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Realism has beaten idealism

Article by Alex Bigham

November 22, 2006

With events in Lebanon potentially reverting back towards the verge of civil war, the “New Middle East” that Tony Blair referred to during the summer’s conflict is beginning to take shape.

This new Middle East is increasingly being directed by powers such as Iran and Syria, while the traditional heavyweight Israel fights its own internal battles. The assassination of Pierre Gemayel, an outspoken critic of Syria, may be a sign the regime in Damascus is trying to get a foothold back in Lebanon. In addition, the announcement of a weekend summit in Tehran with the Iraqi and Syrian foreign ministers, while it should be welcomed, shows that Iran also has the initiative in the Middle East now – trying to transform their role from members of the “axis of evil” to “partners for peace”.

This new paradigm stems from changes in the region’s pre-eminent power. The results of the midterm elections in the US signalled the public’s increasing frustration at the Bush administration’s policies not just in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and in the wider Middle East. It wasn’t just a victory for the Democrats in taking Congress, but a triumph for the realists in the Republican party.

The traditional split in international relations theory has been between idealism and realism. The idealist wing that was in pre-eminence in the aftermath of 9/11 – personified by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bolton and others, saw Baghdad as the first staging post in a wider battle to install democracy in capitals across the region. The stars are now ascending on the realists – the new defence secretary Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker and others associated with George Bush Sr, supported by a wave of thinkers, such as Henry Kissinger, who argue from the right for engagement with Iran and Syria, and a “containment policy” to replace the faltering democratisation project.

On his recent trip, Tony Blair compared Afghanistan today to the Balkans in the1990s. He’s right – and the lesson from those such as Paddy Ashdown, who saw the sharp end of nation building in the Balkans, is that you can only get a lasting settlement if you get the neighbours on board. In addition, the amount of reconstruction aid that is being spent on Afghanistan is pitiful when compared to the amount spent in the Balkans. We need a genuine, not a half-hearted Marshall plan for countries like Afghanistan.

The incentive for the west to engage is obvious, with a war in Iraq which has been tacitly acknowledged as a “disaster”, but why should the Iranians help the old enemy America? A number of reasons. Firstly, they don’t want chaos on their doorstep, which could easily spill over the border affecting Arabs in south west Iran, who have little support for the ethnically Persian government in Tehran. Secondly, the Iranians crave recognition – they want to be seen as the key power in the region, and the diplomatic status of a major regional conference supported by outsiders, or some kind of permanent regional security organisation along the lines of the OSCE. Thirdly, they are genuinely worried about military action, despite the decreasing likelihood.

The difficulty is if the US keeps up the demand of the precondition of suspending uranium enrichment before a dialogue, they will need to give something in return, for the Iranians to save face. This might take the form of some kind of security guarantee that the US will not attack Iran any time soon. With the arrival of Robert Gates, there is currently a serious debate in Washington, with different messages coming out from the White House and the State Department on when and how dialogue with Iran might start.

On the nuclear issue, Iran has a choice – it can take the path of countries like Kazakhstan, South Africa, Brazil and Libya, who renounced or gave up nuclear weapons, and are to a greater or lesser extent, reaping the economic and political rewards of being part of the international community. This is compared to the most recent nuclear nation, North Korea, which is a poor and isolated international pariah.

What about the Syrians, who the British are at pains to point out, shouldn’t be lumped together with Iran? After all, you couldn’t imagine an envoy like Sir Nigel Sheinwald going to Tehran. The biggest incentive for Damascus is economic aid, which they increasingly need. The assassination of Gemayel shows they also want to regain a hegemonic role in Lebanon, which according to President Bush is out of the question. The one thing that could be offered is the return of the Golan Heights – though that is in Israel’s, not America’s power to give.

The danger of the realist strategy is that by engaging Iran, Syria and attempting a realist approach to the Middle East, that we repeat the mistakes of the 1990s of the “dual containment” strategy towards Iran and Iraq – when human rights and democracy were abused, most memorably in Saddam’s crushing of the Shia rebellion after the first Gulf War. If we agree a deal with Syria, will we jeopardise democracy in Lebanon? If we support the regime in Tehran, will they continue to suppress women and ethnic minorities?

Democracy is the long term solution to the Middle East, but it cannot be imposed, Iraq-style or it will backfire. Marrying the idealism of democratisation, with the realism of regional engagement will be the defining challenge in the most difficult area of the world.

22 November 2006

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