Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Middle East "War": How Did It Come to This?

Our Jerusalem.com - Opinion: "Middle East "War": How Did It Come to This?

By David Wurmser AEI

America’s and Israel’s mistakes in dealing with tyrannical societies in the Middle East have led the entire region to the brink of disaster. To reverse that, the two countries should adopt a coordinated strategy to fatally strike the centers of radicalism in the region.

The unthinkable has happened: a "war" in the Middle East. While it is still a war of attrition along the seam lines dividing Israeli and Palestinian areas of control, it is the first sign of a broad strategic collapse of the United States’s regional position. Both the United States and Israel have misstepped on key policy issues over the past decade. America’s failures on Iraq and Iran have combined with the ill-conceived Arab-Israeli "peace" process to trigger a torrent of anti-American and anti-Israeli rage unprecedented in its breadth and danger in over forty years.

The eruption of violence in autumn 2000 on the Palestinian issue is only the local expression of a regional threat caused ultimately by the combined collapse of America’s regional and Israel’s local standing. The crisis will prove to be a decisive moment in Middle East history. The local upheaval threatens to engulf the entire area in a larger conflagration. To correct this problem, America’s and Israel’s responses must be regional, not local.

Few anti-American outbursts or Arab-Israeli confrontations initially have much to do with Israel’s or America’s behavior; they have more to do with what these two countries are: free societies. These upheavals originate in the conditions of Arab politics, specifically in the requirements of tyrannies to seek external conflict to sustain internal repression. America’s and Israel’s traditionally most violent opponents, such as the PLO, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Yemen, are such tyrannies. A regime built on opposition to freedom will view free nations, such as the United States and Israel, as mortal threats.

Arab politics is mostly about power and survival—for leaders, families, tribes, sects, ethnic groups, and factions. The strong know they must preserve or increase their strength to defend from constant assault. The weak know they must carefully gauge who is likely to be the winner, take sides, and pray they judged well.

For the worst regional despots, survival demands hostility toward Israel. A wily despot knows that only in war can he enslave and prey upon his own nation and call it "mobilization for a cause." He renames his failures of governance as virtues: Poverty is a "sacrifice," suppression of free speech is a "defense against seditious agents," banning public criticism of the dictator is "protecting a general from treasonous attacks in the heat of battle." At times, radical Arab leaders foster rage against Israel, or even attack it to divert attention from an impending or recent defeat, either in their domestic politics or at the hands of other Arab states. Sometimes, radical Arab leaders will lay a trap for their more moderate neighbors. Heightened conflict with Israel can destabilize and shove a moderate, ill-prepared Arab nation—such as Jordan—into a vise. In the 1967 war, Egypt, which was reeling from its humiliating lack of success in the Yemen war, sought to destabilize Jordan by entangling it in war with Israel.

By the early 1990s, this staple of regime survival for the most radical Arab despots—the hatred of Israel and America—became poisonous. Until the 1980s, Israel defeated armies but did not destabilize its enemies politically. Five times—in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1970, and 1973—Israel left Arab armies smoldering and devastated. Yet, Israel never attached a coherent political concept to war and to the power or influence its victory purchased. These victories instead only led to a series of decade-long truces, no more. But in its sixth war in 1982, Israel departed from its previous policy. It moved to destroy, rather than just damage, the PLO. The result was to exile and isolate Arafat in Tunis, where he found that the PLO had lost its capacity to affect events.

Surrendering Victory

The 1980s saw America revert to its earlier practice of ensuring that an attempt to tangle with the United States proves suicidal. True, for one brief moment, radical Arab nationalists, such as the PLO, clung to a hope given them by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. But by 1991, the Iraqi hope lay ruined. The Soviet Union had vaporized. Around the globe, all—including Arabs—paid close attention to American ideas now that the American-led coalition emerged so decisively victorious over Iraq.

