The New Diplomacy in the New Middle East

I have long preached that major economic, social, political and military events do not just happen. They are invariably the product of processes that have been underway for a very long time.


That presumption is certainly true for all the events we have been witnessing in the Middle East during the past few years.


A second presumption is that, when major crises occur, a single-minded focus on events enables people to avoid thinking about the underlying causes and implications of those events. Unfortunately, when viewed against the background of the so-called “Arab Spring,” that assumption has also proven to be true.


In general, crises come in two basic forms. Some are like a volcano, where pressures build up in a single, geographical location or subject area and then explode upward and outward. Others are more like severe weather storms, where masses of unreleased energy meet, and when they do so, they combine to produce a virtually unstoppable destructive force that can create havoc anywhere storm moves to.


The processes that have led to the storms now battering the Middle East can be traced back at least to the First World War.


It was then that the United States emerged as a world military, political and economic power; and it was then that the British and French carved up the Middle East into countries that, for the most part, had no historical precedent. Often-warring and usually-competitive ethic clusters, tribes, and religious groupings were gathered together into single geographic units that were convenient for these colonialists to administer, but which then created the seeds for long-term conflict between the various factions.


World War II brought about an end to these exercises in colonialism. However, America’s role in the world then grew geometrically.


As part of the post-war realignment, the United States adopted a format for international diplomacy that has remained largely unchanged since it was first employed as part of the Marshal Plan and as a response to the growing threat posed by the Soviet Union.


The US divided the world into two camps—“us and them.” In reaction, many third world countries formed their own camp—“neither you nor them.” But what really mattered was that all three camps were based on the premise that the basic political unit in world affairs and in all negotiation settings was the nation-state. Even when there were guerilla wars, the object of the rebels, until relatively recently, was usually to take control over a given geographical area.


Throughout the immediate post-war period, the Americans used their massive wealth and military power as bait to encourage other countries to join American-led political and military alliances that were intended to deal with strategic objectives such as containing and lessening the influence of global communism. In other words, in return for America’s commitment to defend them militarily, America’s allies had to accept that Washington would have the first and last say on any issue that the Americans believed was in their national interest.


This approach led to the creation of American hegemonic groupings with names such as NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization), CENTO (The Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (The South East Asia Treaty Organization).


The most successful of these groups was undoubtedly NATO, while the least successful was CENTO. NATO was a success because its members, from the very outset, were not only facing a clear threat—the Soviet nuclear arsenal—they were bound by a complex matrix of national interests, common cultural values and a willingness by the European partners to accept American hegemony in return for a military umbrella that enabled the Europeans to keep their defence costs low. Low defence costs were as important in rebuilding Europe after World War II as were the generous aid packages offered as part of the Marshal Plan.


The very success of NATO, however, led the Americans to believe that this format for diplomacy could and would work elsewhere—even where the same underlying political, military, social and especially cultural conditions did not exist.


CENTO, otherwise known as the Middle East Treaty Organization, or the Baghdad Pact, was formed in 1955 and collapsed finally in 1979. It was made up of Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Great Britain—as motely a group of nations as one can imagine.


It suffered its first blow in 1958, when a military coup in Iraq overthrew the monarchy, and the new leadership almost immediately established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. It finally died in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah in 1979.


During its short lifetime, it accomplished almost nothing. But the problems it highlighted should have served as a warning to the United States about some of the issues Washington would have to confront if, in the Middle East, it continued to try to use the standard diplomatic format it had employed in establishing NATO. The most important of these portents was that, despite any surface appearances to the contrary, America’s apparent hegemony was not as strong as the Americans assumed it to be.


But that forewarning, like so many others, went unheeded.


As time passed, there were many other warnings as well. Probably the most obvious one was the decision by Saudi Arabia to nationalize a major American economic asset, ARAMCO (the Arabian-American oil company), in stages up to its full acquisition by the Saudis in 1980. More significantly, the Saudi rulers did so despite the fact that Saudi Arabia remained almost totally dependent on American military power for its defence. Not only that, the Saudis were among the instigators of the 1974 and 1976 oil shocks that sent oil prices into the stratosphere and led to major international economic upheavals including in the United States.


