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Putin of Arabia

BEIRUT – Almost undetected, Russia is regaining much of the influence that it lost in the Middle East after the Soviet Union collapsed. Ever since Russia invaded Georgia in August, Arab satellite television and Web sites have been rife with talk about the region’s role in an emerging “new Cold War.” Is the Arab world’s Cold War patron really back, and, if so, what will it mean for peace in the region?

With the USSR’s demise, communist ideology, which Muslims believe contradicts their faith, ended too. Communism never stopped Arab regimes opposed by the United States from accepting arms supplies from the Soviet-era Russians, but it did prevent Russia from securing the kind of intimate influence that America had secured with its regional allies. Now, even Islamists are welcoming Russia back as a regional player in order to strengthen their struggle against American hegemony, conveniently forgetting Russia’s brutal suppression of Chechen Muslims during the 1990’s.

This is a complete reversal of the pattern that prevailed in the 1950’s. Back then, the US encouraged Islam as a bulwark against communism. Its allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, justified US influence on the grounds that Americans were Christian and thus part of the Ahl el-Kitab (the people of the Book). The Soviets were regularly attacked as dangerous enemies of God.

Today, US power in the Middle East is at its historical nadir, and Russia is seeking to fill the vacuum. Even America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel – are vulnerable as they face the aggressive expansion of “radical forces” represented by Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and the Iraqi resistance. In the prevailing atmosphere of turmoil and confusion, the radical Islamists attack the Americans as barbarous Crusaders who have replaced the communists as the enemies of Islam. Indeed, for the conservative majority in the region, the US, with is pop culture and liberal democracy, is seen as a far more problematic ally than the autocratic and wealth-loving Russians.