Sunday, March 28, 2004

The Smell of Fear

The Arab League summit, scheduled to be held in Tunisia has been cancelled ostensibly because the Arab Ministers could not agree on an agenda to discuss regional political reform, but in truth because no government wants to take a public position on the assassination of Hamas leader Yassin. The public reasons were given thus:

Near midnight yesterday, a spokesman for Tunisia's Foreign Ministry appeared on television. "It became clear that there was a variance of positions on ... proposals related to fundamental issues on modernization, democratic reform, human rights and the rights of women," the statement said. "Tunisia strongly regrets the postponement of this summit ... considering the delicate situation through which the Arab nation is going and the deadlock of the Palestinian issue after the recent tragic events."

Yet even before the cancellation, the attendees could not have been less enthusiastic than if they had received an engraved invitation in black from the Grim Reaper himself.

Signs of disintegration were evident in the days leading up to the summit: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah and the top members of Bahrain's ruling family decided to skip the trip to Tunis. Soon the heads of Oman and the United Arab Emirates followed suit. Syria remained staunchly opposed to any peace talks with Israel and to bowing to U.S. pressures on reform.

The problem was simple. The US expected the Arab leaders to discuss wide ranging political reforms at the summit, a code phrase for ridding themselves of the worst aspects of Islamism and tyranny at the same time when the Palestinian delegation and their Islamist allies expected the Arab leaders on the occasion to roundly condemn the Israeli assassination of Yassin. The Middle Eastern heads of state had a choice between enduring the baleful stare of the 800 pound American gorilla or angering the militant factions back home, who had a penchant for writing out their disapproval in lead letters, as Anwar Sadat discovered. Al Jazeera laid it on thick:

Palestinian Minister for Negotiation Affairs Saib Uraiqat on Sunday said the postponement would encourage Israel to increase its attacks against Palestinians. "I am afraid that this will bring dangerous consequences since it comes after the assassination of Shaikh (Ahmad) Yasin and the US using the veto in the (UN) Security Council (against a draft resolution) condemning the assassination," he said. "We are afraid that this will allow Israel to carry out even bigger or large-scale actions against the Palestinians."

So they engaged in the diplomatic equivalent of collectively taking the 5th. And by staying home and doing nothing yielded the initiative to both America and the Islamists. The mass stampede stampede of Arab leaders into their bolt-holes illustrates how Middle Eastern potentates, even more than European leaders, have come to fear the turn of events. Clearly the old formula of rechanneling domestic unrest by tacitly supporting anti-Americanism has reached the end of its usefulness to the Middle Easter tyrants. Or rather, it has reached the logical conclusion whose consequences they must now endure.

Neither Europe's old game of triangulation -- a grand name for unscrupulous scavenging -- nor the Middle Eastern ploy of making America both guarantor and enemy can be continued for much longer. Even if Sharon is ousted from the Israeli leadership, developments since September 11 have doomed the ancien regime. The old elite is out of moves. Even more suicide bombings will represent a continuation of the same old failed policies, a deepening of the pit rather than a way out. They may hope that a John Kerry victory in November will reset the clock to balmy years of Bill Clinton, but perhaps even that will prove too late to stem the tide.

Addendum at 1400 Z

Egypt has said it will host the Arab summit. And despite spin from Reuters it may be the United States which is forcing the pace and urging the reluctant return to the discussion table. CNN says.

Mubarak notified Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of the offer. Foreign ministers from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have requested the summit take place before June so the Arab leaders can reach an agreement before the upcoming Group of Eight (G8) summit.

Reuters had insinuated in its coverage that the cancellation of the summit was a result of American heavy-handedness at a time of Arab mourning. It suggested that the Tunisians called off the meeting when their leader was strong-armed by President Bush into foisting an insensitive agenda upon the Arab leaders.

"Ben Ali was asked to deliver a certain scenario at the summit and, when it was clear that he couldn't deliver, the Tunisians announced they were calling it off," said the Gulf delegate, citing a report from his foreign minister. ... Diplomats said some Arab leaders were worried that the summit could not meet Arab popular demand for strong decisions on key issues such as the occupation of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Reuters scenario of a junior player like Tunisia whipping Egypt and Syria into line is less likely than the Arabs being motivated by the need to show progress before the G8 meeting, when the US is expected to formally inaugurate the Middle East reform process and probably offer a financial reward in exchange. It would also explain Mubarak's role. According to White House archives President Bush had held nearly sequential meetings with G8 leaders in 2003 (June 1 and 2) before flying to the Middle East to meet with Middle Eastern leaders (June 3). His Arab host on that occasion was -- Hosni Mubarak -- the very man who is now salvaging the Arab summit. It is possible that the Middle Eastern leaders, then quaking in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad's fall, should have then proposed a deal to be sealed a year hence.

But what must have seemed a commutation from certain execution may now look like a bad deal. Efforts by the Left to hamstring Bush and the possibility of his defeat at Kerry's hands has opened an escape hatch. If the Arab leaders could give Bush some half-answer, they might hold out until a more congenial and less demanding administration took control in Washington. In just 8 more months another half century of convenient tyranny in the Middle East might yet be assured. The death of Yassin, however, may have dumped sand in the gears in more ways than one by making it difficult for Arab leaders to present even the appearance of accommodation with Washington. The challenge before the Arab summiteers is now to find enough ways to run out the time with small talk, leaving President Bush to go on to G8 with less than a full deck of cards.

With such an unstable situation, anything can happen. Hamas has vowed to retaliate for the Yassin killing and the Israeli offensive against terrorist leaders is still on. Another exchange of fire between Hamas and Sharon would scatter the summit like a pile driver on a rack of balls in an opening break. It has ever been thus, and every negotiation has had to live in the shadow of violence in a region where politics is war by other means.