Jordan and regional geopolitics

Jordan, location of Wednesday’s very lethal bombings at three hotels, is in many ways a highly improbable country. It was created in the post-WW-1 carve-up of that part of the previous Ottoman Empire– primarily to be given as a sort of “consolation prize” to a branch of the Hashemite family that had previously been offered thet part of western Saudi Arabia that contains the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina…
But wouldn’t you know it, the warrior-dynast Abdel-Aziz ibn Saud insisted on staying on in that part of the Arabian peninsula. Insisted it belonged to his family, not anyone else’s. (And certainly that it wasn’t for the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas to give it away to anyone else.). So the Hashemites were left to wander like Moses in the desert…
But not for very long. The Brits rapidly installed one Hashemite leader in “Transjordan”, as it was then called, and they tried to install another in Damascus. But the French weren’t having any of that, so that one was shuttled over and recycled into Iraq, instead…
You get the picture? Behind a rhetoric that intermittently talked about the need for the “self-determination” of local Arab populations– as against their earlier rule by Istanbul– the British Colonial Office chappies (and uber-chapette Gertrude Bell) were busy playing “musical kings” all around the region… “And when the music stops you all stay where you are.”
Layered onto that, of course, was the (gasp!) imperial rivalry between the British and French. Did you ever look at a “political map” of this region and wonder why (1) so many of the borders between the states there are perfectly straight lines, or (2) why there’s a funny squarish tab of “Jordan” that extends east-north-east a little bit, up to join Iraq? All that is the result of intense negotiations– between the British and the French. (Self-determination? Well, I guess it depends what the meaning of “self” is.)
As for that tab that links Jordan to Iraq, the explanation for that is quite simple. It’s called an oil pipeline. If you drive along that long, extremely boring desert road there you pass through places with the quaint “names” of H-2, H-3, H-4, etc… Pumping stations that became way-stations and then ragged little towns.
Well, in the late 1990s, the Project for a New American Century and other pro-Likud neocons started pushing for their own, more recent version of Middle Eastern “musical kings”. This was the approach sometimes known as “Everybody Move Over One” (see, e.g., here.) Under EMOO, Israel would get to keep the West Bank. The Palestinians– who have been squeezed very hard in the West Bank since 1967 and have long constituted a numerical majority in Jordan– would “get” Jordan. And the Hashemites would play another round of musical kings and “get” Iraq.
Except it hasn’t really worked out that way yet, has it? Instead, what we seem to be seeing in the region is the unfolding of an EMOO theory that– like all the indigenous writing systems of this region– moves from right to left, rather than left to right. The Iranians– who didn’t even really feature in EMOO-Mark 1– have majorly extended their influence westward into Iraq. That has squeezed the Sunni Arabs of Iraq… And now, using the network of linkages that’s always existed between western Iraq and Jordan, the chaos and violence from Iraq have been bleeding over into Jordan, too.
No, I am not saying that this means that in the near future the Palestinians will suddenly be able to push westward back against the Likud and establish their own power in the West Bank. But I do think we can draw a few broader and more general lessons from what has been happening:

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Jordan (and again, Iraq)

Do I need to write anything here to note how grotesque the thinking was of the people who organized and undertook suicide bombings against the three hotels in Jordan yesterday.
In at least one of the hotels, most of the people were killed were participants in a wedding feast. It is widely known in all the Arab countries that have big US-franchised hotels that one principal use of the ballrooms in such hotels is for wedding parties held by well-heeled (and sometimes not so well-heeled) members of the local community. Why bomb them? Why bomb civilian targets at all?
If the “grievance” of the bombers is with members of the local business or political community who might be profiting from the war in Iraq, there would be so many better ways of organizaing against that phenomenon. Through mass, nonviolent social action to force political change at the national level, for example…
But killing participants in a wedding feast? That is simply inhumane.
59 people died in those three bombings.
And today in Iraq, bombers killed 42 people at a restaurant… troops found 27 decomposing bodies near the Iranian border… and the US military proudly announced it had killed 37 “insurgents”.
Visiting British Foreign Minister Jack Straw was quoted as saying, “This is a very exciting time to visit Iraq.”
Tasteless? I’d say.