By doing so, the Saudis highlighted two weaknesses in the American approach. First, they demonstrated that if a country was wealthy almost beyond measure, it could separate the twin pillars on which the American hegemony relied. And secondly, they showed that such a nation need not accept a foreign hegemony and yet it could still get foreigners to commit to defending it. In other words, henceforth, at least in the Middle East, according to the Saudis’ strategic assessment, even titular allies who were dependent on the US for survival, could whittle away at the hegemony on which all American foreign policy was based without suffering a penalty. It was a lesson that the Turks and the Qataris in particular, would eventually take to heart.


The other signals that should have affected the Americans’ approach to the Middle East included the simple fact that in many places elsewhere in the world, the other pillar, American military power, was not influencing many countries to the degree that Americans believed it should. After all, the fact is that, beginning with the Korean War, the Americans have not won a single major military conflict. Now, especially after the costly economic and military bruising it received in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American’s continued reliance on its military and economic might as the primary means to try to influence Middle Eastern regional diplomacy has proven to be far less effective than it still supposes.


I could devote hours just to listing the many other wake up calls. For example, one of the most traumatic was the attack by Hizbollah, a non-state actor, on the American’s military barracks in Beirut in 1983. During the assault 241 American servicemen were killed. That bloodbath led the US to withdraw from tiny, militarily-weak Lebanon with its tail between its legs. Among other things, and at the very least, the bombing of the barracks should have warned Washington to be extremely wary about the growth in influence of non-state actors who were not members of the three established global political camps.


But that too was not to be.


Worse still, the US itself began a process that would eventually further undermine its capacity to maintain its hegemony.


That international hegemony had been supported by a domestic policy that included a disciplined approach to policing the excesses of capitalism and ensuring that the cost of any war would be shared equitably among all sections of the US population. However, following the Viet Nam War that discipline began to erode because pressures from the wealthy led to deregulation of some of the most potentially volatile parts of the domestic US economy. By the time George W Bush began his interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, this process has reached the point where, even during a period of mass military spending, taxes on the rich were being cut. This, together with the economic crisis of 2008, then led to a gaping budget deficit from which the Americans have yet to recover…and which influences its capacity to wage war today.


Another very important turning point worth noting came in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed, dictators in Latin America were overthrown, and rule by democracy strengthened in large parts of Asia. At that moment the American punditocracy declared that liberal democracy had won, focussed only on glorying in those events, and so stopped thinking how the Americans’ posture in the world might have to be adapted to meet new challenges emerging from these happenings.


When he took office, President Obama sought to reverse some of these processes. Among other things, he tried to rebuild the US economy, in part by extricating the US from the hugely expensive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.


However, he did nothing to alter America’s basic approach to diplomacy, which, as I said, since World War II, had been built on the presumption that American economic and military power could be used to pressure other countries into bowing to the Americans’ will. No less importantly, he did nothing to alter that other axiom of American diplomacy, the dogma that everyone in the world wanted democracy and the Americans’ style of life.


There was an underlying, but false assumption, that with American guidance and encouragement, all the countries of the world would follow the path of the SEATO nations and the countries of Latin America, and slowly but surely move to democratic forms of government. Even today, Americans have difficulty in conceiving that places such as Russia, central Asia and the Middle East may be unwilling or unable, for deep atavistic and cultural reasons, to follow the path of these other nations.


This inability to comprehend the great gap that separates the political culture of the US from those of the states in the Middle East in particular, when combined with a disinterest in spending American wealth on new military adventures in that region of the world, has since led to one diplomatic disaster after another. Even oil-poor states that have been long been heavily dependent on American military and economic aid, including Egypt and Israel, have recently been willing to openly confront Washington’s attempts at imposing its fiats.


In the absence of the military and economic hegemony that Washington had once been able to leverage into diplomatic hegemony, the Middle East has reverted to those styles of diplomacy that the region’s countries and non-state actors have used since time immemorial.


It is this subject, which has been given too little thought because of the media’s focus on all the dramatic and bloody events taking place in the region, that I want to concentrate on from hereon in.


In particular, I want to highlight how these changes have affected Israel. For one thing has become eminently clear to me. This massive alteration in the very nature and workings of regional diplomacy has left Israel in a quandary.


