The Middle East Channel

A crisis of self-confidence in the Arab world

Turkey, Turkey, Turkey…That was the refrain at the Al Jazeera Forum last weekend in Doha, Qatar and a clear indication of who was the new rising star in Middle Eastern politics. In panels and in private conversations, Arab, Turkish, Pakistani, American and Afghani analysts, old-school Arab nationalists, members of resistance groups, and journalists discussed in ...

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Turkey, Turkey, Turkey…That was the refrain at the Al Jazeera Forum last weekend in Doha, Qatar and a clear indication of who was the new rising star in Middle Eastern politics. In panels and in private conversations, Arab, Turkish, Pakistani, American and Afghani analysts, old-school Arab nationalists, members of resistance groups, and journalists discussed in mostly positive terms how Turkey was trying to act as a corrective to the general vacuum of leadership among Arab states, how it was acting to balance Iran and Israel as regional hegemons, and how it was trying to compensate for the seeming inability of the United States to fundamentally break with the policies of the Bush administration, especially on Israeli-Arab peace and on Iran.

Behind the admiration for Turkey, however, one could detect the first traces of jealousy.  The United States and Israel, however, should not misconstrue jealousy arising from a lack of self-confidence for antipathy. 

I came away with three points on which I believe most participants agreed:

  • The Israeli-Arab conflict was still the defining lens through which most in the region saw the United States. Everyone from former South African President Thabo Mbeki to Iraqiyya leader and potential future Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi all brought it up as a defining injustice that needed to be resolved. In that sense, the ongoing low-intensity conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory still resonates at a much higher pitch than the far hotter conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan or those which are still primarily off the radar for the Arab world, such as Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
  • Turkey is filling the vacuum left by decades of failed US policies in the region and by the inability of Arab states, with the notable exception of Qatar and Jordan, to even bother anymore with attempts to resolve regional conflicts.  Turkey’s zero-problem approach is obviously aspirational, but as Stephen Walt notes, has had a number of early successes. In particular, it was clear that Arab nationalists who had previously seen Baathist Iraq as a counter-weight to Iran were now looking to Turkey to maintain a sort of balance of forces in the region. For those frustrated by US inability to end the siege of the Gaza Strip or to stop settlement activity or move Israel towards de-occupation, Turkey’s efforts were also viewed as a healing balm even if they were not expected to transform the conflict.
  • Iran is not viewed as an existential threat to any Arab country and its nuclear ambitions (civilian or military) are not as problematic as is Iran’s sheer dynamism in an area of mostly comatose Arab states. Arab states have always looked for a balance of power in the region with Iran-whether Iran was under the US-backed dictator the former Shah-or under the current Islamic Republic model. It was Western-backed Arab states which supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in 1980-a remarkably bloody conflict that entailed attacks on Iranian civilian targets and the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds as well as Iranian military targets. No one seems foolish enough to consider a replay of that policy particularly without a Baathist Iraq to play the role of foot soldiers. (It is an irony of the neocon project that they could have more easily enlisted a totalitarian Saddam to play the role of invader of Iran than a democratic Iraq.) Egypt was noticeable for not being noticeable on any major issue in the region except ensuring the siege on the Gaza Strip. But more to the point, there seems to be a recognition that Iran, even under sanctions and after fighting a decade long war with almost all the Arab states and their western allies, has still developed politically (compare the Green movement to contestations of elections in the Arab world) and materially (as an example, Iran builds its own cars and many of its own arms while Arab states still rely on importations) more than many if not all of those same Arab states.

What was not mentioned in those three points is probably also of great importance to the United States–the lack of expectation that the United States could play a positive role for stability in the region. There was a sense that participants were speaking of the United States in the past tense. Although there was still respect for President Obama as an individual, there was little expectation that the United States would end Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. The US is widely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as having lost in Iraq and no one had confidence that the US could do anything but hand over Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Salafists it had originally sent in to rule Afghanistan in 1996–the Taliban. As former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul noted, "losers can’t be choosers."

In fact, traditional models of deterrence seemed to be in vogue among groups that still advertise themselves as engaged in resistance against Israel. Both Hamas and Hezbollah officials offered no prescription for ending the conflict but suggested that their goal was to deter Israel from further attacks against areas under their control by making it clear that such action would be costly to Israel.

The only bright spot perhaps for supporters of US policy was in the relative diplomatic activism of Qatar and Jordan. Both governments view the instability in the region as a threat, both see a new equilibrium resulting in the region if the United States can actually end Israel’s occupation, both support the United States in material ways in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and both have tried to maintain a foothold of support with the Arab and wider Muslim publics by symbolic and material assistance to Gazan civilians. In that sense, Qatar and Jordan are following the Turkish model of diplomacy.

As of yet, however, there has been little effort on the US side to capitalize either on Turkey’s diplomatic dynamism or Qatar and Jordan’s. The recent rejection by the US of the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian deal, despite an April letter by President Obama to Brazil outlining the terms he would accept, and the lack of attention to Qatar’s and Jordan’s attempts to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians or to support efforts by the former to help Palestinians achieve reconciliation, will only reinforce a trend in the region to think of the United States either as a problem to be solved or in the past tense.   

