Clear Options for the Middle East

It is easy in the Middle East these days to embrace one of the two opposite poles of political sentiments that define the region today—either romantic optimism or a despairing pessimism. As usual, a more accurate and nuanced picture of reality is to be found somewhere between those two extremes.

It is easy in the Middle East these days to embrace one of the two opposite poles of political sentiments that define the region today—either romantic optimism that diplomacy and democracy will resolve all the region’s many problems, or a despairing pessimism that we are doomed to eternal dictatorships, terrorism and civil strife. As usual, a more accurate and nuanced picture of reality is to be found somewhere between those two extremes. This is a historic moment, though, for providing the people of the region as well as interested foreign observers and officials with a comprehensive view of the options that we can choose to use to resolve our problems and build a better world. Here are the five options I see that we can choose from as a means of shaping our world.

1. Local and proxy international warfare—as we witness so painfully in Syria and in a less intense manner in Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and other Arab lands whose weak state systems have allowed regional and international powers to enter into direct combat there. We have seen several Arab countries in recent decades succumb to total state collapse, or have seen the ineffectual state retreat enough to allow many local and foreign actors to fill the vacuum. It has become abundantly clear that warfare—whether purely local or of the international proxy variety—does not resolve anything, and only leads to massive losses for all sides, while also triggering state collapse.

2. Terrorism, as we witness in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and many other places intermittently, including the resurgence of the Al-Shabab group from Somalia which attacked the Nairobi shopping mall, and the continued growth of Al-Qaeda-linked and similar Salafist militants and terrorists in the contiguous Iraq-Syria-Lebanon area that has become the world’s leading training and proving ground for such extremists. This kind of violence appears to be increasing, not decreasing, though it also provides no solutions, but only perpetual chaos.

(A side note here: We should now see more clearly than ever the grave and criminal consequences of the war in Iraq that George W. Bush and Tony Blair unleashed in 2003, as Iraq continues to serve as a regional wellspring of terrorism that plagues the entire Middle East and may well spill over to foreign countries as well. It is right to ask again: Will the world continue to ignore the long-term terrorism-breeding consequences of the Anglo-American-led war on Iraq, or admit and learn the consequences of such crimes and somehow find a way to hold accountable those foreign politicians who destroy entire societies and retire in luxury? Terrorism does not simply happen suddenly when angry young men decide to kill with abandon. It emanates from a cycle of causes, and we can see that cause-and-effect cycle at work, with Iraq’s condition being a leading element in the expanding network of terrorism.)

3. Legitimate international diplomacy anchored in the recognized rule of law, as we witness at the United Nations this week regarding the situations in both Syria and Iran. The sudden burst of American-Russian agreements on dealing with the chemical weapons of Syria and the positive expectations on Iran following the election of President Hassan Rowhani have both included structured and hard-nosed diplomatic wrangling in two main arenas: bilaterally (United States-Russia, Russia-Syria, United States-Iran) and multilaterally at the UN Security Council, which seems to have reached agreement on a resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons. These two advances in diplomacy should awaken us all to the importance of using diplomatic means to their fullest potential, before turning to sanctions and warfare.

4. Lopsided bilateral diplomacy, as we witness between Israel and Palestine, using the same failed approach that has seen the Arab-Israeli conflict mired in tension and regular outbreaks of violence for many decades now. The Israel-Palestine negotiations do not seem to progress largely because they fail to implement the basic rule of law foundations that must be respected in any such process—in sharp contrast to the progress on Syria and Iran, for example. Negotiations will continue to flounder and fail if they are defined and managed according to the imposed criteria of hard-line Zionist zealots and their American apologists, as has been the case to date.

5. Indigenous consensus-building to write new constitutions and develop legitimate new democratic governance systems that are at once participatory, pluralistic and accountable, and therefore can be expected to be stable and capable of driving sustained and equitable socio-economic growth. The ongoing work in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to create new governance systems that reflect citizens’ values and rights are enormously important signs of how the Arab world can change for the better from within, and on the basis of its own initiatives.

New Arab governments anchored in the democratic legitimacy they derive from their own people are the best antidote to the warfare, terrorism and fake diplomacy that continue to plague the Middle East.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global

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