Courtesy Reuters

Watershed in the Middle East

Last year was a watershed in the Middle East. It began with a war in the Persian Gulf and ended with an Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. The liberation of Kuwait, the destruction of Iraq’s offensive capabilities by the U.S.-led coalition and the simultaneous, though unrelated, disintegration of the Soviet Union promoted the United States to a position of unchallenged dominance in the region. The radical powers—Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—found themselves without a superpower patron; the back of the "rejectionist front" was broken. As a direct consequence, by the end of 1991 all of Israel’s Arab neighbors were engaged in direct peace negotiations with the Jewish state and Iran had arranged the release of the remaining American hostages.

The gulf crisis exposed the inadequacies of governments and the failure of their ideologies, the perfidy of some leaders and the venality of others. And the end of superpower rivalry in the Middle East robbed the players of their most valued asset: the ability to secure patronage by playing one superpower against the other. Yet not one Middle East government was overthrown as a result of the year’s tumultuous events. Instead the region’s leaders, most of whom had been in power for at least a decade, sought to adjust to the new post-Cold War, post-Gulf War circumstances as best they could while retaining a powerful urge to cling to the old ways of doing business.

Given America’s dominant influence, things might have been different had the United States adopted a more ambitious approach to restructuring the Middle East order. The objectives were certainly lofty. In his March 6 victory speech to Congress, the president called for a new regional security structure, limitations on the Middle East arms race, an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and economic freedom and prosperity for all the people of the region. But the Bush administration also had a preference for the status quo, and its

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