Israeli and Syrian prezes making nice

So there was Israel’s figurehead president, Moshe Katsav, at the Pope’s funeral in Rome, reaching out to shake hands not only with Iranian President Muhammad Khatemi but also with Syria’s Bashar al-Asad.
(That’s one thing big state funerals are excellent for: throwing unlikely seatmates close to each other.)
The BBC, citing israel radio, reported that,

    Mr Katsav first shook hands with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as the funeral ceremonies began.
    The Syrian president was seated one row behind Mr Katsav.
    The report said Mr Assad later initiated a second handshake as the funeral ended.
    Mr Katsav, who was born in Iran, is also reported to have exchanged words in his native Farsi with the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami.

Actually, Katsav and Khatemi come from the same hometown, Yazd.
Later, Katsav, who has no executive power but is reported to be widely respected in Israel, told a web-reporter for the Israeli daily Maariv that he had

    urged the country’s leaders to take up a Syrian offer to renew peace talks.
    Moshe Katsav rejected Israeli official objections which said Syria’s overture transmitted via UN Middle East envoy Terje Roed-Larsen was insignificant.
    “In my opinion it is important and worthwhile to thoroughly check out the intentions of (Syrian President) Assad,” he told the Maariv daily.
    Mr Assad said he was willing to resume talks with Israel without conditions.

Well, that’s from the BBC’s renedering of the story.
A return to Israeli-Syrian negotiations? Who knows? The two parties got very close indeed to a final peace agreement back when Rabin and Peres were prime ministers in Israel, in 1994-96. In 1994 Rabin gave the Clinton administration an undertaking called “the pocket” that informed the Americans that actually, deep down, his government was indeed ready to withdraw from all the territory of Syrian Golan that Israel had held under military occupation since the June war of 1967– though in return for a full peace and some fairly severe disarmament conditions that Syria would have to abide by.
Then, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist (November 1995). Then, Peres somewhat seriously misplayed his political hand and lost the election of June 1996. Then, Bibi Netanyahu took “the pocket” off the table. (That much, you can read about in my 2000 book that covered the negotiations from 1991-96.)
Then, in 1999, Mr. Wise-Guy Ehud Barak was elected PM in Israel. However he was just a little too big for his boots, that one, and thought he could pull something off with the older President Asad by sort of pretending to put “the pocket” back on the table, but actually not doing so. (He’d skimmed a vital hundred-meter-wide strip off what he was prepared to “give back” to Syria, running around the northeast segment of the Sea of Galilee/Lake Kinneret. Did he think Hafez al-Asad wouldn’t notice the difference?)
Well, so then Hafez al-Asad keeled over and died. Ehud Barak was such an incompetent pol that he completely lost his ruling coalition in almost record time for Israel and then lost an election to Ariel Sharon…. And there things have stood till now.
I personally don’t expect a big change. But I’d love to be proved wrong.

Arab attitudes on US, UK, France, terrorism

The Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan has recently come out with an intriguing report on the attitudes of people in five key Arab societies (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria) toward, respectively, the US, the UK, and France.

Here is an 89-page PDF file of the findings and here is the 8-page “Executive summary”.

The surveys were conducted between March and June 2004 on four samples in each of the five Mashreq countries:

    1. A representative national sample of 1200 respondents

    2. A university students sample of 500 respondents

    3. A business sample of 120 respondents

    4. A media sample of 120 respondents

It is worth noting that the (apparently fairly lengthy) interviews in question were conducted between June and March of 2004. For Lebanon and Syria it is significant that that period was before the emergence of the whole issue about resolution 1559. For all the countries, it’s significant that that period included the time when the Abu Ghraib abuses were coming prominently into the public domain.

I wish the people at CSS could have pulled that data together faster and gotten it out a lot earlier– also, that they could now be presenting us with more recent data than this.

(On the other hand, I’m so behind with writing my Africa book that I am in no position at all to “throw stones” on this issue of the speed of presenting one’s findings… )

I was really enjoying reading the detail in the long version of the report. For example (p.40) seeing the figures on the percentage of people in each of those countries who are unable to name any non-political personalities in each of the western countries. And there is a wealth of further detail in there, too.

