Politics in the Middle East

Stephen DeAngelis

December 29, 2008

With people watching closely to see what happens as a new U.S. administration comes to power, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reminds us that there are a number of political changes blowing in the wind. None are more important than those sweeping the landscape in the Middle East [“Turkey’s Domino Theory,” 21 December 2008]. The focus of Ignatius’ column is a Turkish political strategist named Ahmet Davutoglu and his thoughts about how events might unfold in 2009.

“As Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s leading foreign policy strategist, explains the series of political choices that are ahead in the Middle East next year, he might be describing a row of dominoes. If they fall in the right direction, good things could happen. But if they start toppling the wrong way, watch out.”

My colleague Tom Barnett has described the situation a “Big Bang” that began with the invasion of Iraq. The consequences of the Big Bang are sweeping outwards like ripples caused by a rock thrown into a pond. But whether you call them ripples or dominoes, the effects of political change in the Middle East are inextricably connected. Ignatius recommends that we pay attention to what Davutoglu says because he has been involved in of many of the changes that are now underway. Ignatius writes:

“Davutoglu’s domino theory deserves careful attention from Barck Obama’s team as it thinks about Middle East strategy. The Turkish official knows his stuff. As the top adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he has managed Turkey’s successful mediation between Syria and Israel as well as other delicate diplomacy in this messy part of the world. … Davutoglu has overseen a shift in Turkish diplomacy over the past several years — away from Europe and toward the surrounding region that, until a century ago, was governed from this ancient city. This change of emphasis upsets some Turks, but I’ll get to that later. What’s intriguing about Davutoglu’s analysis is that it involves a series of elections. That’s good news for a region that has had too little democracy. The bad news is that voters may make choices that confound U.S. policy — and that make peace in the region more difficult. ‘We want the world community to understand that these elections are important, and that they will affect the Obama presidency,’ explains Davutoglu.”

The Bush administration came to office with high hopes that it could help create a more stable Middle East. President Bush pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state and for Palestinian elections. The administration’s hopes, however, evaporated as the Muslim world perceived his war on terrorism as a war on Islam. Even the Palestinian elections didn’t help create a more stable environment. Hamas won the elections — much to the chagrin of the Bush administration — and the Palestinians are now deeply divided. Nevertheless, Davutoglu’s list of important regional elections begins with the Palestinians.

“The term of President Mahmoud Abbas expires Jan. 9, and with it, his authority to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas had hoped that his term might be extended for a year as part of a reconciliation with the radical group Hamas. Abbas may instead call for presidential and parliamentary elections early next year. Right now, polls show his Fatah organization ahead of Hamas, 42 percent to 28 percent. But the situation is explosive, quite literally, because Hamas’s cease-fire with Israel expired [in mid-December]. If Hamas votes with rockets, Israelis will become even more pessimistic about a two-state solution.”

The Palestinian/Israeli problem is a stick of dynamite that burns at both ends. The other end of the explosive duo, Israel, is also holding elections.

“Elections will take place Feb. 10 to replace the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Polls are predicting a victory for hard-line Likud candidate Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been a sharp critic of Olmert’s efforts to create a Palestinian state. A Netanyahu victory would complicate U.S. policy choices, to put it mildly. ‘If hard-liners begin to win [among Palestinians and Israelis], that means the issue will be security,’ says Davutoglu. ‘Security will be more important than peace.'”

Security is always the trump card. The international community has understood for years that the key to peace in the Middle East begins with solving the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It is the catalyst that unites Muslim frustrations and America has long been viewed as taking Israel’s side in any conflict in the region. Despite its fervent support of a Palestinian state, the Bush administration managed to deepen long-held Muslim suspicions rather than alleviate them. Next on Davutoglu’s list of elections to watch is Iraq.

“The Jan. 31 local elections could reinforce the accord reached when the Iraqi parliament endorsed a three-year limit on the U.S. military presence. But it could also deepen Iraq’s regional and sectarian tensions — and provoke a new flare-up of violence just as Obama is preparing to withdraw troops.”

That, of course, could affect operations in Afghanistan, because troop increases there will be tied to troop levels in Iraq according to Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wedged between Iraq and Israel are Syria and Lebanon. For decades, Syria has meddled in Lebanon’s political affairs. Analysts expect the Syrians to be active as “Lebanon goes to the polls to elect a new parliament in April, with a final round of voting in June.” According to Ignatius, “Iran and Saudi Arabia already are pumping in tens of millions of dollars to support their favorite candidates.” Iran is the next domino in Davutoglu’s chain:

“In June, a crucial presidential election will take place in Iran, which will determine whether radical President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stays or goes. Davutoglu says his slogan is ‘zero problems on our borders.’ The next few months will test whether that optimistic strategy is viable.”

It’s not just elections that will affect Turkey’s border security. Because of Enterra Solutions’ work in northern Iraq, I have closely followed the problems between Turkey and the rebel Kurdish group known as the PKK. That situation will not be solved by elections this coming year. Yet solving it is important for regional stability and economic progress. Turkey wants to play a significant, if not dominant, role in the region’s economic development. That is one reason it has refocused much of its foreign policy away from Europe and toward the Middle East. Ignatius returns to that subject:

“Not everyone here is enthusiastic about the Turkish government’s new stress on regional diplomacy. Critics argue that although Erdogan is still officially committed to joining the European Union, he is actually abandoning that goal. ‘They have lost enthusiasm on the E.U. All their energy now is on regional politics,’ contends Sedat Ergin, editor of the daily newspaper Milliyet. Some Turks also worry that as Erdogan turns away from Europe, he is becoming less tolerant of his opponents. Critics cite his call in September [2008] for a boycott of Milliyet and other papers that had reported on a corruption case in Germany involving members of his party. ‘His limit of tolerance for freedom of the press and freedom of expression is pretty low,’ argues Soli Ozel, a columnist for Sabah newspaper. Davutoglu stresses that Turkey’s new regional role isn’t a throwback to the days of the Ottoman pashas. The world has changed. Democracy rules. But that doesn’t guarantee people will vote the way the United States wants.”

People vote first for security (which often translates to voting along ethnic lines) then for their pocketbooks. The broad community of democratic states needs to convince fledgling democracies that stability and prosperity are best pursued through moderate policies and increased tolerance. They need only look at Iran to see how intolerance and radical policies have depressed what should be one of the region’s best economies. I don’t expect 2009 to be a peaceful year, but it will be an interesting one.