In the past, Israel had always accepted American diplomatic negotiating norms, if not American demands, because Jerusalem had, for the most part, understood that its survival and prosperity were dependent on at least appearing to behave like a client state.


However, like so many other seemingly-bonded client states such as the European countries and the Saudis before it, Israel’s national interests demand that it must now challenge American stylistic and substantive dictates to a greater degree than ever before.


The first major sign that such a process had begun came when Israel agreed to an eleven month freeze in settlement construction in the West Bank, but, at the end of that period, could not show any progress in its peace talks with the Palestinians. When President Obama demanded that Israel continue with the freeze despite having received no equivalent gesture from the Palestinians, the Israeli government said “No!”


The important thing to keep in mind as I go into greater detail is that once that tipping point was passed, the Israelis have been left at sea as to how they should act in the international arena.


At this point, I have to lay out as clearly as I can—and that is not easy—what that arena now looks like when viewed from Mount Scopus.


Israel’s approach to international diplomacy was largely set in 1967, when France and Britain both declared arms embargos on the Jewish state. Those embargoes were applied largely because these countries wanted to preserve and enhance their trading relations with the Arab countries. The reaction in Israel to this trauma was a growing belief that the Europeans could not be trusted, and that the Europeans would always be willing to sacrifice Israel on the altar of convenience.


Another major shock came in the wake of the Yom Kippur War, when almost all the African countries, which Israel had assiduously courted as potential counterweights to Arab-led bloc-voting at the UN, broke diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.


Because of these events, which culminated in the passage of the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism, Israelis came to believe that they were alone in the world.


However, by then a countervailing process was already underway. President Johnson had already decided to, for the first time, sell offensive weapons to Israel in the form of Phantom fighter jets. And so, from that time onward, maintaining a strong relationship with the United States became Israel’s diplomatic priority. That meant, first and foremost, accepting American political and diplomatic norms as the basis for communication between the two sides.


There were distinct advantages to this decision. Israel and the US became unsigned, but nonetheless formal allies, not just friends. As part of this process, the US began supplying other types of arms and vetoing anti-Israeli resolutions at the UN on a regular basis. As the alliance became more entrenched, Israel also felt increasingly free to take advantage of US domestic political norms. For example, it encouraged American Jews to become full-fledged members of the lobbying fraternity in Washington. That then enabled it to use organizations such as AIPAC to “work the hill”—in other words to create a strong counterweight to any decision-making done in the White House. No less importantly, these lobbyists were slowly able to neutralize the influence that pro-Arab officials in the State Department had been able to wield for decades.


However, there were negatives as well. The advent of American military and economic aid meant that many in Washington came to believe that Israel had become so dependent on American largesse that it could be turned into an obedient client state.


Another downside was the fact that this single-minded focus on Washington led Israelis to largely disregard the Europeans—except as consumers of Israeli goods.


So entrenched did this approach become that successive Israeli governments ignored the massive, world-wide changes taking place in the field of diplomacy—and especially the growing role being played by the media in government decision-making in democratic countries.


For example, European correspondents stationed in Israel, and especially those reporting to media outlets in the smaller European countries, were regularly snubbed by Israeli officials; and their requests for help were ignored.


The results were soon visible. The Nordic countries began adopting increasingly negative attitudes to Israel, and even overwhelmingly pro-Israel Holland, the only Western country that had once had an embassy in Jerusalem, ended up becoming ever more critical of Israeli policies.


Israeli government officials responded to the increasing criticism of Israel in Europe either with statements of bravado about how successful they were in moderating that criticism, or with whimpering, simpering complaints about anti-Semitism.


Probably the best example of this attitude of benign neglect of the media was the decision by successive governments to allow Danny Seamans, the man who was arguably the most incompetent official in all of the Israeli bureaucracy, to remain the head of the Government Press Office for more than a decade. During his tenure, he did more to alienate the foreign press in Israel than any other individual in Israeli history.


However, undoubtedly Israel’s greatest long-term mistake was to allow the US State Department and the White House to set the international agenda for Middle East diplomacy. Much of that agenda has little to do with the reality of the situation in the Middle East. Instead it is very often the product of what is often called “inside the beltway” bureaucratic and institutional needs.


