Thursday, March 29, 2007

The changing nature of security in the Middle East since 1989

The end of the Cold War marked by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall is regarded as a seminal event in International Relations and had considerable implications throughout the world. One region in particular, the Middle East, will be the focus of this essay as we examine the changing nature of security there since 1989 and which has been marked by three key phases. Firstly, I will argue that a dangerous imbalance in power and capabilities, maintained precariously throughout the Cold War was altered drastically following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The period following the Iraq invasion was marked by the entry of the United States as the main power broker in the region, an influence it used to impose it's own (and to some extent Israel's) vision of a peace process. This led to a period of increased instability, the rise of religious extremism and the increase in the phenomenon of suicide bombings, this period is particularly marked by a re-evaluation of allegiances and priorities by the various countries. The abandonment of individual countries of the frail notion of “Arabism” which had united them reinforced ideas of game theory and Rousseau’s Stag Hunt scenario[1]. The third phase took effect following the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. In this phase, the collapse of Iraq into instability, prompted by the Bush administrations policy of attempting regime change in the region, prompted a number of countries and actors, (Syria, Iran, Hezbullah and Hamas) to “balance” against the United States. Up until this point, the overall tendency for most countries with regards to Iraq had been to “bandwagon” in the words of Waltz[2], with the superpower. However, when the regimes felt themselves threatened, they mostly had to rely on their own abilities and impose a strategic balance of sorts[3]. The results are now visible in the Iraqi quagmire which has humbled the world's only superpower and, in last years conflict in the South of Lebanon, with the tactical defeat of Israel's army by Hezbullah. Our area of analysis, the Middle East, is a vague geographical term encompassing a number of countries, but for this essay we will restrict this to the region which encompasses Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, the Arab Gulf states, Egypt and what is now referred to as Israel by some.

Before we begin however, a word on the scope of the essay. In a region such as we are examining, there is no shortage of information, opinions or events which are constantly emerging. As such, this examination is limited to an analysis of broad currents and trends operating at, but not exclusively to, the state level. The non-state actors we do refer to operate with the support and blessing of various state actors within the region, and their actions are thus interpreted within that context, apart from the notable exception of al-Qaeda. Secondly, security itself is a vague notion which is highly debatable and as such, it’s understanding in this essay is rooted in what is arguably the clearest and most powerful form, the neo-Realist state centered approach.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 marked a major security watershed in the region. As Barnett pointed out in 1998, it exposed the fragile reality of Arab unity and it's rhetoric[4]. It also marked a first for the Arab countries in that one had directly invaded the territory of another, destroying notions of Arab solidarity and unity, while at the same time, marking the beginning of “outsider” interference in the region on a more direct level[5]. Prior to the invasion, the late Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, had warned of a dangerous imbalance in the region with the strengthening of the “Zionist state” at the expense of the Arabs. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also marked by a dramatic increase in Russian Jews emigrating to Israel[6]. Now that the United States was the world's only superpower, he stated, the Arabs (because of their oil), were a target for domination[7]. Whatever his motives for the invasion of Kuwait, his actions meant that “any notions of Arab collective security lay in ruins” as Barnett puts it[8]. At the time, some argued that the invasion of Kuwait had given a pretext for those in the United States' security and defense establishment to justify high defense expenditure[9], however, according to Hadar, the principle purpose of intervention lay mostly in two other factors, the oil rich and hence strategic nature of the threatened Gulf states, and the influence of Israel, the United States' principal ally in the region[10]. This notion was echoed almost a decade later in a controversial paper by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer on the role of the pro-Israel lobby in influencing United States foreign policy[11]. The absence of the Soviet Union on the Middle Eastern arena, according to them, meant a shift in the involvement of the United States from that of “off-shore balancer” to one of “dual containment”[12]. While the US had initially supported various “regional clients” against each other (“off-shore balancing”), this involvement declined as events such as the end of the Cold War, or in Iraq's case, the Iran/Iraq war, minimised their strategic value[13]. For Iraq, the defeat marked the start of a long process of decline accelerated by harsh economic sanctions and frequent coalition air strikes on Iraqi infrastructure leading to the gradual fragmentation of the Iraqi state[14]. That the United States wished to impose a new order on the Middle East was no secret, and influences within and close to the government machinery were to exert a continuous pressure until the 2003 invasion of Iraq which marked the culmination. As Mearsheimer and Waltz put it:

...the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the United States wanted together to shape the Bush administrations' policy towards Iraq, Syria and Iran, as well as it's grand scheme for reordering the Middle East[15].

This embroilment of the world's only superpower in the conflicts of the region served to strengthen Israel's power in the region and forced the various Arab regimes in the region to adapt to new realities. The defeat of Iraq by a broad US-led coalition highlighted the severity of the cracks that had appeared in the security configuration of the Middle East, previously glossed over by the Cold War dichotomy. In addition, the various Arab countries that agreed to join the coalition against Saddam each had their own reasons for doing so, and notions of Pan-Arabism were not on the agenda. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan each supported the invasion in various ways and for their own reasons at the expense of Iraq, from whom they were threatened on a diplomatic, economic and military level[16]. For Syria, the chance arose to ingratiate herself with the new regional hegemon, and this was rewarded by the free hand given to it in Lebanon and renewed hopes of an agreement with Israel concerning the occupied Syrian Golan Heights[17]. Barnett, in 1998, questioned whether it was possible to talk of an end to “Arab politics”, centered around notions of unity and resisting Israeli occupation[18], following the end of the Gulf War. In the end, the Israeli position in the Middle East did indeed become much stronger at the expense of the Arab states and this was to equate to greater leverage on the negotiating table. As Bush Snr. put it, “there can be no substitute for diplomacy” in this new American dominated Middle East. Liberal theories of international relations were to be imposed on the countries of the Middle East under a powerful and unchallenged American hegemony. True to neo-realist game theory, the various countries had indeed sought out their individual interests at the expense of Iraq. To utilise Rousseau's 'Stag Hunt' scenario, the Stag which was Israel was abandoned as the different hunters first one, then the other, settled with an individual hare, leaving the majority hungry[19].

The Arab-Israeli conflict had been simmering throughout the twentieth century since the loss of Palestine to migrant Jewish Zionists in 1948. The defeat of Iraq in 1991, and the rise of the United States and Israel to dominate the Middle East, made possible a drastic realignment of allegiances and positions in the region[20]. As Bush Snr. had promised, diplomacy sponsored by the United States was to be the proverbial name of the game, though the Oslo accords of 1993 allegedly took place without US knowledge[21], still, this may have been more likely due to the precarious position the Palestinian Liberation Organisation found itself in following the war[22] and would have significantly altered their bargaining capacity. In September 13th 1993 the PLO and Israel signed a “Declaration of Principles”; in 1991 an Arab-Israeli conference took place in Madrid; then, in 1994, King Hussein of Jordan signed his country's peace deal with Israel[23]. A final settlement seemed within reach and countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Iran appeared to be increasingly isolated with their bargaining power steadily decreasing[24]. The optimism which surrounded the various peace deals turned out to be short-lived however, as it became quickly apparent that the agreements were heavily weighted towards Israel with little tangible benefits for the Palestinians[25]. One critic, the late Edward Said, argued at the time that as a result of the various peace agreements, “Israel's position is not only stronger but also essentially unchallenged”[26]. The deal was actually unpopular on both sides, though for different reasons, and in 1995 the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated by a Jewish religious extremist intent on stopping the 'peace process'. By 1996 there was open conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, with tensions aided by the election of the hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister[27].