However, the short version gives this summary of the findings of the survey:

    The study draws seven conclusions:

    1) Arabs hold coherent notions of what constitute the values of Western and Arab
    societies. They associate the West with individual liberty and wealth, while they
    view themselves as emphasizing religion and family.

    2) Arab perceptions of Western societal and cultural values do not determine their
    attitudes toward Western foreign policies.

    3) Religion is not the basis of tension between Arabs and the West.

    4) The Arab world does not reject the professed goals of the West

Radical change in Arab world

Nearly all Arab-world political systems have become completely ossified over recent decades. The last time there was a major, region-wide series of shifts was around 1970. That was the year, for example, that Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel-Naser died and– within days of that occurrence– the relatively conservative “corrective movement” wing of the Syrian Baath Party headed by Hafez al-Asad took over from the much more populist and radical wing of the party that had preceded it.
The PLO guerrillas got chased out of Jordan that year, too. Altogether, the shifts of 1970 were toward much more cautious, status-quo-preserving powers taking over. Saddam Hussein, who was consolidating his grip on power in Iraq at that time, was part of that trend.
Anwar as-Sadat, who came in that year, was assassinated in 1981 and was succeeded by his Vice-President Hosni Mubarak, who has made a point of not naming his own VP since then. (I wonder why not?)
Hafez al-Asad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar, a.k.a. at the time, “the default option”. Nothing very new there. Of course, the western media which often tends to go gaga over youthfulness, thought that Bashar’s youth itself was sufficient to qualify him for being a visionary innovator. How wrong can you be? (As I noted at the time.)
Arafat, wily old survivor that he was, succumbed to some physical cause last year. In that case, my theory that youthfulness often signifies only increased caution was amply rewarded, since the notably un-youthful Abu Mazen has been considerably bolder and more sure-footed politically than the (other) “Old Man”.
Oops, I forgot Saddam. He got toppled almost two years ago, and has been replaced by…. Who knows what?
Well anyway, a major emerging trope in the so-called “coverage” of the western new media has become that the “implantation of democracy” in Iraq has led to a gathering cascade of democratization throughout the region… Starting with elections in Palestine (everyone conveniently forgetting or downplaying the successful elections there in 1996, which led politically to a resounding success for Arafat and diplomatically to a total dead end. RIP.)… Carrying on with the much-lionized “red and white revolution” in Beirut (western media people conveniently neglecting the extremely large, yellow-flagged Hizbullah demonstrations in Beirut of ten days ago)… And now, there’s even Hosni Mubarak saying (gulp!) he’ll allow competitive elections in Egypt at the end of the year!!!!
How much substance– and what substance, exactly– is there in all this?
Well, it sure is interesting to live in a time when history, the march of which has been stayed by US-backed stasis and conservatism for the past 35 years, suddenly starts galloping into fast-forward.
One thing I really don’t understand, though, is the shallowness and wishful thinking of all the commentators here in the States who look at what’s happening and say something very simplistic like, “Oh, people power! Great! That’s bound to come out in a pro-US way because the people there will all see how much the US has done for them!”
One first thing to note is that, for all the western swooning over the “success” of Iraq’s election on January 30, the winners in that election have thus far not been allowed by the occupation forces to come to power at all!
(And meanwhile, Allawi’s puppet government has been passing decrees to clamp down on civil society, etc. What possible “legitimacy” can such steps have at this point, I wonder?)
As a US citizen, I see my main task as being to continue pushing hard for the ending of the illegitimate US diktat over Iraq, and the implementation there of the Iraqi people’s will. Right now. No excuses.
But I’m also happy to look at the other countries in the region where the US is active….

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Middle Eastern powder keg

The post I put up here yesterday was not optimally organized. That’s one problem of having to work over a very slow internet connection… Anyway, the latter half of it included some observations about the precariousness of the geostrategic situation all the way from Lebanon to Afghanistan that I think are worthy of having their own separate post. So here, lightly re-edited, they are (again).