A particularly notable feature of the Washington mindset has been the penchant of administration bureaucrats from both major parties to simplify the reasons for the conflicts in the Middle East so that the White House and State Department, at their daily briefings, can produce quick media sound bites for domestic consumption. For example, at formal briefings and in closed door sessions, officials have constantly, but falsely claimed that Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank is the single greatest obstacle to Middle Eastern stability.


This “keep it simple, stupid” approach had serious consequences that have now fed the growth in the political, military and social chaos that the Middle East is currently undergoing—but not in the ways Secretary of State John Kerry recently implied.


In order to “keep things simple” for the media and for the Washington bureaucrats’ domestic audience, for far too long, complex and embarrassing issues were downplayed or ignored. Possibly the most obvious example of simplification to the point of absurdity was the refusal by American diplomats to highlight the fact that the Palestinians’ continuing attachment to the right of return is at least as much of an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace-making as is the Israelis’ settlement programme.


Another good example of a major issue that was largely ignored arose in the years after 9/11. Even after it was shown that most of the perpetrators of that disaster were Saudis or products of an education they received at Saudi-sponsored religious institutions, the US chose not to discuss publicly or launch a campaign to alter the teachings in those institutions. The result was the continued, rapid growth of the Moslem Salafist movement and its offshoots…al Qaeda and now ISIS.


Even now, that attitude continues.


During the past few years, the Americans tried to persuade everyone that al Qaeda was being controlled through the use of American drones and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The truth is that al Qaeda affiliates have actually grown in strength and in number to the point where today they control huge areas running from the Sinai, across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa to northern Nigeria. And, of course, in Syria and Iraq, al Qaeda affiliates, including Jabhat el Nusra and ISIS, are doing the bulk of the fighting against the Assad regime.


This “keep it simple” approach also had a significant impact on the European and other foreign correspondents who also attended the Washington briefings. They came to believe that their task was restricted to reporting the statements emanating from Washington, and then to writing approvingly or negatively about the “talking points” the bureaucrats had chosen. Only very rarely did they question whether that list of talking points was so narrow that the issue under discussion was being distorted.


Put in a different way, because Washington is host to the world’s largest corps of foreign correspondents, successive administrations have gained control over the reporting agenda of the world media on issues related to the Middle East and especially Israel. In practice, the Administration raises an issue…and then the focus by the world media is on whether the American or a Middle Eastern body such as Israel’s approach to that issue is appropriate or not. The complexity, nuance and ambiguity of multifaceted issues is then inevitably ignored.


This phenomenon has led to increasingly lop-sided reporting. For example, when there were conflicts between Congress and the White House over America’s policies towards Israel, US officials and American journalists would invariably highlight the role played by AIPAC during those battles. Totally ignored was the fact that the Saudis, among others, had developed a no less influential and potent means for influencing American policy.


Because the congressional committee system is largely built on the principle of seniority, American armaments factories have tended to gravitate to those states whose representatives and senators either head or are in line to head defence appropriations or foreign policy committees. The Saudis have always had a policy of purchasing far more sophisticated—and far more expensive arms—than they can usefully employ. Merely by dangling offers to purchase billions of dollars worth of arms before the eyes of congressmen—and the jobs those purchases can create—they can influence foreign policy decisions without any of the public fuss that accompanies AIPAC’s more open lobbying efforts. If direct lobbying efforts are needed by the Saudis, the armament companies are usually more than happy to provide any services requested.


I will go into how the Saudis also use their fabulous wealth to influence world diplomacy at the very end of this assessment.


All these factors, when combined with the failures of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan, the recent international economic crisis, and Washington’s bungled reaction to the so-called “Arab Spring,” have now changed the Middle Eastern diplomatic arena beyond recognition.


In retrospect, I think it has now become clear to most people that the initial, too-thoughtless American reaction to the recent revolts in the Arab states was probably the primary trigger that set off the perfect military, social and diplomatic cataclysm that has now enveloped the Middle East.


The failures in Iraq an Afghanistan, combined with America’s ongoing economic crisis, had initially led President Obama to adopt a two-fold policy towards the Middle East—an attempt at outreach towards what the White House had convinced itself were moderate elements in the Arab world, and a decision that, henceforth, no American soldiers would be sent to do battle in the region.


