'Searching for attackers lurking in the night'
By M K Bhadrakumar
There is enormous political symbolism in the circuitous route that US Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice took for visiting Baghdad on Monday. She headed first
to the quiet British town of Blackburn for a weekend's bonding with her British
allies, and then proceeded to Iraq, accompanied by British Foreign Secretary
Any limited perspective on the Rice-Straw mission in terms of cajoling Ibrahim
al-Jaafari to give up his prime ministership in
Baghdad overlooks that Iraq is the cornerstone of the United States' imperial
venture in remaking the Middle East, with the objective of controlling the
region - its flows of oil, weapons and
Two major powers traditionally active in the region are responding to the
Anglo-American drive for a New Middle East - Russia and Turkey.
The Russian moves are impressive - strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia,
gaining observer status in the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC),
revival of ties with Syria and Egypt, contact with Hamas, networking with Iraqi
Sunni tribal leaderships, institutional ties with the Arab League, and,
arguably, the heavily nuanced line on Iran.
Germane to all this, Moscow perceives a likely replay of past Anglo-American
attempts to pit the Muslim world against Russia. Given its history, geography
and culture and the multinational and multi-faith character of its society,
Russia has everything to lose in an "inter-civilizational" conflict.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently wrote:
Russia will not
let anybody set it at loggerheads with the Islamic world ... The increased
significance of the energy factor in global politics is on the mind of many.
Even those who have got used to thinking in terms of geopolitics appreciate
that the equation formula of strategic stability has changed and the specific
weight of nuclear deterrence itself has diminished ... At the same time, it is
obvious that any sustained development of Russia's energy sector rules out for
the foreseeable future any disregard of the Near and Middle East resources in a
global energy balance.
In a lengthy message addressed to the
Arab League summit meeting at Khartoum on March 28, Russian President Vladimir
I am well aware that the heads of state and peoples of the
Arab world, and in other Muslim states, share Russia's growing concern about
the danger arising out of new divisions in the international community. It is
our deep conviction that the time has come to act, and to act together, under
the auspices of the United Nations as a key player.
As the events of the last few years in the Middle East have shown, unilateral
actions do not resolve problems and they even aggravate them. Russia, a
multi-confessional country with observer status within the Organization of
Islamic Conference, has firm intentions to make a significant contribution to
Putin called for "consensual approaches" to the
issues of social, economic and political transformation in the Arab world:
"Events should not be rushed in an artificial way, nor should outside pressure
be applied." Stressing that resolving the Palestinian problem within the
framework of UN Resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and 1515 should be the priority,
Putin described Russia's "dialogue" with Hamas as an "approach to new realities
in a constructive and pragmatic way".
Putin said Iraq's unity and territorial integrity could only be achieved
through a national dialogue and by "ending the foreign military presence". He
called for a lowering of "tensions around Lebanon and Syria" and opposed "any
It comes as no surprise that the countries of the Arab Middle East have warmed
to the Russian overtures.
Moscow hosted on March 27-28 the first session of the so-called Russia-Islamic
World Strategic Vision Group comprising Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey,
Indonesia, Egypt, etc. Putin greeted the foreign delegates attending the
conference. Significantly, Yevgeni Primakov, former prime minister and renowned
orientalist who played a key role in crafting the Soviet Union's ties with the
Arab world through the Cold War years, chaired the Moscow meet.
Again, the head of the Saudi National Security Council, Prince Bandar bin
Sultan, paid a "working visit" to Moscow on Tuesday. The Russian Foreign
Ministry said the hugely influential Saudi prince's agenda included the
Palestine issue, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and "conditions in Iraq", apart from
"building up and deepening" Russia-Saudi relations.
Turkey, too, is seeking to revive its ties in the Middle East - a region that
it turned its back on in 1923. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's presence
at the Arab League summit in Khartoum as a "permanent guest" meshes with a
series of Turkish moves in the past three years.
Turkey claims it is trying to act as a "bridge" between the Middle East region
and the Western world. (Curiously, Russia also is staking claims for a similar
role as a "civilizational bridge" between the Muslim world and the West.)
But the US may not accede to such a profound role for Turkey or Russia - and
Ankara and Moscow cannot be unaware of that. The US simply ignored similar
Turkish (and Russian) claims in the 1990s to act as a "bridge" in the Balkans
during the crises in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Turkish-US relations (like Russian-US relations) have been increasingly bumpy.
Yet Turkey couldn't sit on the fence. It has vital interests to safeguard -
least of all in its eastern provinces.