What I can say, just sitting here with my eyes and
ears open and thinking about this complex region of the world, is that the
regional situation seems fairly dangerous and potentially explosive. One
reason is that all the competing forces are suddenly so deeply intermingled
all the way from here to Afghanistan…

Lebanon, as I’ve noted here before, has for long been a battleground between
its two kmore powerful neighbors, Israel and Syria, both of whom tend to
view what goes on here as pretty much a zero-sum game. Allied to Israel,
of course, you have the US, which has its own extremely schizophrenic relationship
with Syria… So here in Lebanon, you have a very tense situation over the (Syrian-motivated)
extension of Pres. Lahoud’s mandate for a further three years. Plus, the Security
Council’s passage of Resolution 1559 which called for a quick withdrawal
of Syria’s remaining forces from here plus the disbanding of Hizbollah. Plus,
the ugly escalation of Syrian or Syrian-inspired moves like the assassination
attempt against Marwan Hamadeh ten days ago…

Personally, having watched the Syrians’ moves here for 30 years now, I’d
say they’re acting as if they’re feeling extremely spooked and edgy… I
mean, prolonging Lahoud’s term was really unnecessary and stupid. It
was almost bound to provoke a backlash here, and as many Lebanese have said,
the Syrians could have found a dozen other presidential candidates just as
willing as Lahoud to dance to their tune, so why bother with the whole extension
business at all?

Okay, so why might the Syrians be spooked and edgy? Perhaps because
they have the US army sitting along their very lengthy eastern border with Iraq,
and many leading US political figures still openly urging “regime change”
in Syria as the next step? Plus, they also have the Mossad undertaking
anti-Hamas assassination actions in the heart of downtown Damascus and thus
majorly spooking the regime. The Israelis killed one Hamas guy there
not so long ago; and yesterday the Syrians said they’d smoked out a second
cell of Mossad-directed agents who were planning to kill the overall Hamas
head Khaled Meshaal… Oh, and let’s not forget the admitted presence of
some Mossad people with the Kurds in northern Iraq, and the Syrian regime’s
huge concerns about attempts to mobilize their own Kurdish population against

Lots of reasons for unease, fear, and perhaps a resulting tendency to general
overreaction there, I’d say…

Okay, moving further east we then have Iraq. Do you think the Americans stretched out like sitting ducks throughout the country are feeling uneasy and fearful, and prone to over-reaction? I’d
say so!

And then, moving further east still, Iran. Reasons for unease, fear,
and a tendency to overreact? Absolutely! Remember, the Iranians
have the US forces boxing them in from both Iraq and Afghanistan– and also,
from the Gulf, and also, of course poweful forces inside the Bush administration still baying for regime change there.

And finally we come to Afghanistan. Certainly not the most peaceful and stable of places these days…

I’d say this whole line of countries looks poised on the brink of an explosion,
and any outbreak of additional ternsion anywhere along the whole line could set off a really damaging chain reaction.

This kind of geo-strategic intermingling of mutually hostile forces,
plus the failure of the US to really sit down properly with the Syrians and
Iranians in an effort to de-escalate and sort everything out, looks inherently
unstable. (And of course, as always, it’ll be the weakest countries
that get hit the hardest and hurt the most.)

In the IHT today, by the way, I saw a really good article about Iran
by Gareth Evans and Karim Sadjadpour of the International Crisis Group. I
tried to find a digital version of the text on both the IHT website (which
sucks, frankly) and the ICG site. But it wasn’t on either when I looked.
So let me quickly here just type in a couple of the better bits:

The debate in Washington is no longer whether the United States
can help [a democratic and stable] Iraq shape Iran, but whether it can stop
Iran from shaping Iraq…

Among Iranians, diffuse hope that the United States could improve their lot
has gradually given way to widespread skepticism. As a Teheran resident
told one of us: “When we look at what’s going on in Iraq, or Afghanistan,
it seems that the real choice is not one between democracy or authoritarianism,
but between stabuility and unrest. People may not be happy in Iran,
but no one wants unreast.”

… Today, with vital U.S. interests at stake in terms of Iraq, Afghanistan
and global nonproliferation, Iran is playing a central role in each and the
United States isn’t talking to it about any… [T]he United States
will need to put aside its illusory dreams of regime change, overcome its
deep-seated trepidation over a bilateral dialogue and engage Iran in a coherent,
sustained and comprehensive manner.

I almost couldn’t have said it better myself.