New Geopolitical Rules and Guidelines

In the Iraq War, an Arab state was defeated and occupied by a non-regional power for the first time since decolonization. The US are now the strongest military power in the Near East, supplanting previous regional leaders such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By Volker Perthes

In the Iraq War, an Arab state was defeated and occupied by a non-regional power for the first time since decolonization. The United States are now the strongest military power in the Near East, supplanting previous regional leaders such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By Volker Perthes

photo: German Institute for International and Security Affairs
Volker Perthes

​​One year after the Iraq War, the domino effect promised by its American advocates has yet to be seen. Nonetheless, the war has caused a geopolitical revolution in the Near East. For the first time since decolonization, an Arab state has been defeated and occupied by a non-regional power, with the surrounding states playing no significant role. At most, they functioned as logistical sites or as barriers to the implementation of the American war plans.

Three aspects are likely to feature strongly in the new political-strategic relationships in the Near and Middle East: the regional power structure, the future of regional institutions and the chances for external nation-building projects.

Obsolete power calculations

We are assuming here that the USA will not withdraw from Iraq or the region in the near future, despite the resistance to its military presence. For the time being, the United States will be the strongest military power in the Middle East, not only "over the horizon", but also on the ground. This will make traditional power calculations largely obsolete – the ever-popular charts showing military balances in the Near and Middle East, confronting Syrian tanks with Israeli tanks or Iranian fighter jets with Saudi fighter jets.

Statistics like this no longer serve a purpose, at least not as a factor for explaining political processes. In actual fact, the ability of regional players to improve their position in political balancing acts will prove much more important than their command of certain weapons systems.

The Near Eastern debate on weapons of mass destruction must also be seen in this context. American and European pressure is not unimportant, but for states such as Libya and Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia, what is more significant is the fact that these weapons are of little use under present circumstances – not even to deter superior opponents, much less as instruments of regional politics.

No regional leader

Perhaps the most important change in the structural division of power within the regional system is the fact that no state will achieve regional or subregional hegemony in the foreseeable future. None of the potential leading powers in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, even Israel – will be in a position to dominate the region by itself or to take on a "deputy" role for the USA.

All of them will have to adapt their policies to the immediate presence of their new American "neighbors". Smaller and weaker states will be able to develop relations with the USA practically on a par with the mid-sized regional powers, and without their mediation.

On the Arab Peninsula, Saudi Arabia has quite clearly lost the subregional hegemonic status which it enjoyed during the 1970s and 80s. At that time, the smaller states within the Gulf Cooperation Council would have made no major foreign or domestic moves without first tailoring their plans to Saudi wishes and objections.

The ruler of Bahrain would not have elevated his rank to king, placing himself on a level with the Saudi monarch, nor would he have held general elections; the Emirate of Dubai would not have created a "free media zone" in which even Saudi investors enjoy uncensored radio and press freedom.

Today these smaller states look to Washington rather than Riyadh when they are concerned about how others might react to their political initiatives and plans. And the Saudi leadership, in turn, attentively follows the development of their smaller neighbors' domestic policies – in large part to explore reform options that could be used at home.

Institutional reorientations

Egypt's regional influence has dwindled as well. After the 1991 Gulf War, Cairo was discussed as a player in Gulf security policy; nowadays there is no more talk of that. Egypt will have to concentrate on playing a constructive role in its immediate neighborhood, perhaps as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians or between the different Palestinian groups.

Tellingly, Egypt played no role in the settlement between Libya, the USA and Great Britain, and has not been involved in the Sudanese peace talks, despite the issue's importance for Egypt's security.

It is a similar story with Syria, whose hegemony over Lebanon seems to be drawing to an end, in part because of American and European pressure and in part because Syrian attempts to legitimize its control over its neighbor by citing the security situation in Lebanon or the Near East are losing their power to convince.

It is true that the demise of the Arab League has often been proclaimed, but there is little doubt that the Iraq War and its consequences have permanently weakened its position and sidelined it as an active shaper of regional politics. This is only underlined by the postponement of the summit for Arab heads of state which was set for the end of March.

This could contribute to the reorientation of existing regional and subregional organizations or to the establishment of new ones which, in contrast to the League, are defined not by ethnic identity (as in Pan-Arabism), but by shared functional interests.

This tendency is exemplified by the fact that Iraq's neighboring states have been meeting repeatedly. This group, including Iraq's Arab and non-Arab neighbors, was established with the limited but concrete goal of coordinating these countries' policies during the Iraq War and its aftermath. Unquestionably, it would make sense for the international Near East Quartet (USA, EU, Russia and the UN) to join with this grouping to form a "6+4+1 contact group for Iraq" (neighbors, quartet and Iraq government).

This group could form the basis of a mechanism for coordinating security policy in the Middle East, gradually agreeing upon measures for increasing security and trust in the Middle East and setting them in motion. Of course, newly-created institutions are not necessarily better or more effective agents than existing organizations – their practical usefulness for crisis prevention and conflict resolution would still have to be put to the test.

External nation-building projects

Despite the difficulties which the United States and their allies face in Iraq, the international debate following the Iraq War often centers on the renewal or reshaping of the Near East or the establishment of a new order. Often, grand terms such as "Greater Middle East" and "Greater Middle East Initiative" only serve to disguise the lack of concrete ideas and instruments that could actually channel this kind of change in the right direction.

Tellingly, the "soft" element of the Bush administration's Near East strategy, the so-called Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), is nothing but a copy of the EU Barcelona Process, distinguished only by its greater geopolitical scope and its more limited financial means.

Regional players will probably continue their efforts to effectively subvert strategies and projects which external planners develop for the region. Despite their dependency upon the great international powers, these states place high priority on regional and local processes and are thus willing to pay a much higher price to defend their own interests than any external player.

From this perspective, developments in the aftermath of the Iraq War support an observation by Leonard Binder 45 years ago, when he stated that any power projected into the region from outside would be "broken" by the dynamics of the regional or subregional systems.

During the Cold War, scholars such as L. Carl Brown explained this phenomenon by demonstrating the ability of regional players to play external powers against one another and involve them against their interests in regional conflicts.

At the moment, neither the USA nor the EU shows signs of slipping into this kind of behavior pattern. However, the so-called war on terrorism will no doubt supply the states of the Near and Middle East with new opportunities to draw America, Europe or Russia into their domestic or regional conflicts. The actions of American troops supporting the Algerian army in its fight against terrorism in Southern Algeria, or hunting suspected Al Qaeda followers in Yemen, may be just the beginning.

Political Psychology and Geopolitics

Finally, the region's developmental perspectives will also be affected by the political and psychological fallout of the Iraq War. On the global level, the fall of the regime in Baghdad can be compared with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Yet while the end of the communist regime in Central and Eastern Europe was brought about by these countries' own inhabitants, Saddam Hussein's statues and his regime itself were toppled by a foreign army.

The effect this will have upon the political psychology and culture of Iraq and other Arab societies remains unclear. The only certainty is that it will be a considerable one.

Volker Perthes, © Neue Zürcher Zeitung 20 April 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

Dr. Volker Perthes is Director of the Research Group Near / Middle East and Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. For more information on his work and publications, click here.

German Institute for International and Security Affairs