Foreign policy making in the Middle East
It is frequently claimed that foreign policy making in Middle East states is either the idiosyncratic product of personalistic dictators or the irrational outcome of domestic instability (Aarts, 911—25). In fact, it can only be adequately understood by analysis of the multiple factors common to all states, namely: (1) foreign policy determinants (interests, challenges) to which decision-makers respond when they shape policies; and (2) foreign policy structures and processes which factor the ‘inputs’ made by various actors into a policy addressing these determinants.
Foreign policy determinants
In any states system state elites seek to defend the autonomy and security of the regime and state in the three separate arenas or levels in which they must operate, although which level dominates attention in a given time and country may vary considerably.
The regional level geopolitics: In a states system like the Middle East, where regional militarization has greatly increased external threats, these often take first place on states’ foreign policy agendas. While, generally speaking, external threat tends to precipitate a search for countervailing power or protective alliances (or, these lacking, attempts to appease the threatening state), it is a state’s geopolitical position that specifically defines the threats and opportunities it faces. It constitutes a state’s neighborhood where border conflicts and irredentism are concentrated and buffer zones or spheres of influence sought. Position determines natural rivals: thus, Egypt and Iraq, stronger river valley civilizations, are historical competitors for influence in the weaker, fragmented Mashreq; Iran and Iraq are natural rivals for influence in the Gulf (Berberoglu). A state’s power position in the regional system, shaped by its resources, size of territory and population and the strategic importance or vulnerability of its location, shapes its ambitions: hence small states (Jordan, Gulf States) are more likely to seek the protection of greater powers and larger ones to establish spheres of regional influence (e.g. Syria in the Levant, Saudi Arabia in the GCC). (Brand)
The international level dependency: The impact of the core great powers and the international political economy constitutes a dilemma for regional states. The core is both the indispensable source of many crucial resources and of constraints on the autonomy of regional states. The constraining impact of the core ranges from the threat of active military intervention or economic sanctions to the leverage derived from the dependency of regional states, maximized where there is high need and a lack of alternatives for the client state. In extreme cases, foreign policy may be chiefly designed to access economic resources by appeasing donors and investors. Vulnerability to core demands, such as structural adjustment, can inflame domestic opposition. However, shared security and economic interests between the core powers and status quo elites may make such costs seem worth incurring.
The domestic level identity: In most Middle Eastern states identity is complex, with sub- and supra-state identities contesting exclusive loyalty to the state. Where sub-state identities are strong, they may produce irredentist pressures on decision-makers. Where suprastate Arab and/or Islamic identities are strong, regime legitimacy may be contingent on adherence to Arab-Islamic norms in foreign policy. This may mean contesting the penetration of the region by the core powers and it may de-legitimize relations with certain states: thus, while some Arab states have been pushed by economic dependency or security considerations to establish relations with Israel, these remain largely illegitimate at the societal level. (Abdel-Fadil, 119—34)
The impact of identity is not, of course, uniform. Where there are high levels of public mobilization and low levels of state consolidation, elites are more vulnerable to Pan-Arab or Pan-Islamic opinion in foreign policy making. Because supra-state identity is often an instrument of opposition forces or of subversion by rival states, status quo elites have an incentive to create state-centric identities compatible with sovereignty and to pursue the higher levels of state formation that enhance their autonomy from such pressures. However, where revisionist social forces dominate states, they may foster and use supra-state identities in the service of their foreign policy.
In the past, the United States has chalked up a series of noteworthy successes in the Middle East, from the Camp David accords and the formation of a multinational force to drive Hussein from Kuwait, to the Madrid peace conference. But these successes have hinged upon America’s role as an honest broker, intent on upholding international law and reconciling its policies with concern for human rights and justice. When the United States fails to act as a good faith partner, all the resources that it can bring to bear have little discernible impact upon the status quo.
However, core—periphery relations merely set the outside parameters within which Middle East regional politics are conducted. Moreover, far from being static, they are constantly contested and periodically stimulate anti-imperialist movements which, if they take state power, attempt to restructure these relations. Whether nationalist states can do this, however, depends on systemic structures. When there is a hegemonic power (UK, USA) able to ‘lay down the law’ on behalf of the world capitalist system (in the Middle East ensuring its access to cheap energy), and especially if the regional system is simultaneously divided (the usual condition), it is easy for external powers to exploit local rivalries to sustain their penetration of the region. Conversely, when the core was split, as under Cold War bi-polarity, nationalist states were able to exploit superpower rivalry to win protection, aid and arms from the number two state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), enabling them to pursue nationalist foreign policies, and to dilute economic dependency. Moreover, as Thompson (151—67) has shown, the Middle East is a partial exception to Galtung’s feudal model in that, while fragmented economically and politically, it enjoys trans-state cultural unity which nationalist states have exploited to mobilize regional solidarity against the core. Thus, the conjuncture of the Cold War and the spread of Pan Arabism allowed Nasser’s Egypt to sufficiently roll back imperialist influence to establish a relatively autonomous regional system. Additionally, in the rise of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), south—south solidarity produced exceptional financial power that, while failing ultimately to raise the region from the economic periphery, arguably transformed the position of the swing oil producer, Saudi Arabia, from dependence into asymmetric interdependence. However, favorable conditions for regional autonomy have, particularly since the end of the oil boom and Cold War, been largely reversed. The West’s restored ability to intervene militarily and impose economic sanctions and loan conditionality has revived key features of the age of imperialism at the expense of regional autonomy (Aarts, 1—12). No analysis of the international politics of the region can be convincing that does not take account of the profound impact of the ongoing struggle for regional autonomy from external control.
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