The end of the balancing act

The fall of the Berlin Wall carved out a new political reality in the Middle East.

The Suez crisis was a watershed moment for the Arab world during the Cold War [GALLO/GETTY] 

The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago marked the end of the Cold War era, and with it the clash of ideology between East and West that had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. 

The wall had come to symbolise the post-Second World War geopolitical polarisation between what the US characterised as the ‘Free World’ and the ‘Evil Empire’.

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But for Arab states and much of the third world, the Soviet Union had existed as an important counter-balance to US power, and played a crucial role in their political and economic sustenance.

Prior to the collapse of Communism at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, the Arab states aligned themselves along the demarcation lines of the Cold War, with the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt lining up behind the US, and others, such as Syria and Iraq, throwing their lot in with the Soviets.

The Soviet Union’s support for Arab states was motivated by plans to expand Communist influence throughout the world and contest US power wherever it was possible. For the Arab states, the Soviet Union was an important ally as they defined themselves in the post-colonial era.

Playing the superpowers

The Arab states learnt to play the rivalry between the feuding superpowers to increase their influence in the region and achieve geopolitical goals.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian president, carefully positioned his country in a tug-of-war between the Soviets and the Americans when he sought western funding to build the Aswan High Dam, which he believed was crucial to developing the Egyptian economy. 

When the US, Britain and the World Bank withdrew their initial offer to lend Egypt the money to build the dam in 1956, Nasser responded by nationalising the Suez Canal, triggering an international crisis that resulted in Britain, France and Israel occupying the canal, Sinai and Gaza.

In Washington, the Eisenhower administration calculated that if the crisis continued, it would be a matter of time before the Soviet Union started helping Egypt against the western powers. Seeing this as a potential Russian foothold in a strategically crucial region, the US pressured the occupying powers to withdraw their forces from Egyptian soil, handing a victory, of sorts, to Nasser.

Mohammad Dalbah, a Washington-based journalist who specialises in the Middle East views this crisis as the start of the Arab involvement in the Cold War. “If you look at the history of the region, you find that most Arab states achieved their independence during the Cold War,” says Dalbah.

“The existence of the Cold War and world powers’ rivalry was instrumental to the independence of Arab states, and others, ushering the end of western colonialism period in the Third World.”

The collapse

But the collapse of the Berlin Wall and consequent demise of the Soviet Union changed the regional dynamics in the Middle East, allowing the US to operate virtually uncontested in much of the region.

Arab states could no longer switch sides between the competing camps or play off one bloc against another to get what they wanted. 

President Bush visiting American troops during Operation Desert Storm [GALLO/GETTY] 

In 1990, a few weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, George HW Bush, the former US President, declared a “New World Order,” in which Washington would create a “rule of law that supplants the rule of the jungle.”

Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he said, was “the first assault on the New World that we seek, the first test of our mettle.”

As the world’s uncontested superpower, Bush argued, the US had a moral imperative to intervene. “Had we not responded to this first provocation with clarity of purpose; if we do not continue to demonstrate our determination, it would be a signal to actual and potential despots around the world.” 

The US assembled the biggest US troop and military hardware build-up since Vietnam, and marshalled a coalition of European, Arab and other allies in effort to drive Iraq out of Kuwait in a massive operation codenamed Desert Storm.

Desert Storm was the first war in military history that witnessed the use of so-called advanced “smart bombs”; GPS guided navigation systems and F-117 stealth fighters.

The US massive air, land and sea bombardment killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and obliterated the civic infrastructure of the Iraqi state.

After the dust had settled, the Iraqi army lay in ruins on the desert highway between Kuwait and Iraq and Baghdad lost control of territory in the north and the south.

New geopolitical parameters

The entire conflict would have been unthinkable had the Cold War parameters still been in effect. As it was, the Soviet Union was on its death bed, allowing the US to act as it pleased to protect its interests.

Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, had failed to read the geopolitical shifts that enabled the US to respond to his invasion of Kuwait in a way that would have been impossible just a few years earlier, and had paid the price.

It was a lesson for other former Soviet allies in the region. Aware that the old counter-balancing powers no longer existed, Hafez al-Assad, the late Syrian president calculated that his country could not stand alone to face the US, and supported Washington in Desert Storm. 

Twelve years later, Iraq was invaded again. The second Gulf War, led by President George W. Bush, deposed the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein forever.

But the invasion’s dubious legal basis, and the unproven allegations upon which it was justified have led critics to argue that the second Gulf War demonstrated that the rule of law had been supplanted with the rule of the jungle, rather than the other way around.

It was, some argued, the logical conclusion of the enormous uncontested power the US had enjoyed since the collapse of Communism.   

The end of the Cold War brought many positive developments that helped millions of people to improve their standard of living.

But 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of those that were caught in the middle continue to suffer. The average Arab citizen has not seen any tangible change as far as freedom, democracy or economic prosperity go.  

They are still living their lives plagued by occupation, poverty, and authoritarian rule; there are some walls that have yet to collapse.

Ali Younes is a Washington-based Middle East analyst.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source : Al Jazeera

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