Lost in the Middle East

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

SECRETARY OF State Condoleezza Rice's tour through the Middle East this week has been designed to exploit the "opportunities" of what she views as a new divide in the region, "between extremism on the one hand and mainstream states on the other." On one side, she told The Post recently, "you have Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria. . . . On the other you have the so-called moderate Arab states, I'll call them mainstream states -- Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf states."

Ms. Rice is trying to solidify an alliance of "the mainstream" against Iran and in support of U.S. policy in Iraq. To do that, she is making a high-profile effort to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process -- in spite of an unfavorable situation in the region -- because "the mainstream states . . . would actually really like to see a resolution of this conflict now."

The new strategy explains a series of reversals of U.S. policy that otherwise would be baffling. In addition to embracing the Middle East peacemaker role that it has shunned for six years, the administration has decided to seek $98 million in funding for Palestinian security forces -- the same forces it rightly condemned in the past as hopelessly corrupt and compromised by involvement in terrorism. Those forces haven't changed, but since they are nominally loyal to "mainstream" Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and serve as a check on the power of the "extremist" Hamas, they are on the right side of Ms. Rice's new divide.

So is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a thuggish autocrat who was on the wrong side of Ms. Rice's previous Mideast divide between pro-democracy forces and defenders of the illiberal status quo. In past visits to Cairo, Ms. Rice sparred with Mr. Mubarak's foreign minister over the imprisonment of democratic opposition leaders such as Ayman Nour and the failure to fulfill promises of political reform. On Monday, she opened her Cairo news conference by declaring that "the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship, one that we value greatly." There was no mention of Mr. Nour or democracy.

The administration's concern about Iran is well founded. Even as it defies a U.N. Security Council order to freeze its nuclear program, Iran is attacking U.S. forces and interests in Iraq and across the Middle East. And it's true that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are also interested in containing Iran, as is Israel, which never liked the push for democracy anyway.

The attempt to divide the Middle East into two opposing camps is nevertheless wrongheaded and dangerous. It ignores the many differences among the "extremists" -- including internal divisions within Iran -- that could be exploited by a subtler policy. The "mainstream" coalition of U.S. allies, all Sunni-led states, must look threatening to Iraq's Shiite government, which itself considers Iran a close ally. That Sunni leaders are publicly supporting the U.S. escalation in Baghdad is at best a mixed blessing, since they have made it clear their motive is sectarian: They hope Shiite militias will be confronted.

Finally the new U.S. policy betrays President Bush's freedom agenda, giving a free pass to dictators who support the new geopolitical cause. Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice have said again and again that such trade-offs during the Cold War helped lay the groundwork for groups such as al-Qaeda -- which was founded and is led by Saudis and Egyptians. In its zeal to counter a crudely defined ideological enemy, the administration risks repeating that history.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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