When President Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Egypt on Thursday, he will be fulfilling his inaugural pledge to “seek a new way forward” with the Muslim world. But finding areas of mutual interest may prove far more difficult than the president imagines. That is because, in recent years, the Middle East has seen the crystallization of regional politics around two distinct ideologies. Call it the new bipolarity.
In one corner, there is a radical camp made up of Iran and Syria. It is animated by the idea of “resistance” against the West, and counts terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas as its fellow travelers. In the other are the comparative moderates, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia and consisting of Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and most of the Gulf States, who represent a more pragmatic approach to the region’s problems.
The differences between the two could not be starker. The radical camp supports terrorism as a legitimate political tool, views political compromise as unnecessary, and aims to undermine — either directly or by proxy — the stability of America’s allies in the region. For evidence, one need look no further than Egypt, where members of Hezbollah — Iran’s chief terrorist surrogate — were recently arrested for planning to carry out attacks and smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip.
While the regional pragmatists certainly have no love for Israel, they at least favor degrees of normalization with the Jewish state, and promote reasonable options for negotiating peace. They also view the rising tide of Islamist terrorist groups as a mortal threat to both domestic and regional stability.
This regional divide was on dazzling display during the recent Arab summit in Doha, Qatar. The meeting ended early, after a single day of debate punctuated by disagreements on nearly every regional and international issue. In fact, just about the only thing the gathered Arab leaders could agree on was their defiant support for their honored guest, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir — a pariah recently indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Tellingly, those in the region’s radical camp viewed such a stalemate as progress. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad crowed that the event was “the most successful summit of the last 20 years.” Such sentiments speak volumes; the radical camp, simply put, does not seek progress as currently defined in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, or Ramallah.
The tug-of-war now taking place in the Arab world threatens to envelop other states as well.
Lebanon, for example, is currently teetering. Four years ago, in the aftermath of the so-called “Cedar Revolution,” the pro-Western March 14 coalition was elected on a platform that championed the non-interference of outside actors in Lebanese politics. But when Iranian-sponsored and Syrian-supported Hezbollah overran Beirut in May 2008, the March 14 coalition capitulated, granting Hezbollah and its backers a political veto in national politics and effective immunity from oversight by the elected government. Not surprisingly, these developments emboldened Hezbollah and its supporters, who are now poised to make additional gains in the upcoming June parliamentary elections.
Qatar, meanwhile, already appears to have cast its lot. After years of trying to balance friendly relations with Iran with a strategic partnership with America (the country currently houses our regional military headquarters), Doha now gives clear signs of drifting towards Iran. It brokered the May 2008 agreement that ended the Lebanese political crisis — a deal that gave the political advantage to Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria. In the midst of the January 2009 crisis over the Gaza Strip, it also convened a contra-summit prominently featuring both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khalid Mashaal. Indeed, Qatar is fast becoming the preferred gathering spot for the resistance camp.
So far, Washington gives little indication that it recognizes the new cold war brewing between radicals and realists in the greater Middle East. Today, the Obama administration is simultaneously engaging the radical regimes in Tehran and Damascus, even as it courts the regional governments who fear them.
Such a policy is unsustainable. If Washington wants real regional engagement, or realignment, the White House will need to recognize the two camps now dueling for geopolitical influence — and then clearly and unequivocally choose sides. President Obama, in other words, may plan to engage the Muslim world, but he will need to pick which camp he prefers.