Opinion

Compass

To build a coalition against Islamic State, U.S. must try a little humility

Nader Mousavizadeh
Sep 25, 2014 05:00 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama chairs the U.N. Security Council summit in New York

When President Barack Obama assumed the presidency of the United Nations Security Council Wednesday, he summoned the full weight of U.S. power to a cause with seeming universal appeal: defeating the barbarism of Islamic State — or, as Obama calls the militant group, Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL).

Much of the world, however, will question how Washington can hope to achieve this without launching a wider political agenda for accountable government in the failing states of the Arab world.

They seek U.S. recognition of the diversity of legitimate interests represented today in the Security Council chamber — and of the wider diffusion of power and capital that defines this age. In short, they look for an American president who can see the world through a genuine pluralist prism.

What they hear, however, is talk of yet another global expeditionary mission driven largely by U.S. foreign and domestic politics. More than a failure of will, intelligence or even strategy, the Obama administration’s foreign policy seems marked by a failure of imagination. This will doom the White House’s attempts to forge a sustainable global alliance.

U.S. President Obama meets in New York with representatives of Arab nations that contributed in air strikes against Islamic State targets in SyriaWhat makes this failure so tragic is the lost opportunity to rethink the design of global partnerships in the midst of an expanding archipelago of diverging power, values and interests. Yet the interests of the key powers are actually more aligned than they appear to be on issues ranging from Syria to the wider Middle East, from Ukraine to East Asia.

In the Middle East, a bonfire of alibis

Nader Mousavizadeh
Feb 27, 2012 19:45 UTC

Syria can set fire to Lebanon at the wave of a hand. Hezbollah can be ordered into battle with Israel at the command of a call from Tehran. Lebanon’s sectarian politics are a plaything of outsiders whose every whim determines the fate of the country. These are among the conventional wisdoms that have long held the fate of Lebanon hostage — assumptions as widely held within the country as outside it. But a closer look suggests that it is high time these preconceived notions are challenged — not because they lack a basis in reality, but because they are rooted as much in what the country’s enemies, from Damascus to Tehran, wish to be the dominant narrative as what the far more complex conditions on the ground merit.

Today, as Syria’s civil war gains speed and severity, and the crisis of Iran’s nuclear program escalates by the day, Beirut is holding its breath — too fearful and too scarred by a war-torn history to imagine anything but the worst-case scenario. And yet, the reality as acknowledged by a growing number of Lebanese observers is more complex. If Assad really could create the distraction he needs from renewed conflict in Lebanon with such ease, would he not already have done so? If Hezbollah is nothing but an arm of Iran’s forward defense, would it not have been the first agent called into action, as opposed to Tehran’s other alleged responses — from the plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington to the recent attacks on Israeli diplomats in Delhi, Bangkok and Tbilisi? As Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Lebanon, pointed out to me on a recent visit to Beirut, just as Sinn Fein and Hamas discovered in their time, Hezbollah’s role in the current government means that it is having to make compromises and shift from the comfortable politics of opposition.

What is true of Lebanon is true too — and far more consequentially so — when the conventional wisdom about the aims and motivations of the region’s other players are examined. At this moment of looming conflict with worldwide implications, it is time to give far greater scrutiny to the claims made by the principal protagonists about the merits of their policies — and the ways they diverge from the global interest in the security and stability of the region. This is most evidently the case with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the trade-off between war and containment that ultimately faces the international community.

Peril and paranoia in the new Middle East

Nader Mousavizadeh
Nov 28, 2011 17:47 UTC

The year of the Arab Awakening is drawing to a close with an ominous air of peril and paranoia hanging over the Middle East. A movement of genuine promise for more legitimate and accountable government for the peoples of the Arab world is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of tyranny, corruption, fundamentalism and conflict. From Syria to Egypt to Libya, Palestine, Israel and Iran, resistance to peaceful change is manifesting itself in ways new and old – and all in the context of a global re-alignment of power that few in the region yet recognize. Preventing the four central challenges of the Middle East – Iran, the Arab Awakening, Energy Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from turning into conflicts with global implications will be a task far more for the countries of the region themselves than at any time in recent memory. For this new reality the parties are almost completely unprepared.

This was confirmed during a visit last week to the Gulf where the collapse of trust between adversaries – as well as allies – was on stark display. Arab leaders expressed as much distrust of each other as they did of their ascendant rivals, the Persians and the Turks. The minimum demands of the Palestinians are as distant as ever from the maximum on offer from the Israeli government. And for a number of regional leaders buffeted by the extraordinary changes forced by popular movements from Syria to Tunisia, a key lesson appears to be lesser, not greater, openness to representative government. The Middle East, more than any other region of the world, gives validity to the old joke that even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies. But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.

Critical to understanding the new strategic landscape is an appreciation of the degree to which the United States – since Suez, the arbiter of war and peace in the Middle East – is on course for a long-term disentanglement from the cares and conflicts of the region. While its commitment to Israel certainly – and to its Arab allies less so – long has been more than just a matter of security, it is evident that a Middle East less critical as a source of oil will be one less able to claim the extraordinary expenditure of blood and treasure made by America over the past half-century. As a consequence of technological advances leading to new discoveries and new sources of oil and gas, the next oil shock will likely be one more defined by the growing irrelevance of the Middle East to the United States – however much the region’s ability to disrupt international oil markets will remain.

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