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Concocting a 'Greater Middle East' brew
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - After the trauma and psychodrama between the "old Europe" led by the "French fogies", and the "new Rome" of the globe parading its English "poodle" around over the invasion of Iraq, the players are now engaged in another ambitious game: defining a "Greater Middle East" (GME). They have already begun putting their drawings and plans on the table, and have dispatched representatives to the region to sell them, all in an effort to rally supporters.

Architects at the State Department, National Security and Department of Defense in Washington on one hand, and in Le Quai d'Orsay and Auswartigen Amt in Berlin (respectively France and Germany's foreign affairs ministries) on the other, are busy writing projects for the GME of their liking to be debated at coming summits of the European Union in late March and at the G-8, to be held latter in June.

"The expression spread like a wild fire, with leaders, diplomats and experts in international relations all talking about the Greater Middle East," observed the influential French daily Le Monde under a six column banner announcing "The United States Launches Its Project of 'Greater Middle East".

A high-level European Union delegation has already headed to Washington this week in which the central topic of discussion was expected to be the US's controversial plan for the modernization of the GME. But EU officials in Brussels appeared skeptical, suggesting that the US plan may clash with a number of key EU projects and concerns. The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and the EU's external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, are among those that have travelled to Washington. EU officials, briefing reporters ahead of the trip, indicated that the bloc's full backing for the US initiative is unlikely at this stage.

The American vision of the GME includes all Muslim nations, from countries of North Africa bordering the Mediterranean Sea to Pakistan, including Turkey and Israel. It is expected to be presented to Washington's partners at the next G-8 Summit due on June 8 in Sea Island, Georgia.

More or less, the American plan for the GME aims at filling the gaps that had been highlighted in the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) compiled for the United Nations concerning the situation of freedom, knowledge, democracy, economy and women emancipation in Arab nations. It calls for economic development based on the free market, mass education and bold political, social and cultural reforms, including more freedom, equality and opportunities for women. According to the reports, revenues in all Arab countries, some of them among the richest in the world, are less than that of Spain, where the number of the books published in one day is superior to all those printed in the Arab world in an entire year.

"In Arab countries, with a combined population of 284 million, a 'best seller' may have a print run of just 5,000 copies, due to censorship and other constraints on independent publishers. Translations of foreign works into Arabic lag far behind figures in the rest of the world: five times more books are translated yearly into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic. Just 53 newspapers per 1,000 citizens are published daily in the region, compared to 285 papers per 1,000 people in the developed nations, and there are only 18 computers per 1,000 people in the Arab world, as compared to the global average of 78 per 1,000," the AHDR 2003 report stated.

According to the American GME plan, "Until a population deprived of economic and politic rights increases, we would see an increase in extremism, terrorism, international criminality and illegal immigration," the text says, citing the "liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq" as "historical occasions".

In January, *US Vice President Dick Cheney outlined the American vision of fighting international terrorism in a speech at the World Economic Forum of Davos, saying: "Encouraging the spread of freedom and democracy is the right thing to do - and it is also very much in our collective self-interest. Helping the people of the Greater Middle East overcome the freedom deficit is, ultimately, the key to winning the broader war on terror."

Germany, one of the first initiators of the idea, immediately welcomed the American project, as at the last "Atlantic" meeting held on February 7 in Munich. Joschka Fischer, Germany's Grunen (Green) foreign affairs minister had already developed a blue print of a GME based on the ongoing "Barcelona Initiative" inked in 1995 between the European Union and southern and eastern Mediterranean countries.

"Together with out friends and allies in Europe and in the Great[er] Middle East, we would closely coordinate our efforts to respond to calls for reforms in the region and develop specific proposals that would be submitted to the G-8 summit and to the Euro-American summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), both scheduled for June," said a joint statement published on February 27 after the meeting at the White House between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and President George W Bush, a meeting that observers said was set up for "smoking the pipe of peace", referring to more than a year of unprecedented tensions in Berlin-Washington relations over the American military intervention in Iraq, with Germany standing firmly against the operations - alongside France and Russia.

The GME plan offered by Fischer is in line with his peers, mostly Hans-Dietrich Genscher's old vision for giving Germany's "dwarf" diplomacy the same weight as its economic power, starting from the Middle East, where he chose Iran, the region's most dynamic nation and not officially aligned to any existing world pacts and alliances, as a "jumping springboard".

The French broadly agreed with Fischer, considered one of Europe's most popular politicians, but opposed the addition of NATO to other players of the GME game and warned him that one should not put all of the Muslim nations in one basket, and any project aimed at defining a new order for the GME must be either separate from the "problematic" conflict between Israel and Palestine or based on solving this "essential" issue before any thing "serious" could be put on the table regarding the region.

