As president, Bush prepares for his upcoming visit to seven Middle Eastern countries scheduled for January 8 through 18; he should expect a completely different world than the one his predecessors dealt with. George H. Bush had a successful campaign in the first Gulf War before his major peace initiative. President Clinton succeeded in ending the Bosnian crisis after an aerial campaign against Serbia before he summoned the Israeli prime minister and the PLO Chairman.
On the contrary, the Iraq war in its fifth year, the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the increased Iranian influence, and the newly founded Russian political prowess on the international stage are a few of the challenges that threaten the new initiative.
However, for this trip to succeed in achieving any real benefits it will require much more than photo ops with old men wearing traditional head covers and holding hands with our president.
The American objectives at this stage cannot be achieving peace or advocating American style Democracy because these goals are unattainable in the current environment. A more realistic objective for the upcoming effort should focus on establishing a new strategy for the Middle East that can eventually lead to stability and peace, which would help deliver our strategic goals in this vital region. Such strategy has to take in consideration several new dynamics.
1) Understand the shift in the regional power centers, to help promote stability.
Since the late seventies Egypt and Saudi Arabia played a central role in the American Middle East policy. Over the last decade, both countries suffered as regional powers because of ailing economies and unpopular leadership. In addition, the recent attempt to impose American style democracy through the Iraqi invasion failed horribly in the eyes of the average Arab.
However, the Gulf States under the leadership of Emirates presented a unique success story that captured the imagination of ordinary people throughout the region. The Gulf States has the sectarian and ethnicity mix of the most diverse Arab countries. Promoting this economic and social model as an alternative to the totalitarian Arab regimes should be in the epic of any new American initiative. The fact that this model comes from within the Arab world would allow the idea to prosper and bring stability to the region.
2) Understand and plan for ongoing demographic changes in the region.
The Arabs age thirty and younger representing all social and religious background are decidedly secular. Take a short stroll in any Arabic street, or watch any video clips by popular Arabic singers and you will be astonished at the level of westernization. For the doubters I would recommend subscribing to the Arabic channels available on Satellite in the US. However, the extremist movement and the most dedicated elements are part of a previous generation that grew up in the late sixties through early eighties. They are in their mid forties to mid sixties.
Any successful American policy in the region need to take in consideration this difference in demography and should insure at least neutralizing the younger generation instead of pushing them into the arms of the extreme elements through the undifferentiating American military might.
3) Take advantage of the upcoming change of the guards.
Several of the presidents and kings meeting with our president are in their eighties and in some cases without a clear succession plans. This situation is a recipe for disaster. Despite the little American influence left, we should demand behind close doors a succession plan to avoid any additional instability resulting from the vacuum imposed by the death of any of these elder statesmen.
4) Introduce a new approach to the Israeli / Palestinian dilemma.
The Palestinian question is a major emotional hurdle that crosses all boundaries in the Arab world regardless of age, ethnicity, and religion. While the majority of the Arabs and Israelis came to grips with the idea of two states solution, the extreme elements on both sides continue to dominate the decision process.
The land for peace/security concept introduced during the Camp David agreement with Egypt in the late seventies became obsolete in the age of terrorism. Today we can argue that London, Paris or even a mall in Idaho is as vulnerable to a terrorist attack as Tel Aviv, or Haifa. In addition, the Israeli Defense Force is superior to the military power of all Arab countries combined. Subsequently a new approach centered on the financial benefits of opening the vast markets of the Arab and Muslim world should be the basis and the incentive to achieve peace in the region.