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.
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.
In many of the jarring events taking place, some analysts see an overarching confrontation between established powers backed by the US and more radical forces promoted by Iran and elements of Al Qaeda. "What we're seeing throughout the region are a lot of proxy battles," says Jon Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "And the bad guys in many cases are winning."
The reasons for the region's radicalization and deterioration are not new, but Mr. Alterman cites a handful of current factors he says are contributors:
• A large and growing youth population that is frustrated with dismal economic horizons and feels "shut out."
• Mushrooming and apparently copious sources of financial support for causes, particularly radical movements.
• The elevated stature of Iran.
• The perceived success of Al Qaeda and "other practitioners of asymmetrical warfare."
• The deepening failure of governments to meet practical needs "and so to win the loyalty of their people."
Indeed, some of the radical organizations in the region, such as Hamas in Gaza, have done a better job of delivering services, with less corruption, than governments.
"There's more than enough blame to go around for the predicament [the region] is in. But you have this undeniable situation among the Palestinians where those who are moderate are not effective, and those who are effective are not moderate," says David Makovsky, an expert in the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Added to this list of contributing factors is US policy, according to some analysts. Gerges, who has been a Carnegie scholar for the past year teaching in Egypt, says US involvement in Iraq has earned it the image of occupier, even as it abandoned its traditional role as catalyst for the Middle East peace process.
Alterman concurs that people in the region have increasingly perceived the US in a different way. "Arabs don't see the US as taking a hands-off approach. They see the US protecting the status quo, by supporting and legitimizing unpopular governments. They see US support for internal security services that practice torture," he says.
The US approach to the Hamas electoral victory in January 2006 is a case in point for many analysts. The US pressed for elections and then condemned the results, looking hypocritical about its support for democracy, they say. The US then boycotted a Hamas-led government, cutting off international funding – and effectively driving more Palestinians into Iran's waiting arms, some add.
Not everybody is of that view, or believes the US erred in snubbing a governing Hamas. "I know some will say that events now show that the idea of the [international community's] restrictions on the Hamas government was wrong, but I disagree," says Mr. Makovsky of the Washington Institute. "A business-as-usual approach … would have further undermined the moderates favoring a two-state solution."
Makovsky says the US and Israel should "take a page from Hamas's playbook" and take immediate steps to ease living conditions in the Fatah-dominated West Bank.
But Mr. Levy of the Century Foundation, who was on Israel's negotiating team in the last round of peace talks in 2001, says everyone – including the US and Israel – has a lot to lose by joining in the driving of a wedge between the two Palestinian camps.
"It's tempting to think that this is another clarifying moment, that you can build up some kind of Fatah-land as the Palestinian promised land, and reduce this radical Hamas-stan to a place of suffering, and then they'll understand," he says.
"But it's unlikely to work that way, because it's unrealistic to expect Palestinian leaders to play that game, and because the Palestinians are still one people," Levy says. "And then beyond all that, let's not forget where the last clarifying moment got us in Lebanon," referring to the increasing alienation that people in the region have felt in the past year toward moderate solutions and the US.