This “American Peace Process”, as dubbed by Said, was driven by a now dominant United States that had it's foreign policy directed mainly by individuals with strong links to pro-Israel lobbies[28]. Should any Arab countries think of opposing this, the harsh sanctions against Iraq served as a “living reminder of daring to defy the United States”[29]. Outrage at this perceived submission to the will of Washington and Tel Aviv by what were considered to be terminally ill Arab governments led to widespread dissatisfaction with the existing political structures. As one Israeli intellectual noted “..the question was no longer whether Oslo had brought peace to the torn land of Israel and Palestine, but rather what price its people had paid for illusions sold to them by shortsighted politicians”[30]. For many, the disillusionment with secular governments only accelerated the rising influence of movements inspired by “Political Islam”. In the Occupied Territories, the use of suicide bombers as a strategic weapon by some of these movements increased dramatically, while the presence of US troops in the Gulf became one of the chief grievances of Osama Bin Laden and what came to be known as al-Qaeda. The “fatuous solemnity” of Bill Clinton as described by Edward Said, reconciling two rivals amidst the “typical American pageantry of 'peace' “ as Pappe called it, was simply not enough to affect change in the Arab-Israeli conflict and ensure peace in the region. Nor could it convince the Palestinians that they had gained any benefit in such an agreement. Events were to show the failure of such shortsightedness with increasing ferocity throughout the nineties as the aura of American hegemony in the region eroded steadily.

If the Iraqi expulsion from Kuwait in 1991 was the starting point of a new understanding of security in the Middle East, then the US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in 2003 marked another major shift. The attacks on September 11th 2001 against the economic and military symbols of the United States triggered what came to be known as the Bush Doctrine. It focused on a number of issues mainly, the impact a state's political system would have on it's foreign policy; preventive war, unilaterally if need be; and an assertion of American “primacy”[31]throughout the world. The original justifications for invading Iraq have faded away, however a central tenet remained, that of the emphasis on regime change in the region and the forcible imposition of democratic forms of government. One could argue this was an aggressive implementation of the neo-liberal democratic peace theory[32]. While the United States had had no qualms in dealing with the existing regimes in the region following the 1991 Gulf War, now, in the new context of what has been called “The War on Terror”, this was no longer acceptable. As Tariq Ali points out, citing from Thomas Friedman, “an iron fisted regime” was needed back then to keep the country together[33], however, after the 11th of September 2001, the United States changed tack, with President Bush promising to “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”[34]. Though evidence linking Iraq to terrorism was flimsy at best, as Walt and Mearsheimer pointed out earlier, influences by neo-conservatives and pro-Israel lobbies were instrumental in encouraging the invasion.

The 2006 Iraq Study Group highlighted the situation that the United States now found itself caught in within Iraq[35]. While the defeat of the remnants of Iraq's once powerful Baath regime under Saddam was rapid, resistance groups, violence by infiltrating al-Qaeda operatives and sectarian violence all undermined any US plans for a democratic Iraq. The threat of regime change had been implicitly aimed at Iran and Syria, something both governments found unacceptable. It was therefore in their interest that plans for a 'democratic' Iraq should not succeed and to a large extent, these plans have failed in part due to their influence. The plan called for including Syria and Iran in future talks, citing the need for using the various “incentives” and “disincentives” available[36]. The report was ignored by President Bush, who announced a troop increase and a more aggressive escalation in operations[37], which was to have little success. As Vali Nasr points out, the elimination of the Iraqi army as a bulwark to Iranian influence removed the last obstacle remaining; the invasion of “Iraq has strengthened Iran and weakened the United States”[38] a sentiment also voiced earlier by the Independent's Fisk[39]. Furthermore, the 2006 Israeli defeat in the south of Lebanon at the hands of Hezbullah in spite of significant damage to Lebanon's infrastructure only further highlighted the inability of the United States' and it's allies to militarily impose their will. The regional hegemon had hit an impasse which it could not easily overcome, by regional actors who had “balanced” against it and, till now, succeeded. It is unclear what impact the nuclear aspirations of Iran will have or how it's enemies would react to it’s continuation[40], but, as the Independent's Cockburn points out, the recent tit for tat kidnappings and capture of Iranian diplomats and British troops respectively marks the continuation of a long simmering tension[41] as it became clear where the new regional power points have begun emerging. The United States appears to have mounted an indirect offensive to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue as well as on regional matters. The region also appears to be heading to a fomented Shia/Sunni split as countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia bandwagon with the United States and it's allies, encouraged into a so-called “alliance of moderation”[42] in 2006 to counter the Iranian/Syrian alliance.

