Sunday, April 01, 2007

Double or Quits

Byline By M.J. Akbar : Double or Quits

It is an error to confuse the first of April with jokes; what is celebrated this day by those within the penumbra of "western civilisation", once lauded by President Woodrow Wilson as capable of doing the thinking on behalf of the world, is surprise. The civilised reaction, when you do get surprised, is to grin and bear it.

Grins in official Washington are noticeable by their absence in April this year, but then surprise is perhaps too mild a word for what it is reeling under. Shock is the more appropriate term. America’s Middle East policy is in free fall, its crucial support system knocked out by the most trusted Arab ally in the region, Saudi Arabia.

On 28 March the venerable Saudi monarch, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, told the Arab summit in Riyadh that the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq was illegal. The damage that this has done to America’s presence in Iraq, and its credibility in the region, is immense. King Abdullah’s precise words were, "In beloved Iraq, blood flows between brothers in the shadow of illegitimate foreign occupation and hateful sectarianism… We will not allow forces from outside the region to determine the future of the region."

This public snub was probably the good news. The private snub was, if anything, worse. King Abdullah sent his national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, to tell President George Bush that he was a bit tied up at the moment, and therefore could not fly over for a state dinner on 17 April: maybe they could do dinner another time? When your best friend is not free for dinner, it is time to look in the mirror.

The White House chose to grin and deny that any invitation had been sent, but it was impossible to deny the contents of the Abdullah speech. The State Department asked Nicholas Burns, still looking depressed after his non-talks on the nuclear deal in Delhi, to explain on television that the American presence in Iraq had UN sanction as well as the invitation of the Iraqi government. Mr Burns did not dwell on the finer points of both: that the Security Council held another view before the war began, and that the Iraqi government whose invitation he so admires did not exist then. And now comes news that young King Abdullah of Jordan has no time for dinner either. Although the Jordan monarch is so often in America that he could qualify for a frequent flyer programme were he plebeian enough to fly on a commercial liner, he too has sent word that it might be wiser to postpone a planned state visit in September. Would 2008 do?

It is not that America’s friends have become stronger, but that, under Bush, America has become weaker. Even genuine friends are tired of Bush’s posturing on fundamental issues like Palestine, and his self-defeating, lacerating war agenda. Five years ago, only a few months after 9/11, King Abdullah floated a plan for peace in the region which, in essence, was a land-for-peace option: if Israel returned to its 1967 borders, all the Arab states would accept it as a neighbour with whom they could live in peace. Only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have full relations with Israel at the moment.

In 2002, America was the most powerful country in the world, not because of the Pentagon, but because it had the genuine sympathy of the international community which condemned 9/11 as an outrageous act of wanton terrorism. America possessed the steel of moral strength. Bush has squandered an asset which history endows upon nations only occasionally, with the petulance of swagger. A wiser man might have chosen his enemies with more care, and used his friends to more purpose. The Abdullah plan still has legs when Bush has lost his. This is unfortunate, because every proposal still needs the momentum of American support to travel forward. Iraq has become the graveyard of Bush’s presidency.

George Bush has destroyed Iraq and wounded America deeply. It is a legacy that will take time to repair.

Weakness can be more dangerous than strength, since ebbing confidence often tempts you towards the irrational. The loser’s dream, when his stake has disappeared, is to take a chance one last time: double or quits. Another loss will not change his status as a loser, but a victory can bring the windfall that turns you into an unexpected hero. Will Bush add a third war, with Iran, in the hope that he can compensate for the two he is losing, in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The drama of 15 sailors being captured by Iran near the mouth of the Shatt al Arab waterway is not the only incident reminiscent of the Cold War. It might be pertinent to note that both Britain and Iran may be right in their claims about the boundary, since that line on the sea has been in dispute ever since it was drawn. (I can’t help wondering, incidentally, about the fate of the Indian "smuggling" ship which was searched by the British: did it escape in the turmoil?) But the reasons for the escalation in the confrontation between Iran and Britain may lie in an episode that took place five weeks earlier.

On 7 February, an Iranian official, Brigadier General Ali Reza Asgari, a former deputy defence minister, vanished in Istanbul. He was on more than one intelligence watch-list since he was known to have helped organise the Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s. An Israeli daily, Yedioth Aharonoth, broke the silence around the mystery by reporting that Mossad, Israel’s much-admired intelligence agency, had organised Asgari’s defection. Other reports suggest that Mossad, always in control of his case, may have misled Asgari into believing that he was a mole for a European country rather than for Israel. No one has any idea of where he is now, but when Franz Jung, Germany’s defence minister, was asked during a visit to Turkey whether Asgari was in Germany, he declined to give any answer.

There is never one single reason for chess moves in a complicated conflict. And spies may be knights and castles when they are at work, but become pawns when they are caught. That is the normal law of this game. There is no good reason why Iran should risk a larger battle for the sake of a mole. But governments are not one-dimensional either, and this dangerous chess tournament is played simultaneously on more than one table. Iran might be sending just this message: that Britain cannot patrol those waters with impunity, or that the probing missions that do take place in preparation for war will not get the kind of free run that they got in Iraq before 2003.

What is evident is that events could run in either direction. There is a peace plan on the table, and there is a war plan on the seas — and the skies. Perhaps we have no right to expect a victory for good sense, when so many powerful players believe that they can build something fresh out of rubble.

But since surprise is the theme of the first of April, which option do you think would surprise you more? A collective rush towards chaos, or a constructive step towards peace?

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