BRUSSELS and GENEVA – At the height of the war on Iraq, the paradox in al-Qaeda’s strategy became apparent: in fighting American imperialism, al-Qaeda in the end just managed to reinforce it. The fighting machine set in motion by September 11 ultimately drove home the awesome omnipotence of Washington and the world now has to accept the US’s total domination of the Middle East. The United Nations has been marginalized, and European voices don’t mean much either.
This was the state of things until the Riyadh and Casablanca suicide bombings – al-Qaeda, or its offspring, are not finished, and at the same time the invasion of Iraq is not revealing itself to be the first “domino” of peace in the Middle East, as Washington’s hawks had assumed.
Even in Iraq, there is not even a faint shade of an American dream. The occupying power’s program for post-war stabilization is at best ineffectual, and it’s becoming seemingly impossible for America to convince Iraqis that their dizzying array of problems are the heritage of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Insecurity rules. Only two police stations work in Baghdad. It took the Americans more than a month to start cracking down on the weapons market flourishing in the streets: a fake but very reliable Kalashnikov made in Romania can be bought for less than US$20.
Many parents refuse to let their children back to school, although they opened on May 3: most have been victims of robberies after the fall of the regime. All the ministries – except the Oil Ministry, of course, protected by the Americans – and administrative services have been destroyed. Hospitals are operating at the limit. There are endless queues to buy gas – in a country that holds the second largest oil reserves in the world. Gasoline in the black market is 10 times more expensive than in regular gas stations as Iraq’s current oil production is 10 times lower than before the war. The crippling UN sanctions are still in place. And before it has a functional sovereign government, Iraq’s oil exports cannot resume.
Most of Baghdad has no more than two hours of electricity a day: the grid was hit by American bombing, and decent service still has not been restored. Temperatures are now reaching 35 degrees. Trash has not been collected for more than five weeks. Working phone lines are limited to a few neighborhoods. Water is polluted. And for no apparent reason, the Iraqi dinar has dropped to 1,500 to the dollar (it used to be around 2,500, and almost 3,000 when the regime fell). And in the dollar-based black market, prices have also sky-rocketed.
Some people are hitting back. Taking advantage of the Belgian law of “universal competence”, 17 Iraqis and the widow of the Jordanian al-Jazeera correspondent killed in Baghdad on April 8 by an American missile (Silenced in the name of freedom , April 10), filed a lawsuit last Wednesday in Brussels accusing General Tommy Franks of war crimes. Lieutenant-General Brian McCoy of the 4th regiment, 3rd Marine battalion – the man who “liberated” Paradise Square in front of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad and ordered the decapitation of Saddam’s statue live on world TV – is also charged: according to witnesses, he designated ambulances as legitimate targets suspected of hiding armed combatants. The US State Department considers the Belgian charges “grotesque”.
Iraqis, now with access to a free press, like the newspaper al-Iraq al-Jadid (The New Iraq) and mobilizing themselves around the explosion of at least 70 political parties, are learning a little about their occupiers: How that stellar proponent of Tomahawk diplomacy, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, described Iraq as a country with no history of democracy. So, in Rumsfeldspeak, this means the “reconstruction” and consequent occupation of Iraq could take years, and not the “year or two” that Washington had been floating.
European diplomats in Geneva and Brussels are very much aware of the triumph of the Rumsfeld doctrine over that of Secretary of State Colin Powell. But they wonder whether the US can really be a winner in the new equation. China certainly already is. Washington’s hope for a peaceful solution of the North Korea crisis in fact relies entirely on effective Chinese pressure. While Europe is on the brink of recession, Japan is already in recession and the US economy is sluggish to say the least. All optimistic economic expectations, therefore, fall on China. The financing of America’s deficit is based on Asia buying American Treasury bonds. And this “Asia” increasingly means China, not Japan. In five years, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will control roughly 50 percent of America’s debt(the Bank of China already holds 30 percent).
In spite of the severe acute respiratory syndrome scare, China is holding its ground. At the UN, Beijing maintains its strategy of active support of the developing world, while it hid behind France and Russia during the harsh Iraqi debates. In North Asia, it maximizes its contribution to solve the crisis with North Korea, while in South Asia it continues to support Pakistan militarily, as it always has.
“New Europe” – a hollow concept – might be considered a winner. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and the Baltic states will profit from the the transfer of strategic American bases from Germany to Eastern Europe. Post-communists from Warsaw to Vilnius, from Budapest to Bucharest are pleased. But in Brussels, this Eastern European block about to enter the EU is widely considered by diplomats as a dangerous Fifth Column. Their life won’t be a bed of roses in an EU de facto dominated by the Paris-Berlin alliance. On the other hand, NATO as we know it has all but expired, but at the same time America has just inherited the whole Warsaw Pact, plus the United Kingdom: a sweet deal indeed.
It might be tempting to consider the Arab League a winner. But not from the point of view of the Arab intelligentsia – now plunged in a sea of sadness, humiliation and pain. Abdul Rahman Munif, one of the greatest contemporary Arab novelists, a former exile in Baghdad, deprived for 40 years of his Saudi passport because he is politically incorrect, sums up the mood. “The objective of the war and occupation of Iraq was not only to depose a regime, but to exercise revenge over a country, its history and its civilization, and to reduce its role to nothing.”
From Damascus to Amman, from Cairo to Beirut, Arab intellectuals deplore not only the almost 4,000 civilian victims, the treason of the escaping Iraqi leadership, the obvious absence of weapons of mass destruction, but above all the destruction of the libraries and museums: the places of Mesopotamian memory.