From all this we can deduce a number of things. Firstly, while it does appear the region remains tense, from a neo-realist perspective, some interesting points appear to be emerging. The imbalance of the region dangerously towards Israel as a result of the United States' bias had only served to increase tensions and to some extent fueled extremist religious fundamentalism and terrorism. This was to have world wide implications which none could have expected. However, the fact that the world's only superpower has effectively been strong armed in a violent and seemingly unending occupation in Iraq, along with the humiliating defeat of it's client state Israel last summer, seems to indicate they have reached an impasse. If Iran and it's allies are able to maintain their grip on the United States' pressure points, provided the realisation of this takes hold in government circles within Washington and Tel Aviv, the willingness to negotiate on terms more favourable to both sides could lead to a more acceptable security solution for the region. From this we can deduce that while the “balancers” of Syria and Iran know they cannot decisively defeat the United States and it's allies, they can make victory impossible for them.

In summary, we have examined three key phases in how the security configuration of the region altered dramatically following 1989. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq led to a period of unrivalled US dominance in the region, coupled with a much stronger Israeli position viz. the Arab states and Iran. The second phase involved the attempts at peace-building in the region, however, an “American Peace Process” proved a failure and provoked a campaign of violence and increased tensions. This continued up until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the attempts at imposing a new vision for the Middle East, again from an American viewpoint. However this time Iran and it’s allies, threatened by this new development, balanced the United States and effectively stalled it’s attempts. The nature of security in the region has altered from one dominated by a single regional power and it’s alliance, to one where weaker, smaller states have balanced together for their own interests when these have been threatened.


[1] Cited in Waltz, 2001: 167[2] Cited in Walt, 2006: 96-102[3] Walt, 2006: 96-102[4] Barnett, 1998:[5] Ibid.[6] Yapp, 1996: 500 (Approximately 500,000 had emigrated following the collapse of the Soviet Union up till 1995)[7] Quandt, 1990: 50[8] Barnett, 1998:[9] Hadar, 1990:[10] Ibid.[11] Mearsheimer & Walt, 2005: 29-33[12] Ibid. 34 (Containing both Iraq and Iran)[13] Marr, 2004: 223[14] Marr, 2004: 302[15] Mearsheimer & Walt, 2005: 29[16] Marr, 2004: 240[17] Yapp, 1996: 461-462[18] Barnett, 1998:[19] Cited in Waltz, 2001: 167-168[20] Ibid.[21] Yapp, 1996: 450[22] Pappe, 2004: 265-6 (The loss of Iraq as a backer for the movement and the alienation the groups' support for Iraq had cost it with the other Arab countries.)[23] Ibid.[24] Barnett, 1998: [25] Said, 1996: 8-9[26] Said, 1996: 87[27] Cornwell, 1996: 12[28] Said, 1996: 87-89[29] Ibid.[30] Pappe, 2004: 247[31] Jervis, 2005: 439[32] A liberal theory that democracies are less likely to resort to armed conflict to resolve their differences.[33] Ali, 2002: 142-3[34] Transcript of speech made by US President George W. Bush, “Statement by the President in His Address to the Nation”, 11th September 2001,[35] Baker & Hamilton, 2006[36] Ibid. : 6[37] Fisk, 2007:[38] Nasr, 2007: 40-41[39] Fisk, 2007:[40] Dejevsky, 2007:[41] Cockburn, 2007:[42] Grice, 2006:


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Quandt, W.B. (1990),”The Middle East in 1990”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 70,no. 1, 49-69.

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