The End of Idealism
U.S. foreign policy in the Arab Middle East is now shifting from actively promoting democratic change to the previous policy of realpolitik – a policy based on the appeasement of dictators and despots that was discredited in the post 9/11 world because it had failed to secure American interests and security even in its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The policy of ‘realism’ was based on cold, calculated political and material considerations rather than on moral, ethical or idealistic concerns. It was this approach to American foreign policy that sent hundreds of thousands of people across the Third World to their deaths in the name of protecting American national interests. It was this policy that looked askance at the Serbian genocide of its neighbors and the paramilitary slaughters in Vukovar and the concentration camps in Omarska in which the “realists” maintained that America didn’t have a dog in their fight”.
It was this policy that put forth the belief that Arab oil wealth and ‘moderate’ dictators could forever contain the seething anger in the Middle East.
It was this policy that forced then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to desist from retaliating against Iraq for its SCUD missile attacks on Israel during the first Gulf War lest Israeli retaliation fracture the Arab coalition that Bush 41 had cobbled together to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. The U.S. fear of losing its coalition ultimately left Saddam Hussein in power after the war, set the stage for the second Iraqi war and laid the groundwork for Saddam’s retribution against the southern Iraqi Shiites and the northern Kurds – an American betrayal they never forgot.
Saddam’s subsequent $25,000 “martyrdom payments” to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers promoted terrorism in Israel and eventually scuttled the Oslo Accords. It was these “realist” policies that lead the Palestinians and their Arab supporters to escalate the intifada to unprecedented levels of violence.
It was this same “objective, realistic policy” that, in 1991, led then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to declare that “Syria has no place on the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism” – a country that was then and remains a leading sponsor of both Hezbollah and numerous Palestinian terrorist organizations and (for all intents and purposes) is a surrogate of the Iranian mullahs.
In short, the change in American foreign policy direction that is being undertaken by the current Bush administration may well prove to be as problematic as the Bush Doctrine it purports to replace. As Michael Rubin of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute has correctly concluded: “Realism promotes short-term gain, often at the expense of long-term security”.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, American foreign policy has been dictated by the Bush Doctrine, a ‘Doctrine’ that evolved from a series of Policy Papers that began appearing in the early 1990s. These Papers emphasized the importance of promoting democracy in the Middle East’s dangerously backward political culture as a way of solving many of the long-term political and security problems in the region. Attacked by opponents as “democratic imperialism”, it nevertheless struck a sympathetic cord with many Americans, especially in the wake of 9/11.
The ‘Doctrine’ argued that American military power and aggressive diplomacy should be used to defeat dictators, challenge an unacceptable status quo (translated as economic, social, educational and political backwardness) and force states into abandoning weapons of mass destruction and their support for terrorism without worrying too much about the need for multilateralism. In 2003, it culminated in a call for liberty from President Bush: “”Sixty years of western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”
That policy, however, is now being scaled back. The belief that the world can be made peaceful if it can be made free is now being superseded by other concerns especially, though not exclusively, America’s fear of rising Islamic extremism. The Bush administration has discovered that the Arab Middle East cannot be transformed quite as easily or quickly as had been originally anticipated. As Seyom Brown wrote recently in the Boston Globe, “Belatedly, the debate in the (Bush) Administration appears to have been won by those who recognize that equating successful counter-terrorism with implanting democracy is naive…and also embarrassing to…undemocratic governments (like Pakistan) that the United States is courting not only for help in combating terrorism, but also for reasons of arms control, access to energy, military bases and hospitality to U.S. investments (including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, and of course China).”
Events over the past several years have had a sobering impact on the Administration, and after a succession of significant political setbacks, the Bush White House has concluded that it is confronting a culture in the Middle East that is (by Western standards) dysfunctional, paternalistic, tribal, violent and increasingly Islamic – a culture, in essence, that lacks any significant understanding of democracy, democratic processes or democratic traditions. It now recognizes that democracy in the Arab world cannot be laid down like Astroturf or treated like a commodity that the U.S. can export or donate to countries steeped in an entirely different culture and value system. While much of American foreign policy over the past five years has been devoted to “nation building”, the Administration now understands that democracies are not exactly things you “build” or that can be assembled overnight.
