By Omer Taspinar, Today's Zaman
Yes, every administration comes to power determined to repudiate its predecessor's failed policies and there is no doubt that the Bush administration saw Clinton's efforts on the Arab-Israeli front as failed attempts. But at least the Clinton administration tried.
After toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, the Bush administration had a small window of opportunity. Georges W. Bush could have easily emulated his father by calling for an international Middle East conference, similar to the one held in Madrid after the First Gulf War in 1991. I guess the president once again preferred to listen to a "higher" father rather than his own. Today, what US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is trying to put together in Annapolis is coming four years too late. The brief window of opportunity that presented itself in 2003, when America looked able and willing to seriously transform the Middle East, has passed.
The war in Iraq has changed the Middle East in ways radically different than Washington expected. When the US government toppled Saddam Hussein, it hoped regime change would bring democracy to Iraq and the region. The road to Jerusalem was supposed to pass from Baghdad, as many neo-conservatives proudly declared. Instead, America's fiasco helped launch a broad Shiite revival. By creating the first Shiite-led state in the Arab world since the 12th century, the US ignited aspirations among some 150 million Shiites in the greater Middle East. Not surprisingly the big winner in all this has been Iran, the Shiite regional superpower.
Today, Iran, is in a very powerful position vis-à-vis Washington. In addition to its quest for nuclear power, Tehran is in the driver's seat in the most crucial issue of the Arab world: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ahmadinejad's seemingly irrational anti-Israel rhetoric and his ownership of the Palestinian cause has in fact marginalized the Sunni-Arab regimes at the expense of Tehran's valuable clients, Hamas and Hezbollah. In adopting such tactics, Iran not only successfully challenged Israel (and Washington) in Lebanon and Palestine, but also masterfully diverted attention from its own nuclear agenda. And just in case we forget, Tehran continues to exert maximum political influence in Baghdad.
It is in such a context that Washington is now urgently engaged in some crisis management and damage control. There is a growing need to contain Iran's influence in the region and to break Tehran's monopoly over the Palestinian question. As recently as earlier this year, Washington still seemed willing to subcontract its Middle East diplomacy to Saudi Arabia. It was Riyadh that summoned clashing Palestinian factions to Mecca for make-or-break talks to form a unity government in March. The goal was clear: to reassert Arab ownership of the Palestinian issue. Similarly dynamics were at play in Lebanon where Riyadh's support bolstered Fouad Siniora's Sunni government against Hezbollah's effort to topple it. Both of these developments in Palestine and Lebanon were in fact clashes between Iran and Saudi Arabia backed by the United States. Yet, little was achieved on both fronts. The Mecca accords ended with the fiasco of war between Fatah and Hamas leading to Hamas supremacy over Gaza. This was certainly not the ideal two state solution Washington had in mind for the peace process. Things are only slightly better on the Lebanese front where Syria and Iran are still exerting serious pressure over the presidential election process.
Under such circumstances, Washington had to engage itself instead of outsourcing its diplomacy to Riyadh. The problem, however, is that neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are ready for a major breakthrough. Mahmoud Abbas is unable to speak for the majority of Palestinians. The fact that Hamas is absent in Annapolis may end up bringing more prestige to the radical wing of the Palestinian movement. Ehud Olmert, for his part, desperately tries to stay relevant as his rivals are gaining more and more political traction. Perhaps most tragic of all is the fact that Washington itself has lost relevance.