The crisis in the Middle East is rapidly reaching dangerous proportions. Unless someone or somebody injects a heavy dose of sanity into the region's affairs immediately, it is likely to escalate into a wider conflict that will make Iraq look like a picnic. The only player perhaps capable of playing this role is the U.S. But thanks to a lame duck President, whose credibility at home and abroad is embarrassing, the world's only super power - the natural guarantor of global order - remains like its leader, ineffective and directionless on the global stage.
The U.S. has most to lose if things go out of hand. Its key interests in the region are OIL; Oil, Israel, and Liberalism and they are all in jeopardy. Oil is already at a record high, over $77 at the moment due to fears of disruption in case of a wider war. Israel has never been more insecure. Its two biggest enemies, Hamas and Hizbollah are effectively in control in the North and South and are shooting rockets at it from the North and the South.
Israel could have easily engaged in a prisoner exchange with Hamas and Hezbollah as it has done several times in the past, and most recently in 2004, and the matter would have ended there. But Israel's overwhelming response to the capture of its soldiers, at a time when Iraq is on the brink of a civil war and the Iranian nuclear crisis is at its zenith, is undermining all the key pillars of American national interests in the region. However, I do not blame Israel for this crisis, it is doing what it thinks it must to pursue its security and its interests. I am wondering whether the U.S. is doing everything it should in the region to defend its interests.
All players in the region are pursuing self-interest. The ability of Hamas and Hezbollah to attack the invincible military of Israel and score successes, killing and capturing soldiers, and shooting rockets as deep inside Israel as Haifa, must have sent a chill down Israel's spine. It is reacting with overwhelming force out of fear. Israel's future depends on its ability to terrorize the Arab World through superior military power and it thinks that by punishing innocent Palestinians and Lebanese civilians it can restore that fear and deter future attacks.
Iran, thanks to America's foolhardy adventure in Iraq, is rapidly emerging as a regional power, more capable of shaping the political and geopolitical realties in the Middle East than even the U.S. It is protecting itself from America's pressure on the nuclear issue by creating a dangerous diversion. Already it has succeeded in dividing the G-8, with France and Russia condemning Israel for excessive force while the U.S. justified it.
What is the U.S. doing at the moment? First of all by justifying Israel's excessive use of force the U.S. has immediately distanced itself from the very powers it was seeking solidarity with - EU and Russia. America's weak response and support of Israel has probably done billions of dollars worth of damage to the public diplomacy campaign that every one thinks is so vital to win the war on terror.
Muslims all across the world are watching a nuclear power supported, armed and funded by the U.S., bombard and kill dozens of innocent civilians, destroy the economy and infrastructure of Palestine and Lebanon, kidnap dozens of elected Palestinian leaders, bomb their homes even when there are children present, and all U.S. does is provide political cover for Israel in the U.N. security council and on the world stage. Al Qaeda must be running out of enrollment forms.
The escalation in the region is not in U.S. interest. It strengthens anti-Americanism worldwide and fuels radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world. It also reverses hard earned gains in the region such as fledgling democracies in Palestine and Lebanon. It is a shame that in moments of crisis American leadership does not take decisive steps to safeguard its own interests. The U.S. does not have to abandon Israel to defend its other interests in the region, all it has to do is use its enormous leverage to ensure that Israel's policies are moderate and prudent and safeguard both Israeli and American interests.
Muqtedar Khan is Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware and a Nonresdient Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. His website is www.ijtihad.org.