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Gaza | davelovell.net
Nov 202012

Hun­dreds of years ago I was a young Marine enjoy­ing brief vis­its to var­i­ous ter­ri­to­ries through­out the Mid­dle East at the behest of the State Depart­ment.  My polit­i­cal expo­sure to that region in the wan­ing years of the Cold War left many indeli­ble impres­sions, but recent events have led me to real­ize that new par­a­digms are called for.

The con­flict unfold­ing in the Gaza Strip takes place against a starkly dif­fer­ent regional back­drop than the last round of fight­ing in late 2008 and early 2009. The old regional order that existed then has been swept away, replaced with a new order which is uncer­tain and, until now, untested. This emerg­ing cri­sis will be the first such test, and will reveal much about how the recent years’ upris­ings have affected key regional actors and the rela­tions among them.

The old order in the Mid­dle East was founded on mutual inter­ests, and looked some­thing like a hub-and-spoke alliance sys­tem with the United States at its cen­ter. U.S. allies in the region shared, above all, an inter­est in sta­bil­ity and eco­nomic pros­per­ity, though each defined sta­bil­ity dif­fer­ently. For Wash­ing­ton, sta­bil­ity required polit­i­cal and eco­nomic reform; for our allies, it often meant the preser­va­tion of an increas­ingly shaky sta­tus quo.

Israel was a key part of this alliance, and coop­er­ated openly with some regional states, and tac­itly with oth­ers, through the good offices of the United States. Israel and Washington’s Arab allies largely shared a desire to counter and deter Iran and its prox­ies and com­bat ter­ror­ist groups in the region; many applauded pri­vately or openly when Israel dealt a blow to Hezbol­lah in the first days of the 2006 Lebanon war or destroyed a nuclear reac­tor in Syria in 2007.

The new regional order in the Mid­dle East is dif­fer­ent, but pre­cisely how and how much is unclear. Two things in par­tic­u­lar are uncer­tain. First, how do lead­ers in the region — espe­cially new lead­ers such as Egypt­ian Pres­i­dent Morsi — now per­ceive their national inter­ests? In impor­tant ways, these inter­ests have not changed with the Arab upris­ings. Armed mili­tias in the Sinai, for exam­ple, are just as apt to tar­get Egypt­ian sol­diers and inter­ests as they are Israel, and the per­cep­tion of insta­bil­ity or extrem­ist sen­ti­ment in the region will deter invest­ment and tourism des­per­ately needed to revive the Egypt­ian economy.

On the other hand, Pres­i­dent Morsi’s polit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions and the ide­ol­ogy of his Mus­lim Broth­er­hood fac­tion mil­i­tate against even tacit coop­er­a­tion with Israel. Morsi and his gov­ern­ment had appeared to be lean­ing in the direc­tion of prag­ma­tism until now, but send­ing Prime Min­is­ter Kandil to Gaza — like Turkey’s dis­patch of a flotilla to Gaza in 2010 — is more stunt than strat­egy. The Gaza cri­sis will test whether Morsi , along with other lead­ers in the region, will place ide­ol­ogy over interests.

The sec­ond ques­tion lin­ger­ing about the new regional order con­cerns the U.S. place in it. Washington’s dif­fi­dence in the face of the tur­moil in the Mid­dle East over the last two years, com­bined with the “pivot” to Asia, has con­veyed the impres­sion that the US is not pre­pared to con­tinue its bro­ker­ing role in the region. This suits some regional lead­ers just fine; the lead­ers of Egypt and Iran dis­agree on many things, but they share a desire to see Amer­i­can influ­ence in the Mid­dle East recede. For U.S. allies, how­ever, it raises the trou­bling ques­tion as to whether Wash­ing­ton can be counted on to act firmly to advance our mutual interests.

This uncer­tainty has already led to the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the “hub and spoke” sys­tem, which has been replaced, roughly speak­ing, by the for­ma­tion of smaller regional coali­tions act­ing inde­pen­dently (for exam­ple, the GCC inter­ven­ing in Bahrain) and jock­ey­ing with one another for pre­em­i­nence. This is most evi­dent in the case of Turkey, which rather than turn­ing West or East has sought regional lead­er­ship, which has meant repu­di­at­ing its erst­while alliance with Israel.

While the first signs of this strate­gic shift in the region are evi­dent, it is not inevitable that it should con­tinue. Wash­ing­ton should craft its response to the Gaza cri­sis to rein­force its posi­tion and alliances in the region.

First, the United States should demon­strate strong sup­port for Israel. The Obama admin­is­tra­tion took a wel­come first step in this direc­tion by issu­ing state­ments affirm­ing Israel’s right to defend itself and hold­ing Hamas account­able for the fight­ing and for the suf­fer­ing of Pales­tini­ans under their mis­rule. Behind the scenes, the admin­is­tra­tion will need to work closely with Israel to help it to define con­crete objec­tives for the oper­a­tion and accom­plish them quickly and deci­sively. Once the fight­ing stops, the United States and Israel should pri­vately develop a real­is­tic and shared approach to Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sec­ond, Wash­ing­ton should prac­tice some realpoli­tik with Egypt, Turkey, and other regional allies. Any strong alliance is based on shared inter­ests. Given the changes in the region, we should not sim­ply assume that the region’s new lead­ers share our con­cep­tion of these shared inter­ests, but should enu­mer­ate them explic­itly through strate­gic bilat­eral dia­logues. Iden­ti­fy­ing such mutual inter­ests should not be dif­fi­cult — issues like ter­ror­ism and Iran­ian sup­port for the Syr­ian regime are of con­cern to both the United States and our regional part­ners. The United States should insist, how­ever, that our allies act on the basis of these inter­ests rather than sim­ply acknowl­edg­ing them in pri­vate, espe­cially in times of cri­sis. It is in this con­text that dis­cus­sions of aid should take place. Our eco­nomic and mil­i­tary assis­tance should be seen — in Wash­ing­ton and abroad — nei­ther as char­ity or com­pen­sa­tion for fur­ther­ing Amer­i­can inter­ests, but as a pol­icy tool to fur­ther shared interests.

Third, the United States should offer ener­getic and deter­mined lead­er­ship through­out the cri­sis to ensure that its con­clu­sion advances our inter­ests and those of our allies. The Obama administration’s first steps have been pos­i­tive, but there will be much more work to do at the United Nations to ensure that any even­tual cease­fire is sus­tain­able and enhances regional secu­rity; to encour­age Arab allies in the short term to press Hamas to de-escalate and take respon­si­bil­ity for the activ­i­ties of ter­ror­ist groups within Gaza, and in the longer term to shift all of their sup­port to the Pales­tin­ian Author­ity; and in doing so, ensure that the ulti­mate result of the con­flict is to put Israelis and Pales­tini­ans alike closer to peace and secu­rity, rather than deeper in turmoil.


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