Time was when a mere statement from a secretary of state – let alone a US president – would have the phones jangling across the Middle East. The Reagans, Clintons, Bushes or Obamas of this world actually did have an effect on the region, albeit often malign, US leaders being poorly briefed and always in awe of Israel (not to mention its power to destroy political lives in Washington). But today, who is calling the shots across the old Ottoman Empire?
Well, just take a look at Putin and Assad and Erdogan and Sissi and Macron and Rouhani. These are the men who are currently holding the headlines, either declaring Isis dead or beaten or Syria “saved” or the Kurds “terrorists” or rescuing Prime Minister Saad Hariri from his hostage home in Saudi Arabia – although now we’ve all got to believe that he wasn’t detained and didn’t really intend to resign or did resign but doesn’t want to resign any more. And rather oddly, Mohamed bin Salman looks less and less influential, a Gulf Crown Prince whose attempts to destroy Yemen, Assad’s Syria, Qatar and Al Jazeera and even poor Lebanon look more and more like a child in a tantrum, throwing his toys around in an attempt to frighten the neighbours – including the one neighbour he will not fight, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
So the Middle East I live in looks less and less like the place I arrived to report on more than four decades ago. Then US “policy” was real if often delusional, balanced by an ever more crumbling Soviet Union, constantly reassuring a battery of dictators that they would support them – at various times, they included Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Anwar Sadat, King Hussain of Jordan, Colonel Gaddafi and the Shah of Iran. It was a time, too, when even the PLO and Arafat were “terrorists” – though they were confusingly taken on and off “terrorist lists” by the US or Israel every few years. In fact, these were the jolly days when the Israelis were encouraging that nice friendly Hamas movement – now, of course, back in the “terrorist” cage – to open new mosques in Gaza to counterbalance Arafat’s statelet in Lebanon. The Israelis have effectively “forgotten” that dangerous little policy of theirs.
And in those far-off days, who could imagine the cults that would emerge to recast all the “terrorists” of yesterday as “moderates” and present an entirely new chamber of horrors – al-Qaeda and Isis – to put the fear of God into us all and to spread their influence around the globe and to force even the dunderheads in the Pentagon to call them “apocalyptic”? And it’s interesting that Iran’s own President announces that Isis is beaten – it used to be George W Bush who talked about “mission accomplished”.