The Middle East hasn't had many good years for a while, so the fact that some cheerful news did come from that region in 1993 is something to note. But don't bring out the champagne yet, for not one of the major issues has yet been solved. Here, from a self-consciously American perspective and in no particular order, are some highlights from the Middle East during the past twelve months.
The best news: Oil now costs under $14 a barrel, down from $18 at the start of the year. As by far the world economy's most important commodity, oil has a huge impact on economic growth or recession. The drop in price did much to fuel the global recovery. Ironically, it is also good news in the long run for the ostensible beneficiaries of the oil bonanza. In the words of a Palestinian owner of a grocery store in Jerusalem: "Oil, the way its money has been used, has done more harm than good to the Arabs." Less easy money also reduces the capabilities of unsavory regimes in Iran, Syria, and Iraq to engage in mischief.
The second best news: Fundamentalist Muslims in Jordan fared poorly in parlimentary elections in November, showing the limits of their appeal when brought into the political process.
The most unsung achievement: That the U.S. government maintained an embargo on Iraq and continued to destroy that country's arsenal. As a result, Saddam Husayn is starting to accept United Nations demands. Steadfastness doesn't come easy to democracies, especially when economic costs are involved, but we're showing it here.
The biggest loss: The death of Turkey's President Turgut Özal, a visionary who transformed his country's attitudes toward free markets and enlarged Turkey's democratic inclinations.
The goofiest moment: Two hundred Libyans suddenly landed in Israel to visit Jerusalem as pilgrims. The event raised hopes in Israel about a new diplomataic breakthrough but ended in bitterness when the Libyans denounced their Israeli hosts. To add to the surreal flavor of this event, Washington reportedly delivered a "stern" warning to Jerusalem "to stop its efforts to establish contacts with Libya."
The oddest public statement: Saddam Husayn's public announcement in August that "students must not wander around the corridors of their residence halls in pajamas or barefooted."
And finally, the most overrated event: That September 13th party on the White House lawn, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands. Yes, it was important that Israelis and Palestinians agreed on first principles, but intervening months clarified two forgotten points: they agreed only on principles, not on a peace treaty; and many powerful elements in the Middle East oppose the agreement, especially on the Arab side. The September accord may end up altering the atmospherics without changing much of the reality on the ground.
Looking ahead, some thoughts:
The greatest danger: If fundamentalist Muslims take power in Egypt or Algeria, they would deeply disrupt an already troubled region, leading to a much higher price of oil, a proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, renewed bellicosity toward Israel, and great new waves of immigrants landing on European and American shores.
The biggest question mark: What Syria's President Hafiz al-Asad thinks about making peace with Israel. One of the era's most brilliant politicians, he's so far managed to keep all options open: he builds up his military force, continues to sponsor terrorist groups, and maintains an alliance with Iran, even while he takes part in the American-sponsored peace talks. Which way he goes could well determine whether the Arab-Israeli conflict continues or ends.
The most distressing development: The Middle East and the West seem to understand each other less and less. Things we take for granted they disbelieve; their ideas strike us as absurd. I could cite dozens of examples-American troops went to Somalia to protect trade routes or Israeli intelligence agents bombed the World Trade Center-but here's the most profound: While Americans find new inventive ways to reduce the Department of Defense budget (reduce hardware, slim down the forces, cut back on research), Middle Easterner leaders think Washington plans to control the world.
This is one matter that sworn enemies concur about. Iran's Ahmad Khomeini fears Americans are establishing a "mastery and domination over the world." A Baghdad newspaper foresees "U.S. hegemony over the world." A Damascus newspaper states that World War III will continue until "every U.S. ministry becomes a ministry of the whole world." This profound suspicion colors almost every U.S. government action in the Middle East and discolors political life in that region. As someone who has studied the Middle East for nearly a quarter century, I have never found comunication so difficult with Middle Easterners as it is today. We haven't heard the last of this ominous development.