War is a political act; it serves political aims. By the early 1990s, America’s and Israel’s victories in war began to change the tide and alter the tone of Arab politics. The victory of these two free nations over their despotic foes implicitly discredited the ideas that these tyrants invoked to justify their repression, and so induced their peoples to respect the power of freedom. Privately, Arabs whispered that Israel’s free society, like America’s, was its source of strength. Gingerly, less revolutionary Arab regimes, such as Morocco, Jordan, and Qatar, abandoned the safe shelter of anti-Zionism and dealt with the forbidden foe. Israel and the United States were seen as the forces of the future. Nations queued up to align with the United States and make peace with Israel. Some nations, such as Turkey, sought a strategic alliance with Israel. And the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty even contained clauses that suggested strategic cooperation as well. The region was defined by this joint American-Israeli victory. In contrast, radical movements—secular Nasserites like the PLO, or Baathists in Iraq and Syria, and religious fundamentalists, like Khomeini’s Iran and Hizballah—were ashamed and quietly crawled to the periphery of Arab and Muslim politics.

Neither Israel nor the United States understood their victory, leading them to surrender it. Instead, both in effect accepted the assertion of the most radical Arab despots that the Palestinian conflict is the root cause of the region’s endemic violence, poverty, instability, corruption, anti-Americanism, and despotism. These issues, they argued, could not be dealt with until after the Palestinian conflict was genuinely solved. That would happen only when Palestinians felt tangible benefits from peace, specifically enhanced sovereignty and economic development. Israel’s concept of a "new Middle East," as formulated by Shimon Peres, was premised on that assumption; treaties had to be followed by economic development.

But the United States also accepted the idea that a failure to solve the Palestinian conflict contributed directly to a regionwide climate of violence and anti-Americanism, which in turn retarded development by inducing leaders to spend precious resources on militaries. The resulting poverty contributed to further regional violence. To break this cycle, the United States worked hard to mobilize aid from Europe and the other Arab regimes to encourage development among Palestinians, and was preparing to do the same for Syria, as a cornerstone for a regionwide effort to secure peace. Washington also often ascribed other regional problems to the failure of the peace process. For example, Madeline Albright openly blamed Israel in 1998 for America’s failure to keep the anti-Iraq coalition together, asserting that Israel’s intransigence fostered anti-Americanism. The region’s despots, of course, encouraged and enjoyed Israel’s and America’s belief in the centrality of the Palestinian issue for regional stability because it helped them deflect criticism of tyranny in their own lands.

Mistakenly, and in contrast to their respective oppositions, officials in Washington and Jerusalem identified their own behavior as the source of anti-Israeli and anti-American violence rather than recognizing that violence as a manifestation of the despotic nature of their attackers. This led both governments to ignore the positive influence of their power. Instead of capitalizing on their victory to champion the idea of freedom and dilute the regional appeal of tyrants, they futilely traded their power for affection. They were lured into a series of neopacifist fantasies that have dramatically weakened both.

America’s and Israel’s mistakes have led the region to the brink of disaster. The United States has failed in its efforts to contain Saddam Hussein. America stumbled in 1995 by abandoning a viable insurgency led by the Iraqi National Congress (INC) just as it was scoring significant victories against Saddam, achievements that went unrecognized in Washington—such as the March 1995 offensive, which helped foment the Dulaym’s tribe revolt against Saddam in June 1995. The INC also helped organize the defection of top Iraqi nuclear scientists. Once the INC was abandoned by Washington, Saddam could and did effectively counter it and turn his attention to the other great threat to his absolute power, UNSCOM, the UN commission charged with finding and destroying Iraq’s deadliest weaponry.

Failed Diplomatic Strategies

In 1998 the United States aligned itself with UN secretary general Kofi Annan to create a diplomatic disguise for its humiliating retreat. Despite strong bipartisan pressure from Congress—as demonstrated by the near unanimous congressional vote for the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act—the Clinton administration was unwilling
to change its policy in time to reverse Saddam’s resurrection as a regional threat. When the United States bombed Iraq in December 1998, it appeared that it served more to divert attention from its failure than to advance a coherent strategy to topple Saddam. Even before conflict erupted in the West Bank and Gaza in October 2000, the UN sanctions, designed to prevent Saddam from acquiring the means to rebuild his military, had all but collapsed, almost without notice.

In Iran, an apparent reformist, Ayatollah Khatemi, was elected president in 1997. He sent signals suggesting the United States enter a dialogue with Tehran. Buoyed by the prospects of American-Iranian reconciliation, President Clinton himself apologized in little-noted remarks in April 1999 to Iran’s mullahs, not only for the evils the United States allegedly did to Iran the twentieth century, but for evils its allies, such as Britain, supposedly did in the nineteenth! Secretary of State Albright offered an even more explicit apology six months later. This practice of diplomacy-by-apology invited the very hard-line backlash that these statements were meant to avoid. The apologies did not convince the mullahs of America’s good intentions and did not persuade them to ease their internal repression. When the United States acknowledged responsibility for the hostility between it and the Iranian government, it validated Tehran’s harshest anti-American rhetoric. This demoralized the fledgling opposition movement.

