TCS Daily

Watching Khartoum

By Michael Young - April 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Arab summits are typically repositories of failure. The latest one in Khartoum, Sudan last week was no exception. The participants offered little that was new on a series of major regional developments, confirming that the Arab regional system is in an advanced state of decay.

Only in the past few years have Arab summits become annual events. Previously, their timing was intermittent, and in the absence of consensus -- common enough thanks to Arab rivalries -- summits could take an embarrassingly long time to reconvene. Whatever the inadequacies of the former system, the idea of a yearly get-together has done little to improve inter-Arab relations. The quarrels of the Cold War years may have been resolved, but Arab states must now address how their utter refusal to challenge a status quo, essentially imposed by despots, is pushing them all into irrelevance.

Take what the participants in Khartoum had to say about Iraq.

The final statement was a compilation of generalities supporting the country's independence, the need for Arabs to play a role in its future, and Arab League efforts to buttress Iraqi conciliation. However, little of substance was said about the reopening of Arab embassies in Baghdad -- a point of contention between Iraq and its Arab brethren before the summit.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had insisted that Arab states endorse an immediate resumption of full diplomatic activity; all he got was a statement promising that an Arab League mission would soon be opened. Left unmentioned was that the Arabs are confused over Iraq. They are willing to accept the post-Ba'ath order, but are reluctant to embrace a situation with which many regimes are uneasy -- i.e. one that includes a powerful American military presence and a sidelined Sunni community.

The leaders in Khartoum had nothing to say about Iran, which is fast becoming the elephant in the Arab living room. In the run-up to the summit, Arab foreign ministers had expressed displeasure with the American-Iranian dialogue over Iraq, seeing in this a mechanism for Arab marginalization in the country's future. Indeed, but it is also a reminder of how little input the Arabs have had there. Nor have they put much thought into the broader issue of Iranian power in the Middle East. The fact is there is no Arab unanimity when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran's involvement in Iraq, or its influence in Syrian and Lebanese affairs. This has left any policy initiative largely outside Arab hands.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Arab leaders were more nuanced -- so much so that they will be ignored. The participants reaffirmed their commitment to a land-for-peace plan agreed at the Beirut summit of 2002, but also condemned unilateral Israeli actions in drawing a border with a Palestinian state. However, Palestinians will have been little impressed that no additional Arab funds were earmarked for their territories to make up for the shortfall in international aid following the Hamas election victory in January. As for the U.S., the European Union and Israel, they will have noticed that Arab leaders avoided asking Hamas to renounce the armed struggle, recognize Israel's right to exist, and accept past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Arab leaders were inconsistent on a key subject shaping Syrian-Lebanese relations. While supporting a full investigation of the assassination last year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, they displayed uncertainty as to whether they want to deal with the consequences of the truth. The killing led to a Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, but tension between Beirut and Damascus has persisted because of the high probability that the Syrian regime eliminated Hariri. The United Nations Security Council ordered an inquiry into the crime, which is ongoing, and subsequently passed two resolutions urging cooperation under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for sanctions to be imposed. Its implicit target was Syria, after its leadership had tried to stall the process.

In their final statement, Arab leaders condemned American sanctions against Syria as "a disregard of international law and the principles of United Nations resolutions." They selectively failed to indicate that Damascus is potentially liable to being sanctioned under Chapter VII. The reality is that in expressing solidarity with Syria now, Arab leaders were signaling that they did not want to see the Syrian regime destabilized. On several occasions in recent months, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular have sought to politically bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad. His downfall, they fear, might bring Islamists to power.

On another trouble spot, Darfur, the Arabs showed more lack of imagination, but this time such a lack bordered on the criminal. They gave vital leverage to the Sudanese government -- responsible for the slaughter in Darfur -- by backing its right to approve the dispatch of further regional or international peace-keeping troops to the province. The leaders also backed funding for an African Union force already in Darfur to the order of $150 million, but the money is only scheduled to be paid by October 1, a day after the AU mandate ends. Aside from the fact that the money is needed now, its disbursement is designed to keep alive the AU mission and allow Khartoum to control which outside forces deploy in Darfur.

Why is that? Julie Flint, who has co-authored a book on the Darfur crisis, explained it this way: "[The Arabs'] fear is not that Darfur will go to hell in a hand basket if the AU packs its bag ... [it] is that the AU will be replaced by a United Nations force with teeth, which could act as a police force for the International Criminal Court."

In their pronouncements, or lack thereof, on all of the most important regional issues -- an Arab role in Iraq, Iranian power, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Darfur -- Arab leaders exposed the profound bankruptcy of the state system in which they navigate. In seeking consensus, they reinforce stalemate; in defending their comrades in Syria and Sudan, they abet criminals; in offering nothing new on the Palestinian and Iraqi conflicts, they encourage others to do so while overlooking their interests.

One is almost nostalgic for the days when Arab summits took years to arrange. At least then Arab unity was shown in its true light.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.


1 Comment

Accurate but a bit harsh
Americans and many Europeans have long struggled with the nuances of the bazaar method of barter and trade. The Arab states are very similar in regard to negoiations with the Asians. They have a tendancy to try and play both ends against the middle in an effort to offend no one and be in the best possible position regardless of the outcome of a dispute.

This is the reason for the lack of committment at Arab summits.

While, with time, I believe the Arabs will come out of this mode; don't expect it to happen all at once. The fact they actually attempt to hold an annual summit is a big step in the right direction.

Also, western democracies shouldn't be in any hurry for the Arabs to change. If they suddenly began to commit to anything meaningful, I fear the west would not like that committment much.

The author here should be careful what he wishes for; he just might get it!

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