Turkey also has a government with a ruling party of pronounced religious
orientation, which is approaching an election and would have to grapple with a
resurgence of nationalism that has overtones of political Islam, and is heavily
laden with "anti-Americanism". And this at a juncture when the so-called
Kemalist secular camp has atrophied (or fragmented) almost to the point of
irrelevance in the country's party politics, and a drift in Turkey's search for
European Union membership is visible.
More important, as in Moscow, few in Ankara are convinced that Washington is
anywhere near being transparent in its Iraq policies. Both Russia and Turkey
would suspect that Washington did not have an "exit strategy" in Iraq because
no exit was (or is) intended. They fear that if push comes to shove, the US
will not hesitate to turn Iraq, in fragments, into a de facto colony.
Few in Ankara today, therefore, share Washington's hostility toward Syria and
Iran. Ankara, like Moscow, favors engagement of Syria and Iran and opposes the
use of force or "regime changes" in these neighboring countries.
Equally so, Turkey is deeply skeptical (like Russia) about the United States'
"transformational diplomacy" in the Middle East. "Democratization is a process,
and it should be expected to proceed at a different pace in different
countries," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said in a written statement
Ankara also hosted Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. A Turkish Foreign Ministry
statement said, "At this stage, the international community should adopt a
prejudice-free attitude and give the new Palestinian government the opportunity
to fulfill its obligations."
Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US went ballistic over the Hamas
chief's visit to Turkey. But the Turkish leadership (like the Kremlin) held
firm. Erdogan insisted Turkey was doing the "right thing at the right time".
Again, Jaafari visited Ankara when the US was working hard to get him to quit
office. (Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said the visit took place without his
knowledge, and he wouldn't "recognize" any agreements that the Iraqi prime
minister entered into with the Turkish government.)
A visit by influential Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Turkey is now talked
about. Turkey is reaching out to different Iraqi constituencies - just in case.
Turkey's Sabah newspaper recently quoted a "high-level" US official voicing
fears in Washington about "Turkey's metamorphosis into a new Malaysia". Indeed,
Turkey sought and obtained the post of secretary general of the OIC. (Turkey
was supportive of Russia's observer status in the body.)
Erdogan's presence at the Arab League summit in Khartoum last week signified
the culmination of an initiative made during his visit to Cairo in January
2003. The Arab League initially had reservations on account of Turkey's close
ties with Israel, but circumstances have changed dramatically since the Iraq
war began. (Interestingly, on his return journey to Ankara from Khartoum,
Erdogan made a detour to visit the OIC headquarters in Jeddah.)
Looking after interests
But Turkey does not cross swords with the US or Britain in the Middle East.
Like Russia, Turkey is primarily taking precautions that at the very least a
New Middle East, if one indeed shapes up under Anglo-American supervision,
would not be pitted against Turkey's core interests. In uncertain times, it
becomes prudent to hedge one's bets.
Having said that, both Moscow and Ankara will focus on Iraq in immediate terms.
This course is Iraq's security. Moscow and Ankara would be justified to ask:
"What was it that Straw could offer Rice?"
The answer lies in one of the most influential and enduring British strategic
theories attributed to T E Lawrence. This strategy was distilled by Lawrence in
the deserts of Arabia in the second decade of the 20th century (and to which
Britain remained largely faithful even in Northern Ireland). In terms of this,
Straw would tell Rice that in Iraq, to begin with, instead of being bogged down
in a senseless trench war where armed clashes were turning into mass butchery,
Washington should focus on a strategy of warfare that dispensed with battles.
Conceivably, Straw would counsel Rice that instead of attacking the Iraqi
enemies, she should go around them, as Lawrence would have done, "immobilizing
and isolating them, wearing them down as their sentries peer into the darkness
searching for attackers who might or might not be lurking in the night" - to
use the inimitable words of David Fromkin, author of the classic study on 1922
Middle East settlement, A Peace to End All Peace.
A problem remains, however. As Fromkin would point out, Lawrence's strategy has
its limitations. It has no use for a country fighting for survival; a country
that obstinately refuses to surrender and may need to be crushed by force; and
an enemy that will not surrender even if tired, but chooses to fight to hold on
to something it can't afford to give up.
Thus a paradox so typical of our times arises: the strategy attributed to
Lawrence, the hero of British imperialism, is most effective against a great
power that favors pitched, face-to face battles.
But Straw could as well have told that to Rice while strolling in the town
center in Blackburn. A symbolic visit to Baghdad should not have been
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).