Until the archives are opened, we will have no idea whether the Americans even considered that the immediate effect of those twin decisions would be the de facto abrogation of America’s previous policy of trying to impose its diplomatic norms and its approach to dispute resolution on Middle Eastern nations.


Be that as it may, when the White House also announced that the US would henceforth focus its foreign policy on Asia, many in the Middle East came to the conclusion that the US was trying to run away from any further serious involvement in the region.


Certainly, despite the growing regional unrest, the US failed to enunciate any clear strategic goals. And from all appearances, it was being reduced to reacting tactically to events as they occurred. The US approach to the revolution in Libya appeared to confirm all those suspicions.


With great hesitation, the US agreed to participate with the Europeans in bombing Muammar Gaddaffi’s supporters. Those supporters were defeated. However, because there were no foreign “boots on the ground,” after he was killed, Gaddaffi’s arms warehouses were almost immediately thrown open. These arms were then looted by local tribesmen, which then set off a civil war. Even more importantly, those arms began to be sold in wholesale quantities to terrorists elsewhere.


Nonetheless, the US continued to vacillate on what should and could be done to cope with the potentially disastrous situation that was developing.


Further confirmation of the growing impression that the US no longer had a coherent, strategic approach to the events taking place in the Middle East came soon after the fiasco in Libya. President Obama promised to bomb Syria if Assad used chemical weapons. But when those weapons were used, he refused to undertake aerial assaults.


In the absence of a realistic strategy, the Americans seemed to be relying solely on previously-enunciated, but always selectively-employed, so-called “principles” as their source of guidance on how to react to the events that were taking place. For example, even when it had become plain to everyone that the Moslem Brotherhood was leading Egypt to social and economic ruin, Washington continued to support the Brotherhood after the Egyptian army launched its coup because the Brotherhood had adhered to the American principle of seeking power by through democratic elections. Then, US even went so far as to halt arms shipments to Egypt at the very moment that the Egyptian army was engaged in a bitter and costly war with al Qaeda-associated, anti-American jihadis in the Sinai who were being indoctrinated by Saudi Salafists and who were getting huge quantities of arms from Libya.


The immediate impact of all these and other decisions was a growing loss of US credibility in the region, and the creation of a diplomatic vacuum. In particular, states in the region no longer felt obliged to even consider, let alone act on American entreaties, because they saw no advantage in doing so. Instead, there was an almost instant regression to the negotiating norms that had been used by the region’s desert tribes for millennia. Those norms focus on the acquisition of short-term advantages to the detriment of long-term strategizing. They produce alliances are fragile. Promises made by their practitioners are quickly forgotten. The use of hypocrisy is turned into a fine art. International bribery and corruption are deliberately fostered. Vast sums of money are used to buy favours. And one party can even end up supporting both sides to a dispute in which they are not immediately involved. The Qataris and the Turks, for example, have become masters of that particular technique


Once this trend grew, the Israelis, who had submitted to American dictates on how and when to negotiate for so long were left adrift, and, and I noted earlier, they were clearly at a loss about what to do.


This situation soon led to a “theater of the absurd” drama, whose plot or non-plot even Beckett or Jean Anouilh would have had difficulty in concocting.


The narrative goes as follows:


As I mentioned earlier, after the Egyptian military took power, it began a major crackdown on the terrorists who were attacking Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai. As part of that operation, it closed the land crossing between the Sinai and Gaza and began sealing the tunnels leading from Gaza to the Sinai. It also strengthened its military working relationship with Israel beyond all previous recognition.


When the latest war in Gaza broke out, because of everything I have noted up to now, Egypt, but not the United States, was uniquely positioned to determine the war’s outcome. Unless Israel chose to lift its embargo on Gaza, no persons or goods could enter Gaza without Egyptian approval. For that reason, Egyptian President el Sisi, with Saudi financial and political backing, began to use the levers at his disposal. In particular, he announced that he would not negotiate with Hamas to open the border crossing until there was a cease-fire. Hamas, which was desperate to extract any real success from the war, used every trick in the book to try to avoid agreeing to a cease-fire until someone, anyone, had handed it anything that it could use to persuade the population in Gaza that the huge number of deaths and the massive destruction Israel had inflicted had been worth the cost.


The Israelis, who felt they could no longer rely on American diplomacy to accomplish anything worthwhile, chose to accept and learn from el Sisi’s stance.


