The need for enduring peace in the Middle East

Turning countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya into disaster zones and dismantling the countries along sectarian and ethnic lines is dangerous

Hassan Al Mustafa

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Before heading to China in 1972, Former US President Richard Nixon drafted a plan on a paper and wrote: “What do we want? What do they want?” And “what do we both want?”

This is quoted by Dr. Vali Nasr in his book “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.” He commented saying: “The answers to Nixon’s last question don’t really matter as he has set the rules of diplomacy with China, which will be determined by the answer to the last question.”

Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in President Barack Obama's administration, has worked in the same vein. He worked on the Afghanistan issue in a way “where he drew circles representing the interests of the regional powers. The small area where these circles intersect and overlap, is where the final settlement should take place,” said Nasr.

Holbrooke tried to implement this policy on the ground, when he sought to persuade India and Pakistan through long-term and persistent diplomacy that they both will benefit once agreement is reached on Afghanistan. It will contribute to the strengthening of security in this country and will fulfill both Islamabad and New Delhi’s interests.

It was not an easy mission because Pakistan and India have a long history of conflict and incompatible interests. Added to that, Afghanistan represents a common ground for proxy clashes and conflicts between the two countries. Thus, Holbrooke believed that “one of the most important points of convergence in their interests and concerns is that no country (including Pakistan) want to witness chaos and the hegemony of extremists in Afghanistan,” as Nasr mentioned in his book. Nasr part of Holbrooke’s team.


To achieve his goal, Holbrooke resorted to a dialogue between India and Pakistan, based on the exclusion of all the divergent issues between the two countries, including the case of Kashmir. He was able to “convince General Kayani to sit at the dialogue table with the Indians and discuss issues related to Afghanistan and nothing but Afghanistan, without discussing further [issues].”

Turning countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya into disaster zones and dismantling the countries along sectarian and ethnic lines would threaten the stability of the Middle East

Hassan Al Mustafa

After this approval, Holbrooke went to India where leaders were always ready for dialogue with Pakistan regarding Afghanistan as long as it doesn’t not include any other subject.” Nasr added “Holbrooke was able to create the incentive to push the situation forward under unfavorable conditions. Both the Indians and Pakistanis were amazed by his ability to bring them together.”

The efforts of Richard Holbrooke were not successful. Their failure was not due to the ineffectiveness of the initiative or because it was not based on diplomatic grounds. The only reason was that he suddenly died in 2010, so all his efforts lost momentum and the secretary of state at the time – Hilary Clinton – was not able to continue this initiative.

A diplomat told me that he believes that the past experience is more of a “romantic” or unrealistic one and would not have succeeded even if Holbrooke did not die. The diplomat said that the endeavors would have been hampered due to the complexities of the relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad. However, in my opinion, it is a respectable experience, especially as it was seeking to establish the principles of peace based on diplomacy and not wars and fighting.

A stark choice

The alternative to dialogue and diplomacy is war and ties between the countries and groups. The conflicts that the Middle East is witnessing today on the political, economic and sectarian fronts urge us to think about peaceful solutions and dialogue between the opponents - it is an extremely important matter.

Turning countries like Syria, Iraq and Libya into disaster zones and dismantling the countries along sectarian and ethnic lines would threaten the stability of the Middle East.

Vali Nasr believed that Richard Holbrooke “fought for peace” because he has always perceived diplomacy as a priority that comes before war and as a reliable mechanism in the most difficult times. Thus, this is what we should be seeking, even if we are faced with arduous and difficult tasks.

This article was first published in Al Riyadh on Oct. 14, 2016.


Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters.


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