Trying to spot the difference

Before 11 September, Washington, especially following George W Bush’s rise to power, seemed aloof to the rest of the world. Everyone needed the US, and the US did not have to depend on anyone. Based on this conviction, US decision-makers drew up their foreign policy plans according to their definition of American interests, with no regard to others.

It was no anomaly, therefore, that Bush decided to press ahead with the anti-ballistic missile shield programme — the Star Wars project, shelved by the previous administration — and, simultaneously, to declare his intention to withdraw from the 1972 antiballistic missile treaty, which Moscow has long considered the basis for the global strategic balance of power.

Washington’s decision was not limited to strategic weapons systems. To the world’s utter disbelief, Bush decided to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol on global warming, an agreement the previous administration had managed to push through only after prolonged and difficult negotiations. In diplomacy, the current US administration recoiled from the Clinton team’s active involvement in the Middle East peace process, on the grounds that the policy had failed. As a result, the process and the fate of the entire region were left to fester. Washington’s new hands-off policy was in tune with Sharon’s plans for crushing the Palestinian Intifada by force of arms. By abandoning all but the most indirect involvement in the Middle East conflict, the US had essentially given Sharon the green light to use military means to impose his notion of a peace settlement.

Countries not allied to the US, such as Russia and China, were among the international powers that found Washington’s stance on the antiballistic missile issue provocative, while US allies, notably Japan and the EU, were incensed by its stance on major environmental issues. As for the Middle East, the moderate Arab states, which had hoped for an active and equitable US role in the peace process, saw the new policy as a direct threat to their survival.

Naturally, Washington’s foreign policy reorientation stirred profound anxieties among many international and regional powers. The sense that their rights and interests were in jeopardy prompted what many observes saw as a turning point in international relations. Some analysts asserted that the new situation, in favourable conditions, could lead to a multi-polar world order. Above all, the US’s new foreign policy hastened rapprochement between Russia and China, which could have had a positive effect on the Asian scene, giving substance to the hope that the world order’s centre of gravity would shift from the West in general, and the US specifically, toward the East. Perhaps, too, this rapprochement was the reason why Russia, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has challenged Washington on a number of policy issues.

The Russian position on the “smart sanctions” the US has been seeking to impose on Iraq represented one of Moscow’s most radical departures from Washington’s line. By threatening to use its Security Council veto to block the sanctions resolution, Russia forced Washington to put this project on hold. China, too, showed its mettle in response to the US spy plane episode, which epitomised American arrogance. Throughout the crisis, China asserted its rights and sovereignty, while maintaining its prudence and level-headedness. Western European countries, while barely concealing their distaste for the new US orientation, moved with increasing determination to consolidate the mechanisms that would allow for the development of a truly independent EU foreign policy. As a result, an unprecedented debate took place over the importance of European autonomy in decision-making on security and foreign policy issues, and the need to develop an autonomous joint European force within the framework of NATO.

Because of the storm that broke over the US on 11 September, however, the new developments that were brewing could not effect fundamental changes in the structure of the global order. The catastrophe precipitated a reorganisation of international relations that would set the global order on an entirely different course. Bent on revenge for the devastating strikes, the US placed the fight against terrorism at the top of the international agenda, and brought the world into a new phase of realignment and coalition-building — in accordance with the rules and principles Washington dictated for fighting terrorism.

Since the US immediately issued a list of names — all Arab and Muslim — alleged to be those of the perpetrators, Muslims and Arabs everywhere fell under suspicion. Israel, India and, to a large extent, Russia found circumstances propitious for steering events toward a full-scale war on the strongholds of “fundamentalist Islam” as the purported number one source of international terrorism. For Israel, this was a golden opportunity to unleash its wrath on Hamas, Jihad and Hizbullah, before eliminating the Palestinian problem and imposing its settlement on the Middle East conflict. India, too, clamped down on resistance, in the hope that it could resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan as it chose. Russia worked to eliminate Muslim strongholds in Chechnya and suppress the Islamic resistance movements it believes threaten both its interests in Central Asia and its domestic cohesion.

The attacks of 11 September generated a fluidity in the world order that facilitated Washington’s aim of restructuring alliances to fulfil its interests. Having set the “elimination of terrorism” as its target for the first phase of this process, it set its sights on overthrowing the Taliban, destroying Al-Qa’eda’s bases and arresting Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Although Washington needed Arab and Muslim support for the war, it was not prepared to make meaningful concessions to them. Instead, it brandished India to get what it wanted from Pakistan and Israel to get what it wanted from the Arabs. Simultaneously, it used Turkey and Russia to secure the front in Central Asia, thereby gaining maximum freedom to pressure and manipulate all parties. As Russia was the only power that required any concessions in exchange for its support, the US resorted to the carrot rather than the stick: a new formula for Russia’s relationship with NATO intended to alleviate Moscow’s anxieties over possible attempts to expand that alliance.

The first phase of restructuring international alliances, therefore, required that the US restrain Israel and India temporarily, while offering Russia some space. This was fairly easy. Israel and India knew that the measures were purely tactical, especially when they received guarantees that they would soon benefit from the first phase.

Then US began to set in motion stage two, targeting the parties it has black-listed as “rogue states” and “terrorist organisations.” As all of these are located in the Arab world, it is unlikely that the US will look to Arab governments in the coalition-building process. There is a possibility, however remote, that it will convince Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and some other Arab governments to help dismantle the Iraqi regime, but it will never secure any form of official support for operations against Hamas, Jihad or Hizbullah if it does not help bring about an acceptable settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even if the US were earnest in seeking such a solution, the continued presence of the Sharon government makes its implementation next to impossible.

The focus of the international realignment, in all likelihood, will therefore be located outside the Arab and Islamic worlds and will target the vital interests of these regions. Western Europe, Russia, India, Israel and Turkey are the international and regional powers best equipped and most willing to abet Washington’s plans for fighting terrorism. The Arab world must realise this and oppose attempts to build such an alliance.

The Arab and Muslim worlds have entered one of the most challenging phases of their history. Although they can resist — indeed, overcome — plans to weaken them, they have yet to resolve core issues of identity and modernisation. Perhaps, too, they have not really understood the transformations taking place in the world order.

The Arabs and Muslims have many ways of influencing the course of international relations. For example, the vast interests Russia and India have in the region can be used to prevent the formation of a coalition desperately sought by Israel — a coalition inspired not by dialogue and cooperation, but by the logic of the clash of civilisations. The Arab and Islamic worlds could also work to consolidate their strategic relations with China and Japan, which have nothing to gain from an intensification of this clash.

Decision-makers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan must engage in dialogue at the highest levels and explore ways of managing the current crisis. The focus of these efforts should not be a boycott of the US or Western Europe, but opposition to Israel’s blackmailing of the US and Europe. That the EU has recently inclined towards the US position that Arab resistance movements are terrorist organisations is a dangerous development. Hopefully, some have heard the warning knell.

The writer is head of the Political Science Department at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science.