Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Way Ahead for the Middle East?

Leon Hadar (at The National Interest) makes a very interesting pitch for the formation of a new ASEAN-like regional grouping, which he provisionally names ASWAN (Association of Southwest Nations):

. . .  ASEAN members have not been brought together by common ideology—or religion or culture, for that matter—but by the recognition of their mutual economic and political interests. It is a mosaic of various political systems and old and new civilizations in various stages of economic development: The most populated Muslim country and an evolving democracy under the influence of the military (Indonesia) and a constitutional monarchy and messy democracy where the primary religion is Buddhism (Thailand); A harsh military dictatorship (Myanmar), a communist-ruled state (Vietnam) and a former U.S. dependency (the Phillippines); Booming economic success stories (Singapore; Malaysia) and struggling developing countries (Cambodia; Laos).

Which reminds us very much of the existing Middle Eastern mosaic of monarchies (Saudi Arabia; Jordan; Morocco), military regimes with socialist systems (Egypt; Algeria) and democracies with free-market economies (Israel; Turkey); of multi-sectarian states (Iraq; Lebanon) and states with large minorities (Israel; Turkey; Morocco; Algeria); of Arab and non-Arab states and entities (Turkey; Iran; Israel; Kurds; Berbers) and large concentrations of non-Muslims (Maronites; Copts; Assyrians; Israeli Jews).

In a way, in addition to becoming a vehicle for facilitating trade and investment in the region and with outside economies, the ASEAN has also served as geopolitical system under which the regional hegemonic tendencies of powerful states like Indonesia and Vietnam were contained—and tensions between old antagonists like Singapore and Malaysia were managed—while U.S. military presence was institutionalized in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the economic and political integration of China was eased.

Currently, the ASEAN countries are hoping to ensure that the United States will continue to project its military and economic presence in East Asia to counterbalance the rise of China, which has disputes with Vietnam and other members over competing claims in the South China Sea.

Consider now the idea of applying the ASEAN model to a strategic part of the Middle East—the Fertile Crescent or the Levant. Notwithstanding the current divisions between Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis, the governments of Southwest Asia—not unlike the members of the ASEAN—share mutual geopolitical and economic interests.

It goes without saying that the formation of a free-trade zone in the area, one that would make it possible to utilize its large and educated middle class and to combine Israel’s high-tech industry, Lebanon’s financial center and Iraq’s energy resources—not to mention large Diaspora communities—and traditional ties to the EU and the oil-producing states in the Gulf, could transform it into a global economic powerhouse.

Moreover, the potential members of the Association of Southwest Nations (ASWAN) have an interest in maintaining friendly relationships while containing possible challenges from the three rising regional powers—Turkey, Iran and Egypt—an interest they share with the U.S. and the EU as well as with Saudi Arabia. An ASWAN system will also provide a regional system to help co-opt the Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon and provide a broader response to Palestinian and Kurdish aspirations.

But, to my thinking, the rub might come here:

The United States and the EU could help form the foundations for such a regional group by leading an effort towards an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and a peaceful political transition in Syria. The facilitation of an Israel-Palestine accord and the coming to power of a Syrian government that downgrades partnership with Iran and Hezbollah and upgrades an effort to reach accommodation with Lebanon and Israel could fit into a new overall U.S. strategy to prevent Iran from emerging as the hegemon in post-U.S-occupation Iraq and Middle East. That is the kind of strategy that could win support from Turkey and Egypt and help maintain U.S. influence in West Asia—in the same way that the ASEAN assists the U.S. in remaining a central player in East Asia.

At this point, and especially given Congress' inability to adopt anything remotely resembling an approach balanced enough to make the US a credible mediator for Israel-Palestine talks, it's difficult to envision how most of the region's people would accept a US role in leading such an effort, especially if it was perceived as serving an ultimate design of maintaining US influence in the region.


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