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The US role in Mideast travails

Extremists' rise can be traced in part to Bush policy, analysts say.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2007


When Israel blasted southern Lebanon last summer in response to rocket attacks by the Islamist group Hizbullah, President Bush spoke of a "clarifying moment" in the Middle East. People everywhere, he said, would be able to grasp the dangers posed by "groups of terrorists trying to stop the advance of democracy" in Lebanon, Iraq, or the Palestinian territories.

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Almost a year later, however, much of the Middle East seems only further down the path of radicalization and chaos, as events of the past week demonstrate – starting with the violent seizure of control of the Gaza Strip by Hamas. For a growing number of analysts, if the past year has brought any clarity, it is that US policy has largely backfired and added to the region's downward spiral of violence and economic troubles.

"The drift toward empowerment of the region's more radical forces is not the sole responsibility of US policy, but it has been a contributing factor that really kicked in with the abandonment of the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process," says Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a public-policy institute in Washington.

Recent events leave little doubt that extremist elements are making headway while the region's more moderate – and pro-Western – options are under attack:

• The prospect of two warring Palestinian enclaves has arisen after a week of intense internecine fighting. Hamas, listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, seized control of Gaza and banished the rival Fatah organization of President Mahmoud Abbas to the West Bank. Now Gaza is a potential breeding ground for Al Qaeda-style Islamic terrorists.

• In Iraq, sectarian violence flared after the repeat bombing of a revered Shiite site in the Sunni city of Samarra (although flare-ups seemed to have lessened in recent days). Still, the bombing is a setback that further challenges the Iraqi government and the US buildup of troops.

• In another indication of Lebanon's slide toward what many fear could become a civil war, a Beirut car bomb killed another prominent and pro-Western political leader. At the same time, Lebanese forces continue to attack Hizbullah strongholds in the country.

These stark events highlight the deep divisions tearing at a region the US has long considered of strategic importance to its security.

The Bush administration itself is divided on Middle East issues, with some officials on the National Security staff and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney viewing the violence in the region as unavoidable and probably necessary for arriving at a more stable and democratic Arab world. But forces aligned with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insist on addressing the humanitarian needs of Arabs, such as the Palestinians in Gaza, as a way of heading off greater allegiance to radical forces.

President Bush had been expected to deliver a speech later this month on advances in the Middle East, timed to the fifth anniversary of his call in June 2002 for a Palestinian state "living side by side in peace" with Israel before the end of his presidency.

That speech is now in doubt, according to administration sources. But Bush will have an opportunity to address regional issues when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with him at the White House on Tuesday.

No doubt, before the Middle East can reach stability, much work remains to be done. "Far from being 'clarifying moments,' what we are witnessing are deepening institutional crises that are shaking the very foundation of Middle East governance and society," says Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. "Rather than democracy's advance, we have deepening and widening fault lines shaking Muslim and Arab society."

According to Mr. Gerges, who has spent the past year traveling throughout the region, three "pivotal" fault lines are making for an increasingly unstable region: a widening gap between a tiny elite and growing legions of poor; a related gap between the rulers of authoritarian regimes and the governed; and the relatively recent but expanding Shiite-Sunni divide.