Syrian editorial writer Ali al-Atassi is horrified by much of the West’s lack of cultural and historical knowledge, insisting on a flow of images that “correspond to cliches and myths, presenting the Iraqis as hungry and thirsty Bedouins or like gangs of looters”, neglecting the reality of Iraq as a “middle-class country, of technocrats, of an intelligentsia that we never see”. And the whole debacle, adds Wajih Kawthrani, a Lebanese professor of history, is the Arabs’ fault. “Our elites, political parties, power and regimes have not managed to built a modern state after independence.”
Nader Ferghani, the Egyptian who coordinated the famous United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report over the immense problems in human development in the Arab world, shares the same opinion: “There are those who committed the crime, the Americans, but there are also the ‘accessories’, and these are the Arab regimes. The powerlessness of the Arab regional system was revealed in all its splendor. Now it’s inevitable to finish with the Arab League, to the benefit of a League of the Arab Peoples and civil society organizations.”
But still the Arab League as it is seems to have found a new lease of life. Before the war on Iraq, many analysts believed the new geopolitical core in the Middle East would be Tel Aviv-Ankara-Baghdad. But at least for the moment the new core is actually Cairo-Riyadh. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have tried everything to find a political solution to the Iraqi tragedy: They tried to convince Saddam to go while there was still time, and may have been instrumental in convincing him to abandon his strategy of a siege of Baghdad. Mohsen Khalil, the Iraqi ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo, was a central character in this diplomatic frenzy.
The Cairo-Riyadh alliance also provided crucial support to Bashir Assad of Syria – in exchange for a number of assurances. Cairo tried to accommodate numerous concerns of Sudan, Libya and Yemen. And both Cairo and Riyadh were also crucial in convincing Yasser Arafat to agree to Abu Mazen’s government in Palestine. It may be too early to talk about the emergence of a new Arab diplomacy. But a start has been made. It’s not pro-American and it’s not anti-American – which means it will not be easily interpreted by the more fundamentalist black-or-white hawks in Washington. Anyway, the three absolutely key men to watch in the next stages are Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah: the extremely reasonable and sound Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal; and the chief of the Egyptian secret services, General Omar Sulayman.
The Iranian people may be considered winners – opposed as they are to the Iranian hardcore mullahs. But even this victory of democratic supporters in Iran is not enough to legitimize a vicious Western campaign where Iran is accused of exporting its expiring Islamic Revolution to Iraq. The Shi’ites are the overwhelming majority in Iraq. They have never exercised political power. They consider themselves, above all, Iraqis and Arabs: this is more important than their Shi’ite confessionalism. A taste of things to come may be a political party like the Islamic Movement of Iraq, created in March by a writer, Hamid al-Moktar. He says the party’s goal is “to establish a modern and open democracy, with no extremism, and inside the precepts of Islam, because it is Islam which invented democracy”. The party is fully approved by al-Hawza, the extremely powerful Iraqi assembly of Shi’ite clerics based in Najaf.
Turkey, with its government of moderate Islamists (also pro-Saudi) may have been left in an uncomfortable position. America will not relinquish its relationship with the Turkish army – the eastern flank of NATO. But Turkey could be punished by the International Monetary Fund because its parliamentarians refused to support the American war. The list of victims of American revenge does not stop with Turkey. There’s the South Korean government, which Washington will do everything to marginalize in a political solution for the North Korean crisis; Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien; Mexican President Vicente Fox; and the Chilean government, which will be forced to renounce its free trade deal with the US and strike a deal instead with Mercosur – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, which will boost Latin American unity.
There’s a consensus in diplomatic circles in Brussels and Geneva that the key of the new diplomatic order lies in Europe, and between two crucial players, France and the UK. The UK might follow a line being developed since 1945 which essentially means a “privileged” alliance with the US and a relationship with Europe based exclusively in terms of a consumer market. But Prime Minister Tony Blair’s supreme ambition – and the one he thinks could really place him in the history books – is to position London at the heart of Europe, beside France and Germany. For that, he must start by adopting the euro. The problem is that his base in England is exactly the same one that bitterly criticized him for this stance on Iraq.
Diplomats lament that what happened in France was obviously not understood in the US. The still ongoing France-bashing campaign is just plain silly. The unanimous French “no to war” – a popular sentiment well identified and capitalized by the Jacques Chirac government – was interpreted in Washington as treason. In fact it was the expression, among other things, of a European feeling of geostrategic impotence. But inside Europe, one of the most welcome effects of the Iraqi standoff was the emergence of a renewed Franco-German entente. And only the disinformed may sustain that this is not the real engine of Europe. Any diplomat in Brussels knows that Germany needs a strong partner in France to forge a grand European political coalition – and vice-versa.
France, Germany and Belgium are deeply committed to organize a common European army – and the consensus in Brussels and Geneva is that no matter the spin and pressure from Washington, it will happen. Even in Italy and Spain the increasingly unpopular Silvio Berlusconi and Jose Maria Aznar are both down if not yet out. The future of Europe will basically be decided by the inescapable Paris-Berlin alliance.
Which leaves London and Paris not too much time to sort out their common future. Without crucial help from Paris, Blair cannot steer the UK to become fully European. Without Blair, Chirac will remain exposed to all sorts of petty revenge by American hawks. If they get their act together, Europe will be the true winner. The acid test, and many others, like George W Bush setting his feet on “enemy” French soil, will happen during the G8 meeting in Evian, France, in the beginning of June.