And as has recently been revealed, the United States also intimated to Libya’s Qaddafi that his government would not be challenged and that sanctions would be lifted in exchange for extraditing two low-level operatives allegedly involved in the Pan Am 103 bombing in December 1988.

The Oslo "peace" process, for which both Israel and America share blame, revived and encouraged actors who had been orphaned by the Soviet Union’s collapse and weakened by decades of humiliating defeats at Israel’s hands to again threaten war against Israel. Israel stumbled into the abyss first. Immersed in an internal, theoretical dialogue over the morality of its behavior, mostly about the evils of being powerful, it was tempted by the vision of the regional utopia it expected to arrive when the Palestinian issue was resolved. It never soberly contemplated preserving its power as a prerequisite for survival. It also failed to imagine how its superior power, which some Israelis regarded with disgust and horror, could have been employed to shake the foundations of radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Instead, Israel was determined to show that it was so open-minded that it would traffic with the most radical Arab tyrants to win explicit recognition of its legitimacy.

Israel’s blunder was abetted by Washington’s embrace of a fantasy called "conflict resolution"—the proposition that all conflicts can be resolved by using an incremental process that would improve communication and encourage reciprocal concessions. This concept suited the theoretical constructs of American academics. But it was haughty and inappropriate advice to offer Israel, a nation that held genuine principles and pursued serious national interests while facing foes who practiced duplicity or harbored evil intentions.

There are times when an opponent lays siege to r demands the surrender of things so dear that if surrendered, they pave the way to national collapse and destruction. At those moments, compromise is inappropriate, and intransigence—even if it means war—is justified. Israel reached that moment at the Camp David talks in August 2000—but failed to recognize it. The PLO had for some time conducted a campaign to delegitimize the foundations of Israel’s existence and sever the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel by denying the Jewish people’s ties to the Bible and by denying the existence of the Jewish Temple or of ancient Israel. The PLO demanded that Israel confirm its own illegitimacy and acquiesce in its destruction by ceding control over Jerusalem and surrendering the Temple Mount. The PLO even rejected an offer to give it sovereignty over the area in exchange for allowing a small Jewish sanctuary to be designated there; it feared that this would confirm some Jewish connection to the area.

War and diplomacy are means to achieve a political victory; the PLO had used both to force Israel by autumn 2000 into a choice: fight or die. Israel chose to fight—and survive. The more the United States clings to the fantasy of conflict resolution, the more it endangers the very existence of its key regional ally by undercutting its ability to fight.

Reasserting the Power of Freedom

The Clinton administration lacked the imagination to understand that firmness in defense of a besieged democracy can calm, rather than inflame, an entire region. Such firmness would not only establish the United States as a solid, consistent friend, but also would demonstrate how seriously America takes the idea of freedom. In fact, the Clinton administration’s "even-handedness" has devastated U.S. credibility.

These were horrible turns of events for those who sided with the United States—Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar—and made peace with Israel. Israel and America had chosen strategic self-mutilation, amusing their adversaries. Now, Israel is besieged on its borders as well as by the international community, while UN controls on Iraq are crumbling. Saddam, Arafat, Qaddafi, and Khomeini now set the tone of the region. And they have scores to settle, starting with replacing the last "American" decade with a new "radical" decade of revenge by upheavals, the first of which erupted in October 2000.

Crises can be opportunities. Israel must avoid letting Arafat prolong the intermittent war of attrition in West Bank towns. Arafat wants that war; Israel cannot win it. Instead, Israel and the United States should adopt a coordinated strategy to regain the initiative and reverse their regionwide strategic retreat. They should broaden the conflict to strike fatally, not merely disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region—the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Tehran, and Gaza. That would reestablish the recognition that fighting with either the United States or Israel is suicidal.

Many in the Middle East will then understand the merits of being an American ally and of making peace with Israel. They will even discuss again how powerful freedom is, as they did early in the 1990s"

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