Will the US listen to the OIC?

Published on Aug 10, 2006 in the Dawn

WASHINGTON.S proxy war in Lebanon continues to raise troubling questions about the long and dark shadow of American military might that has fallen over the Muslim world. Is this part of the relentless response to 9/11 that has become a surrogate for the achievement of larger American and Israeli strategic objectives in the region?

Is the rhetoric about the creation of a new Middle East merely a front for hideous power politics? Who is winning and who is losing? The fact is that both the West and the Islamic world are losing. The OIC has spoken . in favour of a ceasefire . a little too late as the fighting runs its bloody course. Will the US listen to the OIC? I doubt it. Let us face it. Most Islamic states are not free. They suffer from a dual freedom deficit. Populations are under the thumb of ruling elites who themselves live in bondage to a Faustian bargain with outside powers that mortgage the economic and strategic interests of their societies Admittedly in some cases they have serious security concerns, legitimate or otherwise, arising from regional disputes or conflicts, or from hegemonic or ambitious neighbours.

There are ideological tensions, regional rivalries and sectarian conflicts within the Islamic world. The embattled countries thus look up to outsiders to redress the balance of power. Whatever the rationale, it constrains their freedom of action.

No wonder, US influence looms large in the Islamic world. It is not the best bargain for US allies but it does serve the interests of the ruling elite. The rhetoric costs nothing and amounts to nothing. That is where the OIC rhetoric stands.

Could the OIC have done better? Let us not get carried away with illusory expectations of the OIC or be despondent over the lack of unity and cooperation among Muslim countries. The truth is that it is simply not possible to base a state.s policies on considerations of religious unity. It flies in the face of both the interests of the ruling elite and national interests.

A country.s interests stem from its geography and resources, political and security concerns, its history, relations with neighbours and the geo-strategic profile of the region. Several domestic conditions . culture, ethnic mix of the population, social structure, domestic political compulsions, and the wishes and assumption of the ruling classes . are also relevant.

Naturally, different Muslim countries move along different orbits, responding to their own historical impulses, political dynamics and oligarchic or dynastic interests. But most of them remain locked in an unequal bargain with the West giving them little space for manoeuvre.

Let us look at the extent of American power in the Middle East in recent decades and how Muslims themselves have facilitated it. Take the case of the Iraq-Iran war. The US may or may not have instigated it, yet Washington exploited this strategic opportunity to embroil two major powers in the region (that could challenge American influence) in a mutual conflict and thus weaken both.

It could not have done it without support from friends in the region. The Gulf War provided the next strategic opening to the US to entrench its power, again acquiesced in by the Gulf countries. And now, the war on terror which is also not without its supporters in the Muslim world.

It is a tragedy for the Muslim world that extremists have become the only credible force challenging this bargain between Muslim governments and the West. They have become the voice of much of the disempowered populations ironically tempting them with their goal of overthrowing everything, good and bad. They are being ably assisted in their endeavours by Washington.s policies. It is not the war on terrorism per se that has caused anger with America on Muslim streets. It is the insensitive way in which this war is humiliating the Muslim world that has angered its population.

Even before the war on terrorism, the environment in the Muslim world was giving rise to frustration. Against the background of weak democratic institutions and the absence of a just international order the population was already losing faith in prospects of a peaceful and orderly transition to a better future. A sense of dismay was descending.

Muslims have forgotten the lessons of history: that in the ultimate analysis, it is more than a religious ideal that spurs people on to exceptional achievements. Knowledge, scholarship, organisational skills, resources, leadership abilities and statesmanship count just as much as if not more than piety or jihad. The reason Muslim societies had excelled in the past was that they were way ahead of their times where human progress and values, including tolerance and social justice, were concerned. Now they are well behind. The Muslim world needs to search for its own strengths rather than base these on its relations with the West.

Unfortunately, Washington.s policies continue to complicate this search by pursuing the extremist agenda in the Muslim world. The horrific carnage unleashed by the war in Lebanon and the understandable outrage it has caused in the Islamic world is an example of this. Through this appalling human tragedy Washington has tried to retrieve what it had lost in Iraq. By striking at Hezbollah and boxing in Hamas, both allies of Iran and instruments of its influence in the region, the US and Israel have tried to weaken Iran.s leverage. If Iran does not succumb, Israel will retain the option of striking at Iran.s nuclear facilities. The origins of such an attack could lie in hostilities that may not have anything to do with the nuclear issue but could provoke Iran and thus aggravate the situation by giving Israel an excuse to attack Iran.s nuclear facilities . all in the name of the war on terrorism.

Israel has reckoned that a prosperous, stable and strong Lebanon means a strong Hezbollah. A weak Lebanon on the other hand means a weak Hezbollah. A strong and resurgent Hezbollah would be looking to confront Israel, whereas a weak Hezbollah would be fighting for its own survival, and involved in a civil war, would be a lesser threat to Israel.

This ferocious attack on Lebanon was intended to send a strong message to Hamas that if it wants peace it will have to come to terms with Israel. How far Washington and Israel have succeeded or failed in achieving these respective objectives, only time will tell. For the present, their failures seem to be as big as their successes.

No great power has historically succeeded in influencing world affairs without employing the full range of its economic and military power, diplomatic assets, and above all its moral authority. When these instruments of foreign policy were available at optimum levels in the past, America was able to make great contributions to international peace and stability and humanitarian causes.

But currently, America.s diplomatic assets are strained because of Washington.s failure to navigate the paradigm shift that has taken place in the global balance of power and to understand or appreciate what is going on in the Islamic world. It still feels it can lead by domination but the world that used to bend to America.s will has changed.

As for Washington.s moral authority it has been degraded by its increasingly self-centred policies and total alignment with Israel, and the emergence of a low stature leadership in the new structure of politics in the country where the influence of money, media and the public relations industry has made it easy to successfully package mediocre leadership which remains hostage to its constituencies.

America is thus left with limited options to influence world affairs. No wonder there is the propensity to use military power which remains undiminished. But the use of this power without moral basis or international legitimacy is proving costly to foreign policy that ends up straining domestic consensus and imposing unacceptable financial costs as we are witnessing in Iraq. In the ultimate analysis, all this grandeur might prove to be just tinsel. Already the current administration has hurt America.s image.

It is sad, for the world and itself, that on many issues America is looking terribly small and isolated. It is a big comedown for a great power. And however strong their rhetoric at the OIC summit, those who support the US may also be walking alone.