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Greater Middle East in 2008

by Claude Salhani

It’s that time of year again and there is little to rejoice about as 2007 draws to a close. The Middle East crisis, for decades confined mostly to the countries bordering Israel, has spread to include what the Bush administration calls the “Greater Middle East” with Turkey and Pakistan dragged into the fray.

Pessimism is the order of the year. The situation, many observers believe, will get worse before getting even worse. The Bush administration’s hope to sow democracy throughout the region has shifted into reverse gear. But then again, this is the Middle East where miracles have been known to happen. That reverse gear can just easily shift into first.

Weeks shy of scheduled elections Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, a major US ally in the “war on terrorism” decided in early November that his country could do without democratic institutions and declared a state of emergency. The general, it was hoped, would keep his military uniform tucked away in his closet and run as a civilian in the elections, one of the demands of the opposition, instead came out of the closet wearing full battledress fatigues. But perhaps US pressure sometimes comes through. Musharraf did end up shedding his uniform, but only after appointing a close ally to replace him.

Musharraf, who has received about $10 billion from the US, said he was placing his country’s interests above everything else. That includes Bush’s hopes to see democracy spread. Instead, I predict that free and fair democratic elections in Pakistan are unlikely to take place in the immediate future. Pro al-Qaida Islamist groups will increase violence hoping to overthrow Musharraf and create the first nuclear powered Islamist state. That is assuming Iran doesn’t beat them to it. Musharraf’s battle with the country’s judiciary is likely to escalate before the turbulence shaking Pakistan’s political climate settles down. And the lawyers may win.

An easy prediction is the war in Iraq. Despite claims that some provinces are getting better, the conflict will outlast the Bush administration. As George W. rides off into the sunset from Washington for his ranch in Crawford, Texas, he will leave to his successor (a Democrat, in all probability Hillary Clinton) a legacy more muddled, more complex and more volatile than ever before. Turkey will become militarily involved as it pursues Kurdish separatists into Iraq.

On the economic and home fronts Bush’s legacy fares no better with oil nearing $100 a barrel and the housing market in shambles as a result of the financial debacle over the sub-prime mortgages which forced two CEOs — Charles Prince of Citigroup and Stan O’Neal of Merrill Lynch — to resign. New York City-based Citigroup may soon layoff as many as 45,000 jobs as a result of the sub-prime crisis. Citigroup employs about 320,000 people and manages roughly 200 million customers worldwide. The company lost about $6.5 billion in the sub-prime affair.

Prince’s departure came only a week after the resignation of O’Neal, the head of Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s best known investment banks. Merrill Lynch, too, is said to be caught up in the sub-prime loans business.

Relations between the United States and Iran will remain frozen, if we are lucky. A last-minute effort by the Bush administration to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability is not to be ruled out. If that were to happen a new wave of jihadi violence can be expected.

For Israel and Palestine, the revived road map for peace in the Middle East led to the Annapolis mega-peace conference which brought close to 50 countries and organizations, including for the first time, 16 Arab countries, among them Saudi Arabia and Syria together with Israel.

As predicted by numerous analysts, the Annapolis conference in and of itself failed to produce any immediate results. Instead, the Israelis and Palestinians promised to “continue pushing towards peace.” In political parlance that’s the equivalent of “the check is in the mail.” If indeed nothing concrete comes out of Annapolis and the follow-up meetings at the White House, the Bush administration can well be blamed for failing to apply pressure when it was needed most. The most dangerous consequences of a failed attempt at peace-making at this stage is likely to give birth to a renewal of violence in the region. If the year 2008 does not usher in a peaceful agreements between Israeli and Palestinians, it could see the beginning of Intifada III.

In Lebanon, the political scene remains so muddled — and with it the economic development of the country — that even the bravest of political scientists fear making predictions other than to say that the next 365 days are unlikely to see a resolution of the crisis. Lebanon may have a new president, this one less dependent on Damascus, though the pressure from the Syrian neighbor is unlikely to abate. The country’s future will remain intricately tied to Syria’s.

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