Steven Hill, Die Zeit, September 2, 2011
This article originally appeared in German on the website of Die Zeit Online
The Arab Spring is a historic moment of opportunity for the Middle East – as well as Europe – that must not be wasted. To maximize this potential, Europe will have to play a leading role, stepping up with foreign aid and technical assistance in the short term, and trade and economic development in the longer term. In addition, it must encourage the United States to modify its disastrous policies in the region that have been pursued by both Democratic and Republican administrations.
In June I attended a roundtable discussion in Barcelona which featured over a dozen young leaders of the Arab Spring, from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco and more. They made it clear that they need European assistance, especially financial resources and know-how. But, several said – showing the delicacy of the situation – that any support from former colonial powers risks a backlash from their populations. So Europe should avoid launching grand, ambitious, broad stroke programs that are not fully endorsed by the leading democratic forces there.
The complex brew of the Middle East does not need another hegemon that tries to settle conflicts with ineffectual bluster and blunder. The Libyan military intervention was the right thing to do to prevent a massacre, but a prolonged stalemate there could tilt in the wrong direction. In most situations, Europe is better off deploying its trademark ‘smart power’ approach of patient multilateralism, founded on the sturdy bedrock of small, constructive steps of engagement over mutually shared interests, like the kind that brought Germany and France together in the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. When coupled with a transformative amount of financial assistance, that would provide a supportive matrix like that imparted by western Europe to central and eastern Europe post-1989, and by the United States to Europe and Japan following World War II. Monnetism and Marshall Plan-like support, that’s what the Arab Spring needs and what Europe knows how to deliver.
Patience and a long-term perspective are essential, even as short-term action is required. But part of the challenge also is for Europe to talk bluntly to its longtime ally, the United States. American policy in the Middle East consistently has undermined stability and prospects for peace. Europe could start by confronting the Obama administration with such basic questions as: who exactly are the enemies of America in the Middle East today? Is it Afghanistan? Afghanistan is a poor, ravaged country with an economy smaller than that of the tiny US state of Rhode Island. Is it Iran? Despite all its oil, Iran is a poor country badly in need of development with an economy smaller than that of the state of New Jersey. It has a burgeoning population of young people born after the Islamic revolution and who want a more secular, middle-class existence than the ruling religious clerics can deliver. Change is in the air, but it needs the right sort of push that doesn’t produce an equal and opposite hostile reaction.
Unfortunately, US policy often has resulted in unintended blowback again and again. In one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in American history, the US-led removal of Saddam Hussein delivered the Iraqi government into the hands of Shiites with long-standing ties to Iran. Thanks to that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld folly, the delicate Mideast power balance has tipped somewhat toward Iran.
This in turn has turned into an irrational fear over Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. But even if Iran were to gain nuclear arms, the West could deter it from using them through carrot-and-stick diplomacy, including the threat of a catastrophic retaliatory strike, just as it did with the Soviet Union. This is not appeasement but a realpolitik assessment reached by various US national security experts, including the US Congress’ bipartisan Iraq Study Group and General John Abizaid, President George W. Bush’s former US commander for Iraq and the Middle East region. General Abizaid has stated: “There are ways to live with a nuclear Iran. Iran is not a suicide nation.”
Besides tamping down tensions with Iran, Europe also should encourage the United States to pressure its main Middle East proxy, Israel (recipient of at least $3 billion annually from American taxpayers), to get more serious about negotiating with the Palestinians over a two-state solution. Israeli foot-dragging over Hamas not recognizing Israel’s right to exist might seem justified, but it really just provides a fig leaf over the failures of Israel’s own short-sighted leaders. Nothing will undermine Hamas’ credibility more than making gains in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Israel has much to gain from a peaceful Middle East, as well as to contribute to it. It could become a key economic and technology hub, and lead a regional Renaissance. And a peaceful Middle East and Mediterranean basin, transformed by the emerging democracies and developing economies of the Arab Spring, would contribute much to Europe’s own peace and prosperity. So it’s time for all parties involved to get on with it.
Steven Hill is a political writer and author whose latest book is ‘Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age‘.