Of course, this decision was not cost free. The longer the fighting continued, the greater the drain on the Israeli treasury was, and the greater was the danger of Israeli soldiers and civilians being killed.


But to get back to this non-plot: The US could not tolerate the situation it was now in—a situation it had largely created itself. It could not stand being excluded from this battle of wills; and, for domestic political reasons, it could not accept the slow pace that el Sisi’s tribal-style, siege-like tactics required. In the US, the emphasis by politicians and bureaucrats on retaining media support requires politicians and bureaucrats to act rapidly (and often with insufficient forethought) before a media item “goes cold” and before the media turns on the politicians for “doing nothing” about the situation.


For that reason, in one of the stupidest moves in modern diplomatic history, John Kerry asked the Turks and the Qataris to intercede with Hamas to agree to a cease-fire because, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the Turks as members of NATO and the Qataris as hosts to the biggest US military base in the Persian Gulf, were believed to be of the camp that the US labels as the “usses.” The Americans seemed to have taken no note of the fact that the Turks and the Qataris were sworn supporters of the Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas, and so were also perceived by the Egyptian military and the Israelis to be sworn enemies who would do anything to weaken them. Furthermore, the Americans seem not to have even considered that, given those widely-known facts, Hamas might use the opportunity being handed to it to buy more time.


When the US got what it thought was a positive nod from Turkey and Qatar for its cease-fire request, it announced, with considerable self-congratulation, that there would an almost immediate halt in the fighting. When Hamas again openly rejected the proposal, American credibility in the Middle East plummeted to previously unthinkable, new lows.


Given all the above, it is now possible to track, in detail, how all these and other important political weather patterns combined to create the current storm that has ISIS at its centre. To review:


  • Before-9/11, and despite the Saudis actions in the 1970s, the American hegemony in the Middle East appeared to have solidified. The Soviet Union, America’s long-time competitor in the region had collapsed. However, that was a mirage. And so, even after 9/11, and the subsequent military and political failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US refused to accept that its previous hegemony was being challenged to a greater degree than ever before.


  • More than 3 years ago, a revolt broke out in Tunisia, and subsequently in Egypt. The Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood hesitated to become involved, but then chose to bring its supporters out into the streets. The US insisted that Mubarak resign because he was thwarting what Washington believed was a popular Egyptian movement to institute democracy.


This then led to a major crisis of confidence between Riyadh and Washington. The Saudis said that they were angry at the way Washington had treated its long-time ally. A more important reason was the Saudi’s fear that some day the Saudi royal family might be abandoned by the Americans too—a fear that the Administration did nothing to alleviate. This would soon lead the Saudis to once again use the financial levers at their disposal, independently of any American concerns or interests. As I said earlier, I’ll go into detail on that development at the very end of this analysis.


After Mubarak resigned, the Brotherhood promised not to run a candidate for president, but then backtracked on its promise. This led Saudi Arabia, which had been a longtime supporter of the Brotherhood, to turn on this fellow Sunni organization. The primary reason? The Saudis could not accept that the Brotherhood, as a Moslem organization, had embraced democracy as a means to gain power. That precedent was also perceived to be a threat to the Saudi family’s rule.


When the Egyptian military seized power, the Americans condemned the coup and withheld aid. The Saudis, now at odds with both the US and the Moslem Brotherhood rushed to Egypt with political and financial support.


The Turks and the Qataris, allies of the Moslem Brotherhood, were appalled at what the Egyptians military was doing to Brotherhood supporters and so supported the Americans’ decision to impose sanctions. The Israelis were intrigued but confused as to how the events in Egypt would eventually play out. The Israelis intensified their backroom military contacts with Cairo and soon thereafter, enthralled by the results of that cooperation, even went so far as to dream that they might become members of a behind-the-scenes alliance composed of Jerusalem and the major Sunni Arab states including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and some of the Gulf emirates.


  • When the civil war broke out in Syria, most observers predicted that Bashar Assad would fall soon. They were wrong. They failed to take into account that the shift from American hegemonic diplomatic norms to tribal political norms would have on the course of events.