Amjad Atallah directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.

Turkey, Turkey, Turkey…That was the refrain at the Al Jazeera Forum last weekend in Doha, Qatar and a clear indication of who was the new rising star in Middle Eastern politics. In panels and in private conversations, Arab, Turkish, Pakistani, American and Afghani analysts, old-school Arab nationalists, members of resistance groups, and journalists discussed in mostly positive terms how Turkey was trying to act as a corrective to the general vacuum of leadership among Arab states, how it was acting to balance Iran and Israel as regional hegemons, and how it was trying to compensate for the seeming inability of the United States to fundamentally break with the policies of the Bush administration, especially on Israeli-Arab peace and on Iran.

Behind the admiration for Turkey, however, one could detect the first traces of jealousy.  The United States and Israel, however, should not misconstrue jealousy arising from a lack of self-confidence for antipathy. 

I came away with three points on which I believe most participants agreed:

  • The Israeli-Arab conflict was still the defining lens through which most in the region saw the United States. Everyone from former South African President Thabo Mbeki to Iraqiyya leader and potential future Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi all brought it up as a defining injustice that needed to be resolved. In that sense, the ongoing low-intensity conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territory still resonates at a much higher pitch than the far hotter conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan or those which are still primarily off the radar for the Arab world, such as Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.
  • Turkey is filling the vacuum left by decades of failed US policies in the region and by the inability of Arab states, with the notable exception of Qatar and Jordan, to even bother anymore with attempts to resolve regional conflicts.  Turkey’s zero-problem approach is obviously aspirational, but as Stephen Walt notes, has had a number of early successes. In particular, it was clear that Arab nationalists who had previously seen Baathist Iraq as a counter-weight to Iran were now looking to Turkey to maintain a sort of balance of forces in the region. For those frustrated by US inability to end the siege of the Gaza Strip or to stop settlement activity or move Israel towards de-occupation, Turkey’s efforts were also viewed as a healing balm even if they were not expected to transform the conflict.
  • Iran is not viewed as an existential threat to any Arab country and its nuclear ambitions (civilian or military) are not as problematic as is Iran’s sheer dynamism in an area of mostly comatose Arab states. Arab states have always looked for a balance of power in the region with Iran-whether Iran was under the US-backed dictator the former Shah-or under the current Islamic Republic model. It was Western-backed Arab states which supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran in 1980-a remarkably bloody conflict that entailed attacks on Iranian civilian targets and the use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds as well as Iranian military targets. No one seems foolish enough to consider a replay of that policy particularly without a Baathist Iraq to play the role of foot soldiers. (It is an irony of the neocon project that they could have more easily enlisted a totalitarian Saddam to play the role of invader of Iran than a democratic Iraq.) Egypt was noticeable for not being noticeable on any major issue in the region except ensuring the siege on the Gaza Strip. But more to the point, there seems to be a recognition that Iran, even under sanctions and after fighting a decade long war with almost all the Arab states and their western allies, has still developed politically (compare the Green movement to contestations of elections in the Arab world) and materially (as an example, Iran builds its own cars and many of its own arms while Arab states still rely on importations) more than many if not all of those same Arab states.

What was not mentioned in those three points is probably also of great importance to the United States–the lack of expectation that the United States could play a positive role for stability in the region. There was a sense that participants were speaking of the United States in the past tense. Although there was still respect for President Obama as an individual, there was little expectation that the United States would end Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. The US is widely perceived (rightly or wrongly) as having lost in Iraq and no one had confidence that the US could do anything but hand over Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Salafists it had originally sent in to rule Afghanistan in 1996–the Taliban. As former head of Pakistani intelligence, Hamid Gul noted, "losers can’t be choosers."

In fact, traditional models of deterrence seemed to be in vogue among groups that still advertise themselves as engaged in resistance against Israel. Both Hamas and Hezbollah officials offered no prescription for ending the conflict but suggested that their goal was to deter Israel from further attacks against areas under their control by making it clear that such action would be costly to Israel.

The only bright spot perhaps for supporters of US policy was in the relative diplomatic activism of Qatar and Jordan. Both governments view the instability in the region as a threat, both see a new equilibrium resulting in the region if the United States can actually end Israel’s occupation, both support the United States in material ways in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and both have tried to maintain a foothold of support with the Arab and wider Muslim publics by symbolic and material assistance to Gazan civilians. In that sense, Qatar and Jordan are following the Turkish model of diplomacy.

As of yet, however, there has been little effort on the US side to capitalize either on Turkey’s diplomatic dynamism or Qatar and Jordan’s. The recent rejection by the US of the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian deal, despite an April letter by President Obama to Brazil outlining the terms he would accept, and the lack of attention to Qatar’s and Jordan’s attempts to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians or to support efforts by the former to help Palestinians achieve reconciliation, will only reinforce a trend in the region to think of the United States either as a problem to be solved or in the past tense.   

Amjad Atallah directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.

Amjad Atallah and Daniel Levy are co-directors of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation.

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