The region that lies between Egypt and Pakistan is a cauldron with at least five explosive components: civil strife in Iraq, an increasingly difficult peace operation in Afghanistan, Iran’s reportedly imminent acquisition of nuclear weapons, the longstanding threat of violent conflict between Israel and its neighbours, and the constant risk of clashes between extremist political and religious groups in a number of Middle Eastern countries where corrupt and repressive governments do not fulfil most people’s aspirations.

This cauldron demands a comprehensive policy approach, yet the threats are so diverse and complex that separate approaches have to be applied simultaneously. First, Iraq. The current US policy of building a semi-federal state of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds runs a high risk of failure because of Shiite domination, Sunni and Shiite terrorism, Kurdish separatism, and meddling by Iran. The cost in lives has already been unbearably high to the population. The US cannot sustain the present rate of casualties, or the expense. American resources would be better spent on needier causes that are more promising. To create the conditions for long-term stability, a negotiated separation may be needed in Iraq, comparable to the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in former-Yugoslavia.

Such a separation of Iraq’s populations would be painful. People who want to move to other parts of the country should clearly be helped by UNHCR and the coalition forces. One may object that to facilitate internal relocation is to collaborate with “ethnic or religious cleansing”, but the toll of prolonged war in Iraq, which could lead to its dismemberment anyway, is much worse. The principle of pluralism is valuable, but curbing prolonged bloodshed deserves priority.

A Dayton-like agreement can only be achieved if it is backed by the UN Security Council. It would be in the long-term interest of the permanent members to do so. Russia and China would, however, only be helpful if the US leadership were to take new initiatives that differ from the current Bush approach. Such initiatives would need to be supported strongly by the European Union. Perhaps tri-partite mediation, backed by the US, the EU and Russia would increase the chances. The US and other coalition forces would have to accept gradual withdrawal, which their domestic populations would welcome. A peaceful separation agreement would require a considerable international peacekeeping to implement with contributions from all major powers, including India, China and Japan. As stability in the Middle East is essential to their energy needs, this is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Those of Iraq’s neighbouring countries that are possible spoilers of a solution would need to be restrained by a Security Council mandate for a Dayton-type settlement.

Second, Afghanistan. The current NATO-led military operations against neo-Taliban opponents of state-building offer only a partial and temporary solution, as neo-Taliban reinforcements along with other opponents will continue to enter Afghanistan in large numbers. The population sees little improvement in living conditions and expects western forces to leave after a few years. Most Afghans will then be ruled once again either by extremists, drug barons and warlords. The western aim of building Afghanistan up to be a stable and more or less democratic rule-of-law state is an extremely ambitious one; it may be wiser to help stabilise the relatively quiet northern part of the country along with Kabul. The difficult south will sooner or later return to Pashtun politics.

The chief interest of the outside world is to curb heroin production and destroy terrorist training camps. The destruction of poppy crops by western forces has so far been turning Afghan farmers against NATO and may not work in the end. It is smarter to go after the heroin bosses and their foreign networks, and in the meantime buy the poppy crops from farmers so as to destroy it. Encouraging a shift to legal cash crops and food takes time and a heavy investment in agricultural development in this arid, land-locked and distant area. This would only work if there is security for the local population. It is to be doubted that enough foreign donors will make available adequate numbers of troops and long-term development finance to attain a lasting solution.

Third, Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The government seems determined to pursue nuclear weapons. International sanctions are not likely to change Iran’s course. A preventive strike by the US would encourage terrorist attacks against the US and Israel. Israel would not sit idly by when Iranian nuclear forces become operational, so it might attack beforehand. The most promising approach might be intelligent sanctions and covert operations to delay the time when Iran’s nuclear weapons become operational. In the meantime, the youth bulge in Iran may become more active politically and demand democratisation and an improvement of living conditions. It is uncertain how long the old clerical leadership and the country’s nationalist politicians can hold on to power, although high oil and gas prices have been shielding them from popular pressure for democratisation. Gaining time before a disastrous confrontation between Israel and Iran becomes inevitable would be smarter than taking an aggressive approach now.