Assad could and did call on the support of his Iranian and Hizbollah allies. Any Western political rationalist had the right to suppose at that time that Iran, which was then suffering under extensive world economic sanctions, would have considerable difficulty in providing such an aid package. However, by that time, the previous American hegemony had evaporated and the tribal political rules I noted previously had kicked in.


For example, those rules state that a tribe that is not a direct partner to a dispute can and should adopt several different and even conflicting postures at the same time—so long as the cumulative effect produces at least a short term advantage for it. In this case, Turkey was openly opposed the Assad government and was providing aid to those fighting the regime. As a member of NATO, it was also, ostensibly, an American ally and had agreed to abide by the packages of sanctions levelled against Iran.


But, lo and behold, Iran could pay for all its economic and military aid to Syria because, in part, Turkish middlemen were found to have been buying Iranian oil; and Turkish banks associated with the Turkish government had been allowed to launder the money that the Iranians had earned from these and other illicit oil sales. Yet another reason was that, in the absence of a clear strategy, the United States had also begun to play the double game in earnest. For example, it had agreed to a softening in the sanctions against Iran even though, at the same time, it openly opposed the Assad regime.


  • The extended war, caused in part by the Americans’ fear of becoming directly involved in the fighting, enabled two al Qaeda offshoots, Jabhat el Nusra and ISIS, to gain a foothold in Syria. Turkey allowed would-be members of both organizations to cross the border from Turkish territory into Syria. As Sunnis, Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Gulf charities had originally all supported Jabhat el Nusra and ISIS against what they perceived to be an Iranian, Syrian, and Hizbollah Shiite axis. That support continued until ISIS announced that the Saudi heretics, in their words, were their next target. The Saudis responded by demanding that the US become more directly involved in fighting ISIS. In effect, despite all it had done to weaken the US’s hegemony in the region, it demanded that the US still play by the old hegemonic rules and send in troops.


When the US demurred and suggested that regional countries use their own troops to battle ISIS on the ground, the Saudi were appalled. Their army is not designed to do battle. It is extremely well equipped, for reasons described earlier, but it is poorly trained because the Saudis fear that a well-trained army might, at some point, launch a coup.


  • ISIS had been growing in strength and in capabilities for 8 years, but those capabilities, and its potential to ally with both disaffected Sunni tribes in Iraq and former Iraqi Baathist army officers who had lost their jobs following the American invasion of Iraq, had been ignored by almost all Western intelligence agencies.


Since the beginning of the US withdrawal from Iraq, the political situation in that country had been obviously deteriorating. The single-minded policies of Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki had favoured the country’s Shiites and ignored the needs and demands of the large Sunni minority.


Nonetheless, the US, in yet another act of principled idiocy had failed to support the justified Sunni demands because al Maliki had been democratically elected. Thus, all the billions of dollars that the US had sunk into gaining the support of the Sunni tribesmen during the so-called “surge” came to naught when these tribesmen sought out allies in their battle with al Maliki, and found them in ISIS. Worse still, when ISIS began its offensive in the Sunni areas, the Shiite based Iraqi army melted away, both because its commanders had been appointed almost solely because of their loyalty to Maliki and not because of any competence, and because the rank and file Shiite soldiers had no desire to die fighting to save the Sunnis.


  • Once it went into battle, ISIS’s superb video campaign on social websites enabled it to attract battle-hardened fighters from Chechnya and artillery fodder from all over the rest of the world. Its initial, well-chosen military successes in Iraq then endowed it with vast troves of arms and stolen money.
  • The US had merely watched as ISIS gained in strength, and the casualty rate in Syria had grown to almost 200,000. There was barely a peep as ISIS engaged in mass killings of prisoners. The US could have delivered deadly blows to ISIS while the rebel fighters criss-crossed the Syrian and Iraqi deserts and were left exposed by the open terrain. But they chose not to…until, that is, ISIS had the gall to behead two American journalists and video the executions in glorious Technicolor.


Because they had given up their interest in exerting their hegemony in the region and because they had failed to find an alternative comprehensive strategy, the Americans found themselves mirroring Henry Kissinger’s famous dictum about Israelis. In this case, though, it was the Americans who had no foreign policy with regard to the Middle East. It was being guided only by domestic politics, including the American public’s reaction to the beheadings of the two American journalists. The cost of that reaction is now expected to be in the billions of dollars. One of the major, absurd outcomes of this tactically-based approach to ISIS has been fact that the American bombing campaign has also enabled the Assad regime to refocus some of its efforts from fighting ISIS to doing battle with the rebel forces sponsored and equipped by the Americans.


