Just 25 months after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denounced 60 years of US support for authoritarian governments in Arab world, she and Pentagon chief Robert Gates are touring the Middle East bearing arms and an uncannily familiar strategic vision to the same regimes. Under Ronald Reagan 25 years ago, it was called “strategic consensus” — the notion that you could coax the so-called “moderate” Arab states into a de facto coalition with Israel against the region’s perceived Soviet clients and a revolutionary Iran by plying them with sophisticated weaponry and renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Under President George W Bush, the strategic vision has still not been given a specific name, but, apart from the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the basic elements appear to be eerily similar, if not identical. Heralding her trip and the proposed transfer of some $43 billion in new weaponry for Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Rice asserted Monday, “This effort will bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.”

“Further modernising the Egyptian and Saudi Arabia Armed Forces and increasing inter-operability will bolster our partners’ resolve in confronting the threat of radicalism and cement their respective roles as regional leaders in the quest for Middle East peace and in ensuring Lebanon’s freedom and independence,” she added. The trip follows last week’s announcement by Bush that Rice will chair a regional conference some time this fall as part of a new diplomatic push for an eventual “two-state solution” of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It will take both Gates and Rice to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a particularly critical destination given the growing estrangement between Washington and Riyadh with respect to both Iraq and US efforts to break up a Palestinian unity government forged by King Abdullah.

At that point, Rice will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah to “continue discussions

on the development of a political horizon with Israeli and Palestinian officials”, while Gates heads for the smaller Gulf states

with which he reportedly intends to seek new access rights to military bases and extend older ones, as well as pursue new arms-sales agreements.

Under the arms-for-allies plan, the US would provide $13 billion in aid over 10 years — roughly the same amount that it has been getting for most of the past decade. While precise figures have not been released, State Department officials said Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will be encouraged to buy some $20 billion in new arms, including satellite-guided bombs, missile defences, and upgrades for its US-made fighter-jets over the same period.

To dampen concerns by Israel and its supporters here, the administration is also proposing a 10-year, $30-billion package to preserve the Jewish state’s military superiority — or “qualitative edge” — over its Arab neighbours. That would amount to a 25% increase in US military assistance to Israel over current levels.

“For 60 years, my country — the US — pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East,” Rice declared in June 2005 at the American University in Cairo, in a widely noted speech that encouraged democracy activists across the region. “And we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.”

But since the election victory of Hamas in parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories seven months later and, particularly since last year’s Israel-Hezbollah war, which the administration saw as evidence of Iran’s expanding power, Washington has all but abandoned its democracy-promotion rhetoric, essentially returning to its 60-year-old preference for stability over democracy. Indeed, that Washington is now trying to forge a new strategic alliance against Iran in the face of Tehran’s emergence as a major regional threat to US interests — largely because of the administration’s own miscalculations in Iraq — struck analyst Gary Sick as a “marvelous example of political jiu jitsu.”

“Having inadvertently created a set of circumstances that insured an increase in Iranian strength and bargaining power, that seriously frightened US erstwhile Sunni allies in the region, and that undermined US strength and credibility,” according to Sick, who was President Jimmy Carter’s top Iran aide, “the US now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from America’s plight in Iraq while reviving America’s position as the ultimate power in the region.”

The major flaw in this strategy, according to Sick, however, may be the government of Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki who is both supported by the US but is seen by the Sunni neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia as a pawn of Tehran. — IPS