There is enormous political symbolism in the circuitous route that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took for visiting Baghdad on Monday.
She headed first to the quiet British town of Blackburn for a weekend’s bonding with her British allies, and then proceeded to Iraq, accompanied by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Any limited perspective on the Rice-Straw mission in terms of cajoling Ibrahim al-Jaafari to give up his prime ministership in
Baghdad overlooks that Iraq is the cornerstone of the United States’ imperial venture in remaking the Middle East, with the objective of controlling the region – its flows of oil, weapons and money.
Two major powers traditionally active in the region are responding to the Anglo-American drive for a New Middle East – Russia and Turkey.
The Russian moves are impressive – strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, gaining observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC), revival of ties with Syria and Egypt, contact with Hamas, networking with Iraqi Sunni tribal leaderships, institutional ties with the Arab League, and, arguably, the heavily nuanced line on Iran.
Germane to all this, Moscow perceives a likely replay of past Anglo-American attempts to pit the Muslim world against Russia. Given its history, geography and culture and the multinational and multi-faith character of its society, Russia has everything to lose in an “inter-civilizational” conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently wrote:
Russia will not let anybody set it at loggerheads with the Islamic world … The increased significance of the energy factor in global politics is on the mind of many. Even those who have got used to thinking in terms of geopolitics appreciate that the equation formula of strategic stability has changed and the specific weight of nuclear deterrence itself has diminished … At the same time, it is obvious that any sustained development of Russia’s energy sector rules out for the foreseeable future any disregard of the Near and Middle East resources in a global energy balance.
In a lengthy message addressed to the Arab League summit meeting at Khartoum on March 28, Russian President Vladimir Putin said:
I am well aware that the heads of state and peoples of the Arab world, and in other Muslim states, share Russia’s growing concern about the danger arising out of new divisions in the international community. It is our deep conviction that the time has come to act, and to act together, under the auspices of the United Nations as a key player.
As the events of the last few years in the Middle East have shown, unilateral actions do not resolve problems and they even aggravate them. Russia, a multi-confessional country with observer status within the Organization of Islamic Conference, has firm intentions to make a significant contribution to this teamwork.
Putin called for “consensual approaches” to the issues of social, economic and political transformation in the Arab world: “Events should not be rushed in an artificial way, nor should outside pressure be applied.” Stressing that resolving the Palestinian problem within the framework of UN Resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and 1515 should be the priority, Putin described Russia’s “dialogue” with Hamas as an “approach to new realities in a constructive and pragmatic way”.
Putin said Iraq’s unity and territorial integrity could only be achieved through a national dialogue and by “ending the foreign military presence”. He called for a lowering of “tensions around Lebanon and Syria” and opposed “any third-party” role.
It comes as no surprise that the countries of the Arab Middle East have warmed to the Russian overtures.
Moscow hosted on March 27-28 the first session of the so-called Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group comprising Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, etc. Putin greeted the foreign delegates attending the conference. Significantly, Yevgeni Primakov, former prime minister and renowned orientalist who played a key role in crafting the Soviet Union’s ties with the Arab world through the Cold War years, chaired the Moscow meet.
Again, the head of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, paid a “working visit” to Moscow on Tuesday. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the hugely influential Saudi prince’s agenda included the Palestine issue, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and “conditions in Iraq”, apart from “building up and deepening” Russia-Saudi relations.
Turkey, too, is seeking to revive its ties in the Middle East – a region that it turned its back on in 1923. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s presence at the Arab League summit in Khartoum as a “permanent guest” meshes with a series of Turkish moves in the past three years.
Turkey claims it is trying to act as a “bridge” between the Middle East region and the Western world. (Curiously, Russia also is staking claims for a similar role as a “civilizational bridge” between the Muslim world and the West.)
But the US may not accede to such a profound role for Turkey or Russia – and Ankara and Moscow cannot be unaware of that. The US simply ignored similar Turkish (and Russian) claims in the 1990s to act as a “bridge” in the Balkans during the crises in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Turkish-US relations (like Russian-US relations) have been increasingly bumpy. Yet Turkey couldn’t sit on the fence. It has vital interests to safeguard – least of all in its eastern provinces.