  • To date, the only non-Shiite group that has committed forces to the ground battle against ISIS are the Kurds. In fact, it would appear that the anti-ISIS alliance can only agree on thing…that the war should be fought to the last Kurd. However, in yet another twist in this story, Turkey has refused to assist the Kurds and has even bombed Kurdish PKK forces in southern Turkey. To top things off, and while all the anti-ISIS allies are willing to fight to the last Kurdish soldier, they are opposed any move by the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria to unite politically.


  • Just to make things even more complex, the Turks have chosen to put on a superb display of modern Byzantine politics. They decided to accept oil for resale from ISIS, the Kurds in Iraq and the Iranian government—all while trying to wrest the leadership of the Sunni world from the Arabs.


  • The Israelis have so far taken a low-keyed stance to all these events. They have been acting in concert with the US, Britain, the Saudis, most of the Gulf States to provide intelligence and other invisible forms of support, such as increasing the water supply, to Jordan. However, any dream that Prime Minister Netanyahu may have had of creating even a real backroom alliance with the Saudis and the Gulf states is being thwarted by his own refusal to enter into serious peace talks with the Palestinians—a primary demand by the Saudis for entering into a deeper relationship with Israel.


All this, when taken together, has produced the following result: Instead of the countries in the region and foreign states such as the US and Britain acting on the basis of predetermined strategies that could produce long-term alliances and long-term planning, all these states have instead chosen to restrict their diplomatic efforts to entering into ad hoc deals directed at resolving short-term tactical problems as they emerge.


No one has benefitted more from this return to tribal politics than Binyamin Netanyahu. Since he became beholden domestically to the extreme neo-nationalists, hejust liken theb Saudis, has focused almost single-mindedly on his own domestic political survival. This has included making the same sorts of ad hoc deals with coalition partners and doing the same double-dealing that has become so prevalent elsewhere in the region. Matters have even reached the point where he has given up almost all his most cherished economic beliefs in the service of short-term political advantage.


This situation has enabled him to escape from the need to enunciate any long term plans for dealing with other pressing issues such as the growing BDS movement, the weakening of Israel’s support among the European public, and a whole slew of other domestic and foreign challenges.


In sum, Israel and the US, even without new or formal alliances with the Arabs, have now become full-fledged, practicing adherents of the most primitive form of the Middle Eastern tribal behaviour.


Welcome back folks to the politics and diplomacy of the 5th century BCE, when the first permanent human agglomerations outside caves began to appear…in the Middle East, of course.


There is, however, one major exception to this trend. The Saudis, who are experts in tribal diplomacy, have also managed to leverage their extraordinary wealth to create a new form of diplomatic leverage. Unlike the Qataris who believe that their wealth enables them to buy whatever they want, the Saudis have come to the conclusion that since the Americans can no longer exert their will as they once could have, Riyadh can fill that vacuum by simply doing nothing.


On the surface, that may seem to be an oxymoron. But the reality is that we are now in the midst of a world-wide economic slowdown. Despite entreaties by other oil producing states, though, the Saudis have refused to cut production or even discuss cutting production. The result has been a precipitous drop in world oil prices.


This collapse in oil prices has had at least two major consequences. First, the Europeans have now become dependent on lower oil prices to keep their economies afloat. This makes them particularly sensitive to any Saudi diplomatic demands. But even more importantly, the drop in demand and prices has created an economic crisis in the two countries that have been aiding Bashar Assad the most—Russia and Iran. Currently, oil prices are hovering around 82 dollars a barrel. However, in order to maintain current rates of government spending, Russia is believed to need oil at 120 dollars a barrel and Iran is thought to need oil at 140 dollars a barrel.


If things continue as they are now progressing and oil prices drop even more, within a year, both countries will have depleted their monetary reserves, and neither country will be able to afford to continue assisting the Syrian government without suffering serious domestic consequences.


All of which goes to show you that, under the current chaotic circumstances in the Middle East, and especially in the absence of an American hegemony, diplomacy may end up taking many new, imaginative and extraordinary forms.

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