Fourth, the Palestinian issue. An agreement on the Golan Heights has already been prepared, but still needs external mediation and pressure if it is to be signed. State-building in Lebanon will take strong UN and EU support, and the courage to curb Hezbollah’s influence. The Israeli government and Palestinian political leaders are locked in a disastrous struggle with no end in sight. The extremists on both sides are each others’ best secret allies. They stay in power because of the threat from the other side. The mutual mutilation of populations will therefore continue until there is strong enough external pressure to accept a peace agreement that divides the occupied territories. Israel will have to vacate a large number of Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory, and would also have to agree to joint international administration or division of Jerusalem.

Israel will never agree unless forced by the US. A US-brokered peace agreement would need to be supported by the UN Security Council and implemented by international peacekeeping troops from the US, the European Union and other NATO states, as well as by soldiers from many other, more distant UN members. It is unlikely that the present US leadership could or would bring this about, so the new American president will have to take the lead in 2009. This gives the European Union time to get its divided act together and take firm decisions on a joint Middle East policy, for the EU is still too slow and fragmented to take the lead.

Fifth, the struggle among religious groups inside many Arab nations. There is little western Europe can do to lessen the tensions between various Salafists and modernists. But encouraging a dialogue of NGO’s and European moderate Islam with Islamic movements and political parties in the Middle East may be prudent and helpful in the long run, even though reform in Arab and Islamic states may in a number of cases yet turn violent.

It would be wise to encourage a modern liberal Islamic interpretation of universal human rights treaties by patiently engaging in dialogues with leaders of movements that are still shunned by the West because of their extremism. Just isolating the propagandists of hate tends to stiffen their determination. Raising questions about the lack of human development in most Islamic states may make some people there think anew about the economic and social consequences of suppressing women. The western policy of talking only to pro-western leaders who live in appalling luxury but suppress internal progress does not promise long-term stability. And the policy of so many western capitals of lumping extreme Islamists together as enemies of the West is counter-productive. It covers the serious internal disagreements among Islamists and increases their resistance. Our policy should be to acknowledge the many differences that exist and stimulate dialogue with all actors who will determine the future of this vitally important but highly explosive part of the world.

Commentary

An attractively pragmatic approach, but not a long-term strategy for the EU

Joris Voorhoeve’s picture of the challenges of the broader Middle East ambitiously sketches out the contours of a comprehensive European approach to the region. While attractive in its clarity and apparent feasibility, his policy suggestions lack both a long-term perspective and a country-based approach.

So far as the spiral of ethnic violence in Iraq is concerned, Voorhoeve recommends an ethnic separation modelled on the Bosnian example. This comparison is, however, misleading. First, Dayton was an internationally-brokered postconflict agreement, while Iraq is under external military occupation, which makes any prospect of establishing some protectorate is highly unlikely.

Second, Dayton was about peace-enforcing and long-term reconciliation. In Iraq, for that to be sustainable, the international community would need to engage with the neighbouring countries and create a sense of collective ownership of reconciliation and reconstruction. That doesn’t seem very likely.

The same pragmatic approach by Voorhoeve vis-à-vis Afghanistan implies the abandonment of the southern part of the country to local and external powers. In Afghanistan, however, popular support for the Western presence remains high and any retreat would be regarded as a defeat, with Pakistan and Iran re-shaping the regional balance of power. The goal should instead be to enlarge the sense of ownership of the stabilisation effort, co-opting some of the more moderate Taliban elements while making it clear that the international presence is there to stay.

The same pragmatic stance vis-à-vis the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not wholly convincing either. Waiting for new peace initiatives from the next US President seems wishful thinking. In this is field what the EU lacks are confidencebuilding measures with Israel. The EU should also engage in secret talks with moderate elements of Hamas. Concerning the increasing world cleavage between moderate Islam and Islamists, the EU should limit itself to facilitating the dialogue between these two different communities of thought, without entering into the debate itself.

In other words, where the conditions are not ripe yet for a peaceful settlement, as in Palestine, Europe should be building confidence both with the parties and among them, in some cases acting as no more than dialogue-mediator within the Islamic world. But where the international community is already involved in one form or another, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is in our own enlightened selfinterest to engage as the EU in long-term efforts. Only by making that sort of commitment will Europe be taking steps to avoid dangerous spillover effects while at the same time sending strong political signals in what Voorhoeve calls the cauldron of the Middle East.