The Bad New Era

The Bad New Era

The era of optimism for democracy in the Middle East has ended, says one foreign relations specialist.

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The source: “The New Middle East” by Richard N. Haass, in Foreign Affairs, Nov.–Dec. 2006.

The sun has set on the brief American era in the Middle East, writes Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. A modern, ­Europe-­style region marked by democracy, prosperity, and peace will not arise. Instead, the emerging Middle East is far more likely to cause harm to itself, the United States, and the ­world.

Napoleon’s entry into Ottoman Egypt in 1798 with archaeologists, linguists, and poets in tow opened the region’s modern era. The collapse of the Ottoman caliphate at the end of World War I began a second new era of colonial rule, followed by Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. With the demise of the Soviets, the United States enjoyed unprecedented influence and freedom in the region. But after less than two decades the Amer­ican period is over, according to ­Haass.

The principal reason, he writes, is America’s decision to attack Iraq. The war stripped power from the Sunni religious minority in Baghdad, which had kept Shiite Iran in check, and propelled Iran into position as one of the two strongest countries in the region. Israel, the other strong power, is weakened by its military involve­ment in Lebanon and will be further weakened if Iran matches Israel’s nuclear ­arsenal.

Haass says America will have more influence in the region than any other country, but its position will be increasingly undermined by competing foreign interests of Europe, China, and Russia. No viable peace process seems likely. “The United States has lost much of its standing as a credible and honest broker,” he concludes.

Iraq, at best, will remain a divided society with a weak central govern­ment and regular violence. At worst, a civil war will overwhelm Iraq and draw in its neighbors. The price of oil will remain high. Militias will be emboldened by their role in Iraq and the survival of Hezbollah in Lebanon.  “Islam will increasingly fill the political and intellectual vacuum in the Arab world,” he predicts. Arab regimes will “remain authoritarian and become more religiously intolerant and anti-­American.”

The new Middle East will threaten America, but its dangers can be turned up or down by U.S. policies, Haass writes. Relying on military force to remove threatening governments or nuclear installations would make things worse. Counting on democracy to produce friendly regimes is wishful thinking in the short run. Talking to Iran and Syria, reviving diplomacy in the ­Israeli-­Palestinian conflict, shoring up America’s defenses against terrorism, and reducing dependency on Middle Eastern oil are numbingly familiar ideas and slow to bear fruit. “It is all enough to make one nostalgic for the old Middle East,” Haass ­says.

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