Turkey also has a government with a ruling party of pronounced religious orientation, which is approaching an election and would have to grapple with a resurgence of nationalism that has overtones of political Islam, and is heavily laden with “anti-Americanism”. And this at a juncture when the so-called Kemalist secular camp has atrophied (or fragmented) almost to the point of irrelevance in the country’s party politics, and a drift in Turkey’s search for European Union membership is visible.
More important, as in Moscow, few in Ankara are convinced that Washington is anywhere near being transparent in its Iraq policies. Both Russia and Turkey would suspect that Washington did not have an “exit strategy” in Iraq because no exit was (or is) intended. They fear that if push comes to shove, the US will not hesitate to turn Iraq, in fragments, into a de facto colony.
Few in Ankara today, therefore, share Washington’s hostility toward Syria and Iran. Ankara, like Moscow, favors engagement of Syria and Iran and opposes the use of force or “regime changes” in these neighboring countries.
Equally so, Turkey is deeply skeptical (like Russia) about the United States’ “transformational diplomacy” in the Middle East. “Democratization is a process, and it should be expected to proceed at a different pace in different countries,” Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said in a written statement last month.
Ankara also hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. A Turkish Foreign Ministry statement said, “At this stage, the international community should adopt a prejudice-free attitude and give the new Palestinian government the opportunity to fulfill its obligations.”
Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US went ballistic over the Hamas chief’s visit to Turkey. But the Turkish leadership (like the Kremlin) held firm. Erdogan insisted Turkey was doing the “right thing at the right time”.
Again, Jaafari visited Ankara when the US was working hard to get him to quit office. (Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the visit took place without his knowledge, and he wouldn’t “recognize” any agreements that the Iraqi prime minister entered into with the Turkish government.)
A visit by influential Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Turkey is now talked about. Turkey is reaching out to different Iraqi constituencies – just in case.
Turkey’s Sabah newspaper recently quoted a “high-level” US official voicing fears in Washington about “Turkey’s metamorphosis into a new Malaysia”. Indeed, Turkey sought and obtained the post of secretary general of the OIC. (Turkey was supportive of Russia’s observer status in the body.)
Erdogan’s presence at the Arab League summit in Khartoum last week signified the culmination of an initiative made during his visit to Cairo in January 2003. The Arab League initially had reservations on account of Turkey’s close ties with Israel, but circumstances have changed dramatically since the Iraq war began. (Interestingly, on his return journey to Ankara from Khartoum, Erdogan made a detour to visit the OIC headquarters in Jeddah.)
Looking after interests
But Turkey does not cross swords with the US or Britain in the Middle East. Like Russia, Turkey is primarily taking precautions that at the very least a New Middle East, if one indeed shapes up under Anglo-American supervision, would not be pitted against Turkey’s core interests. In uncertain times, it becomes prudent to hedge one’s bets.
Having said that, both Moscow and Ankara will focus on Iraq in immediate terms. This course is Iraq’s security. Moscow and Ankara would be justified to ask: “What was it that Straw could offer Rice?”
The answer lies in one of the most influential and enduring British strategic theories attributed to T E Lawrence. This strategy was distilled by Lawrence in the deserts of Arabia in the second decade of the 20th century (and to which Britain remained largely faithful even in Northern Ireland). In terms of this, Straw would tell Rice that in Iraq, to begin with, instead of being bogged down in a senseless trench war where armed clashes were turning into mass butchery, Washington should focus on a strategy of warfare that dispensed with battles.
Conceivably, Straw would counsel Rice that instead of attacking the Iraqi enemies, she should go around them, as Lawrence would have done, “immobilizing and isolating them, wearing them down as their sentries peer into the darkness searching for attackers who might or might not be lurking in the night” – to use the inimitable words of David Fromkin, author of the classic study on 1922 Middle East settlement, A Peace to End All Peace.
A problem remains, however. As Fromkin would point out, Lawrence’s strategy has its limitations. It has no use for a country fighting for survival; a country that obstinately refuses to surrender and may need to be crushed by force; and an enemy that will not surrender even if tired, but chooses to fight to hold on to something it can’t afford to give up.
Thus a paradox so typical of our times arises: the strategy attributed to Lawrence, the hero of British imperialism, is most effective against a great power that favors pitched, face-to face battles.
But Straw could as well have told that to Rice while strolling in the town center in Blackburn. A symbolic visit to Baghdad should not have been necessary.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
Asia Times Online