"What Egypt has in common with, let's say Afghanistan, is just religion, and still, their Islam is not much the same. On the other hand, until Israel blocks the road map, it is absolutely futile talking about such grandiose projects. And for the time being, the United States is not ready [to call] Israel to order," pointed out a French diplomat speaking to the Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

Writing in the English-language al-Ahram weekly, Mohammad Sid-Ahmad, one of Egypt's most influential commentators, wonders whether or not widening the Middle East facilitates the control of its numerous conflicts. "The question is, however, whether there is such a thing as a Greater Middle East extending beyond the traditional geographical boundaries of the region. And, if so, what are the common features shared by the different countries now identified as parts of a body that would extend from Pakistan in the east to Morocco in the west? Take, for example, the call for the creation of an independent Arab state in Palestine. Does it follow that there should be a similar call for an independent Kurdish state or for an independent state in Kashmir? If all these countries are parts of one entity, should there not exist similar solutions for similar problems?" he wrote in the weekly's latest issue.

Calling the shots, Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign affairs minister, concocted his own brew for the GME in a lengthy interview with the centrist newspaper Le Figaro in which, careful of not provoking - again - the Americans who have not yet forgiven him for challenging them on the Iraq issue, succeeding in aligning Berlin to his side and waving France's veto at the United Nations Security Council, he took the middle road, observing however that the West must respond and fulfill the real needs of the people "and not impose any ready-made solutions on them".

"One has also to avoid a uniform approach, as one can not treat the Maghreb with the same pattern as the Middle East or the Persian Gulf states, nor can one concentrate everything on the security issue. To be successful, our approach must be global, taking into consideration all the political, economic, social, cultural, educational aspects," he said.

Both in an effort to overtake the Americans and to persuade the Germans about the "difficulties" the American project presents, mostly because it would certainly be opposed by all leading nations of the region - including Iran, Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia - the French foreign affairs minister, whom a British newspaper said "if there is a thing as a diplomatic pin up, then it is Dominique de Villepin", proposes that his GME to be presented at the next European Union summit in March.

"We want to engage quickly a large debate over the Middle East. With our European partners first, then the concerned nations in the region with the Arab League as their emanation and our other partners in the framework of the G-8," he pointed out, adding "the important thing is that the Europeans and the Americans works together not only in good intelligence, but also in close cooperation with the regional countries."

Contrary to the American plan, which is viewed as confusing, vague and unrealistic given the huge area it places into its GME, the French idea is less ambitious and more precise, as it is limited to "good governance, advancement of democracy, human rights, economic, social and cultural development".

In contrast to Fischer, de Villepin is adamant that allowing NATO into the plans for the GME is not a good idea. "The arrival of NATO as an actor in the Middle East would it be a factor or stability or, to the contrary, of complication?" de Villepin observed emphatically, cautioning that one must be "very prudent in the face of something that could be resented by some of the region's nations as an aggression. Nothing would be worse than to activate a sentiment of confrontation between the Arab world and our countries, between Islam and the West".

With the United States badly lost in the Iraqi quagmire, the human and financial costs of the war, and doubts about its true motives fueling domestic criticism of the Bush administration, a good number of American analysts and commentators - with the exception of the "neo-con" hardcore - have been persuaded that Dominique de Villepin had a point when, at the height of the Iraqi crisis, he stressed that "war is always the solution of failure. Even America's unprecedented might has its limits."

Pierre Hassner, a respected French political analyst and philosopher, commented: "France's position during the Iraqi conflict had this great advantage that it showed the Arab and Muslim worlds that not all the West is against them ... however, it created a sad and eventually lasting rift between the EU and the United States on the one hand and among the Europeans on the other."

Paul Rogers, writing for Open Democracy Online on February 2, questions the motives of the US, saying: "By way of compensation, visionary talk of a Greater Middle East for a few months during election year carries the hope of convincing the US electorate, and possibly people across the region, that such an initiative is genuine. It is possible that it will have some effect in the United States, but prospects of an impact in the Middle East itself are remote."

But Dr Shahin Fatemi, an Iranian professor of Economics at the American University of Paris, says the American plan for the Greater Middle East is not "specific" enough to have a purely electoral purpose. "The Americans have reached the conclusion that they do not need to align themselves with dictatorial regimes, their interest instead lies with promoting democracy, freedom, human rights and economic development. Such a program, even if [Democrat front runner John] Kerry is elected, would go on," he told the Asia Times Online.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


Mar 4, 2004





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