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From failure to engagement: a new western strategy in the Middle East

Western strategy in the Middle East has been torn between support for brutal dictatorships, and an urge to see the region change in the western image.

UN Security Council voting on a resolution draft endorsing the Syria cease-fire arrangement brokered by Russia and Turkey as well as the new peace talks plan among Syrian conflict parties at the UN headquarters in New York. Picture by Xinhua SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The record of western support of terrible regimes is well known, less so the attempts to break with this policy. Then, the strategic interests were seen to be better protected by an alliance with the emerging political forces. President Eisenhower chose to support Gamal Abdel Nasser during the Suez Crisis in 1956 against the old colonial masters, France and the UK, who aligned with Israel, set out to topple him by war. More recently, we have President Barrack Obama’s decision not to support Mubarak at the onset of the Arab Spring.

Humanitarian interventions turned into humanitarian catastrophes

The end of the Cold War in 1989 gave rise to visions of a new world order in the image of what the German historian Heinrich August Winkler has termed the “normative project of the West”. Winkler’s theory is that democracy, human rights and the separation of powers in government work as political ideals that drive improvements by demonstrating how the actual policies fall short of these standards. The political tool of this western normative project became Kofi Annan’s proposal as UN Secretary General for humanitarian interventions. Sadly, this did not work. The idea of humanitarian intervention turned into humanitarian catastrophes. The series of Western military interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq and Libya have caused failed states and intractable conflicts with destruction, death and suffering on a grand scale.

States disintegrated instead of improving

Eventually, the designs on a western world order that emerged after the end of the Cold War order broke down in Syria, crashed brutally in the ruins and bloodbath of Aleppo in 2016. The main picture is that western military interventions to coerce or change regimes, despite reaching some goals occasionally or partially, have produced disastrous unintended consequences. States disintegrated instead of improving; the intended democratic states in the western image failed to materialize. Instead, there is a contiguous political and humanitarian catastrophe from Libya to Pakistan.

A new authoritarian block now decides

States rejecting the western designs on a new world order now fill the vacuum left by those states disintegrating after western interventions. After years of destruction, bloodshed and ensuing mass migration, it is authoritarian Russia that seems in a position to negotiate ceasefires and broker a political solution. Even worse, the same authoritarian forces are edging closer to power in the entire west, spearheaded by the new US president Donald Trump, threatening to crush Winkler’s idea of the western normative project.

The western normative project will prevail in its showdown with right extremism

The old approach is no longer viable. What new strategy can we devise in its place?

Personally, I resent and resist this ominous development with all my fury, and trust I will grow powerful together with likeminded believers in our western normative project, in an emerging transatlantic political alliance of concerned citizens. I remain optimistic that the homegrown threats to our core values will be pushed back; if not, none of our assumptions holds and we must reconsider all of our policies. For now, I will proceed on the assumption that Winkler’s normative project of the west will prevail in its showdown with the dark forces of right extremism and remain our shared vision. On this assumption, I share these thoughts:

We are now, beginning of 2017, at a critical crossroad. The old approach is no longer viable. What new strategy can we devise in its place?

Only in cooperation are building broad ownership, democracy and human right now realistic. Therefore, seeking common ground with those that now decide must be the new strategy. No other strategy is feasible. A start is to study a joint report just issued by a Russian and Iranian think tank.

Common ground? Main Russian – Iranian views

The Russian – Iranian report offers a good insight into how the new authoritarian block envisages a new regional political order from Syria to Afghanistan:

  • - A clear message is that Russia and Iran share the western perception of the main threats: political chaos, extremism and terrorism. Many separate crises could merge into one big regional crisis, if ignited. They find the greatest danger of ignition emanates from Pakistan, now on the verge of a big crisis that can only be coped with by a concert of all powers.

  • - The crisis in Pakistan is closely related to the crisis in Afghanistan. There, the report foresees a solution forged by an alliance patterned on the old Northern Alliance, supported by Russia, Iran and India, but now including the US and also Pakistan. Such an alliance must resolve the confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir now projected onto Afghanistan.

  • - Even if they hold the US and the West responsible for the current threats, by regime change and expansion of military force, they agree that Washington is a necessary partner in establishing the new political order. The US is weakened, but still the most powerful state in the world.

  • - Significantly, the report also explicitly addresses the issues where Russia and Iran diverge. Specifically, Russia wants good relations with Iran’s defined enemies in the region, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States. In Syria, Russia wants a secular state accommodating all religions and groups, not the current minority regime of Alevites supported by Iran.

This Russian – Iranian report should offer a sufficient degree of common ground for the West to engage Russia and Iran on forging a new political order by convening all concerned local actors.

Human rights agenda missing, but imperative

In the polarization generated by conflict, confrontation and war, especially women and minorities have become more vulnerable.

Important to address in the Russian – Iranian agenda are above all the missing human rights issues, the protection of the individual by the concept of individual citizenship. In the polarization generated by conflict, confrontation and war, especially women and minorities have become more vulnerable. To be sustainable over time, any political order must build on a social contract in which citizens offer their support only in exchange for protection and welfare. Russia and Iran, as authoritarian regimes, need to be convinced of that, since, to them, this insight probably appears counterintuitive after the Arab Spring.

Do the critics of the democratic revolutions have a point when they find the relative stability of authoritarian regimes, like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, preferable to the chaos and violence following the Arab Spring? This is a debatable point, contentious either way. My own views are heavily influenced by Timothy Snyder’s analyses of Europe in the 1930s. Snyder’s main argument is that the idea of citizenship, which he defines as a reciprocal relationship between an individual and a sheltering polity, offers at least a degree of protection for the vulnerable individual; conversely, state destruction turns lethal on a grand scale. This will be my topic for a second article.

About the author

Torgeir E. Fjærtoft is a Norwegian diplomat and now a Visiting Research Fellow with the Centre for Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Oslo. His latest posting was to Saudi Arabia, but his longest experience has been of the UN, EU / EEA and German issues. His current research project is on collective security in the Middle East.


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