It is almost possible to hear the tectonic plates grinding. The whole international landscape is once again on the move, tumbling old structures and turning old assumptions upside-down.
The catalyst this time is the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama on the world scene and the major shift in American foreign policy and attitudes that this appears to signify. But in reality the shift has been going on for some time, even under Obama’s much-criticized predecessor, George W. Bush.
U.S. dominance has been declining for almost a decade. The balance of power and wealth has shifted to Asia, with the present global financial chaos accelerating this trend. A new map of the Middle East is emerging, with Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as the major regional powers, competing with Iran.
Syria, and maybe a recovering Iraq, will also be playing increasingly important roles. The point is fast approaching, as well, where America will finally have to use its remaining power to bring Israel into line and to unwind its settlements in what should be the new Palestine.
But it is to the credit of Obama that he has recognized these trends swiftly, and even more to his credit that he has managed to articulate them, as on his recent visits to European capitals, to Ankara and to Baghdad. The question now is, having correctly identified them, what he and his followers can do to manage and make the best of them.
Obama clearly understands that the days of American high-handedness are over and that other nations, large and small, with their varying structures of governance and their distinctive values, must be properly respected. America can no longer expect to be the world’s unquestioned leader, nor should it try to fill that role.
The complexities of Mideast politics are enormous. As Obama himself pointed out, everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else. So where does he begin?
Many people believe that it is the Arab-Israeli conflict that poisons everything and that must first be tackled. It is true that Israel is seen as supported almost unconditionally by America and this reinforces widespread resentment at American presence in the region.
But the Arab-Israel issue is also linked to Iran, to Iranian support for Hamas in Gaza (as well as for Hezbollah in Lebanon), to Israeli fears of possible Iranian nuclear weapons and to the whole issue of Iran’s attempts to dominate the region. That in turn challenges the other major regional powers, as already mentioned. It also interlocks with the great Islamic divide between Sunnis and Shiites, which has brought bombs and slaughter to Iraq, and puts Iran on one side and the Sunni majority states on the other.
Running through all these tensions and divisions are the politics of oil and the politics of terror, with al-Qaida and numerous like-minded violent factions targeting the emirates and kingdoms that they see as too friendly to the West. This Islamic civil war has long since spilled over into Afghanistan and is now spreading into Pakistan, where the running sore of the struggle against the Taliban and its allies is draining Western resources and manpower and destabilizing the Pakistani nation.
Add to all this the current maneuvering by Syria, the continuing rise of Kurdish nationalism (which threatens both Iran and Turkey), the instincts of Arab nationalism that welcome and embrace characters like President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan (even while charges are leveled against him for hideous war crimes by the International Criminal Court) and one begins to understand the twisted and basically anti-Western mosaic that the dangerous Middle East continues to be today.
A major change in the American approach to the Middle East, as suggested by Obama’s speeches, will shake around all the pieces in this jigsaw. Turkey looks set to emerge as a pivotal country on the new stage, as a potential bridge between Iran and the West, as a mediator between Israel and Palestine, as the source of the headwaters of the entire region, as a Muslim and yet secular state, and as the possessor of a formidable military machine.
Meanwhile a shift in American policy toward Syria, now becoming a target country to be wooed, gives that centrally placed nation new significance and influence.
So one by one yesterday’s pariah nations become the new center-stage players. Yesterday’s axis of evil becomes an arc of cooperation. Whether this change of approach and tone calms the region, reduces hostility toward America and the West, and increases serious local responsibility in addressing the endless problems remains to be seen.
An underlying assumption that lingers in the Obama stance, and in the whole of Western foreign policy, is that the Middle East is a Western problem that America and its remaining allies must sort out.
But that may no longer be true, or even necessary, given the Western world’s, and also Japan’s, declining dependency on crude oil, as well as the West’s constant failures to influence events. Except in the case of American support for Israel it may now be that the new regional powers themselves, Arab and Islamic, secular and religious — including the smaller Gulf states at last working together and even a revived Iraq — may be much better placed to tackle the multiple conflicts than outside, and foreign forces and special envoys.
So perhaps the biggest and best Obama-inspired change of direction might be to steer the American ship of state away as much as possible from the Middle East altogether, to help from the sidelines rather than try to control from the center. That would indeed be a defining moment of change for the region and for the whole world — and probably a very good one.
David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.
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