniora and his pro Western allies, demonstrated the new limits of American power to shape the future of the Levant. Sayyid Hussein Nasrallah, the leader of a political and military movement the State Department still calls a 'terrorist organisation' is now the most powerful man in Lebanon, as Hezbollah solidifies its cabinet veto power over war and peace.

Just as Bashir Gemayel's Phalangists fought a bitter civil war against the Palestinians in the 1980's to preserve the primacy of Maronite Christian Lebanon, Nasrallah's Shia militia seeks to reconfigure the land of Khalil Gibran's cedars and Beit Mary's jet set resorts as an Islamist, pro-Iran land of resistance against Israel and the Great Satan.

Sectarian politics in Lebanon has been a zero sum game ever since it was a province of the Ottoman empire. A quarter century after the PLO was evacuated from West Beirut, Lebanon once again drifts into the nightmare of civil war as rival warlords vie for power across the Republic's ethnic fault lines.

While the Doha deal has stabilised Lebanon, it has also placed a nation hailed by Bush as a showcase of democracy after the Cedar Revolution under the tutelage of Hezbollah. The Doha deal is a diplomatic disaster for a Washington that has lost credibility even among its own closest allies in Egypt, the Maghreb and the GCC. Anwar Sadat used to claim that America held "ninety nine per cent of the cards while he negotiated a peace settlement with the Israelis at Camp David in his quest for the return of the Sinai. As the Doha deal proved, this is manifestly no longer the case.

America's diminished power is also evident in Turkey's role as a secret mediator between Israel and Syria in negotiations over the future of the Golan Heights, captured by the IDF in the June 1967 Six Day War. President Bush had vehemently apposed any direct talks with Syria as long as Damascus maintained its strategic ties with Iran's Ayatollahs, sponsored Palestinian rejectionist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and used Hezbollah to preserve its chokehold in Lebanon.

But Ehud Omert, besieged by the factional politics in the Knesset and corruption charges against him, has concluded that Israel's own strategic calculus necessitates talks with the Damascus regime irrespective of Bush's opposition. In a similar vein, Bush had refused to sponsor Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2000 until the endemic violence in Gaza forced him to convene the peace conference at Annapolis.

Bush had also sworn never to negotiate with governments that sponsored terrorism but when Libya's Colonel Gaddafi offered CIA emissaries secret intelligence on Dr. A Q Khan's international nuclear component smuggling network, oil concessions for American companies and the end of Libya's own chemical weapons programme, George Bush did not hesitate to end sanctions and embrace diplomatic relations with his former nemesis in Tripoli.

Pax Americana in the Middle East, born in the battlefields of the Sinai and the Golan in the October 1973 war, has now reached its imperial twilight. Iran has emerged as the new, assertive power in the geopolitical constellations of the Middle East, with loyal allies and proxies everywhere from Basra to Herat, Beirut to Gaza. Regional powers like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan Egypt and Israel have begun to cut their own deals with each other on terms not necessarily in strict accordance with White House policy.

A new mood of political realism and multiples axes of power suffuses the region. Qatar hosts America's Centcom and Al-Udeid air force base, is a member of the Arab League and the GCC, but it also has open diplomatic relations with Israel and shares the world's largest offshore gas with Iran.

Qatar and the Lebanese government recognized that Hezbollah had rewritten the rules of the game in West Beirut and Mount Lebanon, that there was no diplomatic option other than to sue for peace in Doha.

Israel, with its Syrian negotiations, has also demonstrated its own independence from American policy in the region. The Israelis ignored the White House's plea not to embarrass President Assad and bombed the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor. The Israelis also ignored their superpower financier and established a secret channel with the Baathist Alawite regime whose secret nuclear sites its warplanes bombed last September. Turkey has replaced the US as the mediator in the most exciting diplomatic initiative in Middle East history since Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.

Interestingly, Turkey is ruled by the same AKP government whose legislators denied the Pentagon the right to use Turkish bases to invade Saddam's Iraq in 2003. Superpowers that do not protect their local allies or dominate the regional war and peace agenda are destined to geopolitical irrelevance. After all, such was the fate of France after the collapse of Algerie Fancais, Britain after the Suez debacle and Ottoman Turkey after the sultan's humiliation in the Hijaz, Palestine and Damascus.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker and economic analyst

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