Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order

By Battah, Abdalla M. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order


Battah, Abdalla M., The Middle East Journal


Dialogues in Arab Politics: Negotiations in Regional Order, by Michael N. Barnett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. xiii + 270 pages. Notes to p. 337. Bibl. to p. 365. Index to p. 376. $40 cloth; $17.50 paper.

Dialogues in Arab Politics is a theoretically sophisticated and thought-provoking analysis of the interplay between "Arabism" and state sovereignty-an interplay that is mediated by rational leaders who were "fundamentally concerned with regime survival" (p. 34). Using a constructivist approach, which emphasizes ideas and shared norms rather than structures and material forces, Michael Barnett provides a sweeping historical narrative of inter-Arab politics since 1920. The focus is on several key events, representing "intense debates," or "dialogues," about the desired Arab national order (pp. 19, 25). Arabism, he maintains, supplied the normative context in these dialogues, which defined Arab national interests and set limits of acceptable behavior. But strategic interactions among Arab states transformed Arabism to accommodate sovereignty as well as regime interests. In these dialogues, leaders competed to supply a "winning interpretation" of events. This was a high-stakes game in which the winners, using symbolic instruments of power, could mobilize Arab popular support and control their competitors' foreign policies (pp. 10, 45).

Dialogues, Barnett argues, revolved around three core Arab national concerns: Arab-Western relations, the Arab-Zionist/israeli conflict, and Arab unification. With regard to the West, Arabs were initially concerned with gaining their independence. But after independence, the issue of whether to continue relations with former colonial powers and whether to take side in the East-West conflict dominated Arab agenda (pp. 103-20). The Baghdad Pact debates in the 1950s served as a defining moment in this dialogue (p. 86). It was Egyptian President Gamal `Abd al-Nasir who led the opposition to alignment with the West and whose "positive neutrality" emerged as the winning interpretation that undermined the pro-Pact monarchy in Iraq. The 1991 Gulf War, in which a military alliance between several key Arab states and the United States was formed against Iraq, represents a clear-cut departure from the longstanding norm and a sign of how much things have changed since the Baghdad Pact debates.

How to deal with the challenge of Zionism and Israel represented the second core area of common concern. The rejection of, and prohibition of peace overtures toward, Israel dominated much of the period. The Six-Day War in 1967 completed the fracturing of the Arab consensus, which had begun a few years earlier. In spite of its defiant resolutions, the Khartoum Summit in 1967 represented a pragmatic turn in Arab attitudes toward Israel. For al-Nasir, this meant a reversion to his pre-1955 Egypt-first policy (pp. 166, 172-74). This pragmatism paved the way for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's unilateralism, which culminated in Egypt's peace agreement with Israel in 1979 (pp. 187-91). This trend continued with more agreements (i.e., between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and between Israel and Jordan), and with gradual regionwide normalization. A sign of how far the pendulum has swung since pre-1967 times is the fact that what is of concern to the Arabs today, according to Barnett, is nor so much peace with Israel but the "pace" of normalization.

The last core issue is unification. Barnett acknowledges that, from the beginning, differing perspectives coexisted-ranging from maximalist versions that envisioned a single, unitary state to minimalist ones that allowed for loose arrangements (pp. 73-74). The formation of the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 gave al-Nasir and pan-Arabism the upper hand, albeit briefly. Dissolution of this union three years later discredited pan-Arabist forces. Ultimately, according to Barnett, failure of unification attempts before and after the UAR experiment was due to a number of factors, including "hastened individuation" (p. …

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