The day of giants–though some of them were ogres–is certainly over among Middle East leaders. In fact, what is most remarkable fact is how unremarkable the current rulers are.
There is both good and bad in this situation, since while there is no one capable of turning around a whole country Samson-like that also means there is no one likely to pull down the temple and crush everyone underneath. That is, with one possible exception we will discuss shortly.
The job description is as follows: Wanted: A strong charismatic nationalist figure to guide the Arabic-speaking world toward modernization along with stability, an acceptable peace with Israel, good relations with the West, and solidarity against threats from both non-Arab Iran and radical Islamists.
Of course, there is a mirror-image role that could also be filled: A strong charismatic nationalist figure to mobilize the Arabic-speaking world for battle with Israel, confrontation with the West, and solidarity against threats from both non-Arab Iran and radical Islamists.
There are no serious applicants for the first position and only a single almost laughable one for the second.
In Libya, the very strange Muammar Qadhafi, the Michael Jackson of the Middle East, remains in power. He is still in his laying-low stage. When the United States was overthrowing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003, he decided to make nice to Washington by dropping his nuclear weapons’ drive and reducing his support for terrorism.
But Qadhafi can never stay on his good behavior very long and there are signs–notably reports of his involvement stirring up terrorist insurgency in Iraq–that he may be entering a new period of manic, but relatively incompetent, destructiveness. Still, outside Libya only those who are on his payroll are willing to humor his boundless ambition. So far, his son, the most likely successor, seems to be cut from pretty similar cloth.
Next-door is President Husni Mubarak who in theory would seem to be about the Arabic-speaking world’s sole hope of a leader able to transcend national borders. But Egypt long ago soured on the high cost and low rewards of that particular burden. Mubarak is now elderly and ailing. Who will replace him, possibly his son, is not yet clear. Obviously, though, Mubarak is not able to fulfill a wider regional role and Cairo will not possess such a ruler for some years to come.
Lebanon has no president at all, and it is very hard to imagine how it is ever going to get one. The Lebanese government, rejecting any reimposed Syrian control, finally made a big concession and accepted army commander Michael Suleiman, who had been a candidate supported by Damascus. Once this happened, however, Damascus changed its mind and made it clear that the most important thing is that its protégés–most importantly Hizballah–have veto power over the government. There is a deadlock with no end in sight.
And what about the Palestinians? Surely, Yasir Arafat said, in the style of an equally short-sighted but much more impressive French king, that he was content if all was destroyed after his death. While some leaders built a foundation for their people and country, Arafat dug a deep hole
The Palestinians are now in it. Mahmoud Abbas, head of PA-Fatah, is a weak figure not only because he lacks a base but also since he has no notable political skills. On the opposite side stands a badly divided Gaza-Hamas, a regime not in the service of a leader but of a terrible ideal soaked in blood.
In Jordan, King Abdallah II seems to be a very nice young man but one more fluent in English than in Arabic. He may be adequately steering his own little country’s ship but he is in no position to become admiral of the fleet. Like the others on this list, he has zero influence outside his own state.
Saudi Arabia, which can certainly afford a lot of high-priced public relations’ advisors, might put forth King Abdallah as the man to be heeded. They do seem to be focusing on giving him a reputation as a reformer even though he doesn’t seem to do much. But seeking regional leadership isn’t the Saudi style. The government quietly counters Syria in Lebanon and rich Saudis fight Shia Islamism by financing terrorist insurgents in Iraq.
Ultimately, though, the Saudi style is to seek to get along with all sides, keeping the tight alliance with America (but doing little to help Washington) and trying to appease Tehran. The Arab world will not find leadership here, certainly not for an anti-radical, anti-Iran coalition.
And that brings us to Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has been in power for almost eight years now, which is a pretty fair chunk of experience. Yet he remains a rather brash, insecure guy, trying to play tough by screaming about struggle and resistance. Despite the useful idiots who purvey him as a moderate or peacemaker, Bashar has put his real cards on the alliance with Iran and fighting, or at least having other people do the fighting and dying, including Hizballah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Iraqi insurgents.
Bashar, then, is looking after his own local interests, only plays off other Arab leaders in order to preen himself as a fearless revolutionary.Ă?â??Ă?Â˛ He’s closer to being the world’s first nerd dictator. If you’ve seen Woody Allen in “Bananas” you get the picture, except that Bashar, of course, does really kill people. In the end, however, he is just Iran’s junior partner.
And that’s the point. The Arabs really have nobody impressive running things anywhere right now. This very serious leadership vacuum shows that the “Arab world” is more obviously not a real entity than ever before. There is, however, someone putting himself up as leader, and he’s no Arab. His name is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and if he isn’t really quite in control of Iran, behind him stands Spiritual Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The “Arab era” in Middle East history may well be done. Whether the next period will be one defined by more individualistic nationalist regimes, Islamist takeovers, or Iranian part-hegemony is perhaps the central question for the region’s future.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).