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Kissingers of Arabia
Renaissance for Autocracy

Burnishing an old favorite

It’s all coming full circle. The American dream of a democratic Middle East is surrendering to old nightmares of autocracy from Iraq to Lebanon by way of Syria and Iran. It hadn’t been much of a dream to start with, not because its intentions weren’t desirable, but because its duplicity doomed it. The Bush administration couldn’t pretend to want democracy in Iraq or Lebanon while abetting dictatorial-like regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, babysitting disintegration in Afghanistan and virtually flaunting indifference at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, source and subconscious of all Mideastern nightmares.

Arabs are in an economic, political and cultural dark age — some of it of their own making, plenty of it not: Only short and western memories hew to the convenience of forgetting that every political boundary from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush is the creation of European powers. But Arabs have long memories. Less than a century ago, France and Britain thought they could impose their will on the Middle East by drawing lines where they pleased and declaring king whom they picked. Woodrow Wilson’s genius had been to stay out of what he correctly saw as a gamble with calamity. He knew colonialism’s spoils for what they were: rot, with compound interest. Other American presidents until Eisenhower adopted Wilson’s hands-off approach, watching his cautions prove true.

The French and the British never tried to remake the Middle East in their image; they had neither the idealism nor the desire. They only had the means, or thought they had the means, to muscle the Middle East in their interest. They failed. They created a mosaic of powder kegs. And left the United States to pick up the pieces, with oil as the all-powerful lure. Beginning in the 1960s, that’s just what the United States began doing, but with its own brand of “realism”: Work with repressive regimes, not against them — as long as they work with you. And triangulate between Israel and its Arab enemies. That’s the Kissinger doctrine, in a nutshell.

The end of the cold war should have taught the West a good lesson: It’s not a bad idea to wait out tyrannical regimes, whether they’re the Soviet Union or Iraq. Isolated, bankrupt, they eventually crumble under their own weight. The democratic sweep started by the fall of the old Soviet Union might have spread to the Middle East, if only there’d been enough patience. Instead, there was George W. Bush and that old flammable mixture of hubris, divine right and lust for oil, which he thought could yield miracles as long as the U.S. military could lead the way. The result was good-old European-style overreach, with America left alone to hold the bloody bag.

What’s so remarkable — and depressing — about the unraveling is how familiar it all is: The assassinations, the fears of civil war, the American deal-making with old authoritarian stand-bys in order to make surrender look like that Nixonian phrase of Vietnam vintage, “peace with honor.” Who would have thought that the American way out of Iraq would have to cross toll booths controlled by so-called axis-of-evil countries — Syrian and Iran? Who would have thought that Lebanon would again be sacrificed to deal-making?

Sixteen years ago, James Baker III was the first President Bush’s secretary of state, in charge of putting together the military coalition that would oust Saddam from Kuwait. Baker wanted the Syrian army to be part of the coalition. He succeeded. In exchange, the United States would turn a blind eye to Syrian designs on Lebanon. What Syria had been unable to achieve since 1976 because of French and American opposition — occupy all of Lebanon — it achieved in 1990, as the Americans and their Arab allies “liberated” Kuwait.

The Lebanese managed to boot out Syria after almost 30 years of occupation last year. But pro-democracy forces in Lebanon — an indigenous force, unlike Iraq’s — have just suffered their sixth assassination in less than two years. And Baker is back in the Middle East, brokering new deals. Among them: Handing Lebanon back to Syria, through Syria’s protégé in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which is also backed by Iran. In exchange, Syria and Iran split Iraq’s security between them and let the United States decamp, “with honor,” while presumably preventing an Iraqi Rwanda.

And there you have it. The circle is complete. The authoritarians, the tyrants, the regressives are back in control from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. By foolishly rushing it, President Bush set back democracy in the Middle East for who knows how many generations, ensuring a longer dark age instead. And still, and as always, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bubbles and seethes, the Middle East’s eternal, sleepless volcano.

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