For that reason, the current Bush Administration has accepted the necessity of making distasteful trade-offs and dealing with unsavory “moderate” dictators who can deliver “stability” (even at the expense of democracy) to protect America’s larger interests, or so it believes. As Hamas gains political ascendancy in Gaza, Iran exports Islamic radicalism throughout the Middle East, the Moslem Brotherhood threatens the balance of power in Egypt, Lebanon faces the possibility of a Syrian-backed, Iranian-funded Hezbollah coup-d’etat, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan worsens, and Iraq explodes into sectarian violence, it is clear that American hegemony in the Middle East is under attack.
As a consequence, the era of actively promoting democratic change in “friendly” authoritarian states is nearing its end, at least for the foreseeable future. With reformist forces in retreat, in fear, in prison or in exile, the Bush Administration has made a calculated, tactical foreign policy shift back to supporting ‘moderate’ secular dictators and despots against ‘aggressive’ Islamic dictators who represent a greater threat to American interests. In so doing, it has chosen what it considers to be the lesser of the two evils. It now sees Middle Eastern tribal cultures as too resistant to change; secular Middle East dictatorships as too well-entrenched and Islamic extremists using the electoral process to acquire power and credibility in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. In its frustration, the Administration has relegated the goal of democratizing the Arab Middle East to the “backburner” and substituted more immediate strategic concerns such as securing America’s international energy sources, establishing military bases and alliances in strategically important areas of the world, isolating Iran through multilateral sanctions, and protecting its long-term financial interests both domestic and foreign.
In the Palestinian territories, the U.S. knows that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will never be a serious partner for peace and that he is politically impotent. Yet, the Bush Administration continues to fund Fatah knowing the organization has absolutely no intention whatsoever of ceasing its terrorist activities, controlling the anti-Semitic hatred in its media, promoting anything resembling democratic change in its political infrastructure or becoming more moderate towards Israel. It knows that the organization is vying with Hamas to see who can field the most suicide bombers and that it continues to plot the vanquishment of ‘the Zionist occupiers’. Yet, despite this knowledge, the Administration continues to bankroll the organization.
While Bush may have once hoped that Fatah and Hamas would compete for the hearts and minds of the Palestinians by offering to build democratic institutions, better roads, better schools and a better future, it has now concluded that both are corrupt and self-destructive, that a Palestinian civil war is imminent, and that any serious attempt to democratize their infrastructures (at least for the present) are hopeless. Taking all this into account, it views Fatah as the lesser of the two evils and so it has cast its lot with them and has already begun pressuring Israel to do so as well. By accepting Jordan’s 1,500-member Badr Brigade into the West Bank and Gaza to support Fatah (at the request of the Bush administration), Israel has been forced to reverse years of strict military sanctions it imposed on the territories because of fears that weapons provided to Palestinian Arabs would end up being used for attacks on Israelis. For that reason, the Badr Brigade has never been allowed into the West Bank and Gaza because Israel has always regarded it as an enemy force. Bush has now pressured Israel to reverse that policy.
Similarly, the recent resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (an old rival of Bush Sr. from the Ford days) bodes ill for Israel for it has signaled the successful return of the Arabist wing of the Republican Party to power – a policy group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former CIA Director and soon-to-be Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It was Baker who fostered the fatal perception that the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East was intransigent Israel not militant Islam. In 1990, as Secretary of State, he read the White House telephone number aloud in congressional testimony ostensibly for the benefit of the Israelis to call “when they get serious about peace.”
A year later, and for much the same reason, Bush 41 threatened to withhold $10B in commercial loan guarantees, which Israel desperately needed to cope with the absorption of some one million Russian Jews – a fifth of its population.
Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, has noted that it was Baker’s suggestion in the aftermath of the first Gulf War that the “Iraqi people . . . take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein to step down.” Tens of thousands of Shiites and Kurds took him seriously and revolted believing that America would support them, and tens of thousands were slaughtered in Saddam’s subsequent reprisals while Bush 41 stood by lest America exceed its U.N. mandate. While Saddam was poison gassing the Kurds in the north, Robert Gates was the CIA’s Deputy Director of Central Intelligence and while Saddam was crushing the Shiite uprising in the south and plowing thousands of them into mass graves, Robert Gates was the CIA’s Deputy Director of Central Intelligence.
Nor was Israel exempt from the Realist’s wrath. In a 1998 New York Times op-ed, Gates wrote that the road to Mideast peace must “not kowtow to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obstructionism.” Caroline Glick noted in a recent column in the Jerusalem Post that in 2004, Gates also co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force charged with recommending a U.S. policy for dealing with Iran. The Task Force called for the Bush administration to directly engage the mullahs and to use “fewer sticks and more carrots” to induce the regime in Tehran to stop enriching uranium, and to stop supporting al Qaeda and the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an effort to convince the Iranians to cooperate – an effort seen by many foreign policy analysts as futile – the Report recommended that the U.S. discard “regime change” as a policy option and move more forcefully to pressure Israel into establishing a Palestinian state. They also recommended that the U.S. pressure Israel not to take any military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities arguing that such Israeli actions would undermine U.S. national interests.
Thus, the Bush Administration can be expected to push for greater multilateral negotiations with America’s (and Israel’s) enemies backed by ineffective U.N. sanctions (that Russia and China can be expected to veto). It will do so out of fear that confronting oil-rich Iran will result in Iranian retaliation by canceling lucrative American oil contracts and/or exporting terrorism (as it did in Argentina in 1994). The errors made during the Reagan and Bush 41 era with Iraq will now be repeated with Syria and Iran.
And none of this will work in Israel’s favor. On September 18th, the New York Sun reported that the Bush administration intends to offer “progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front” (which translates into providing aid to the Hamas government and convening another “international peace conference”) in order to induce European and Arab countries to oppose (whatever that means) Iran’s nuclear program. The rationale, according to the State Department, is that by showing “progress” towards resolving “the Arab-Israeli dispute” (the realpolitik catch-phrase for pressuring Israel into making further concessions in return for more hollow promises), the “moderate” Arab states and the Europeans can be induced to cooperate collectively against Iran.
In effect, under the guise of realpolitik, we can expect Israel to be sacrificed in the name of ‘Middle East peace’. Egypt continues to act as a center for the publication of crude anti-Semitic literature encouraging hatred for Israel, the Jewish people and the Western world and justifies the use of violence against all of them. Furthermore, the security annex to the peace treaty with Egypt that stated that Israel had the right to hold military forces along the border between Gaza and Egypt was relinquished by Israel when it withdrew from Gaza in September 2005. That withdrawal was based on the promise that the Palestinian Authority and Egypt would secure the border and the Philadelphi Route that runs alongside it. Because they have not done so (and even facilitated the smuggling of high-tech Iranian weapons and weapon-systems into the region), Gaza is now an explosion waiting to happen and Palestinian missiles rein down on southern Israel on a daily basis. Their failure to abide by the withdrawal Accord, however, has not stopped billions of dollars in U.S. ‘foreign aid’ from flowing into Egypt.
In Lebanon, in August 2006, State Department officials worked feverishly to negotiate a hollow ceasefire to pacify the Lebanese government, the Americans and the Europeans even as Hezbollah was rearming under UN supervision and expanding its terror network to Gaza and the West Bank in preparation for the next war with Israel. Israeli concerns were and continue to be ignored.
In Qatar, one of America’s “staunchest” Arab allies, Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa has just returned from a trip to Lebanon where he congratulated Iran’s proxy Hezbollah on its “victory” over Israel in the recent war.
In Iraq, multilateral negotiations – the essence of realpolitik – has permitted Moqtada al Sadr’s extremist Islamic Mahdi Army (that should have been destroyed in April 2004) to become a pro-Iranian “fifth column” in Iraqi Shiite politics to the extent that the Iraqi police has been infiltrated and is now controlled by Sadr’s militias. The Shi’ite forces are being led by men trained in Tehran.
It is also rumored that Ryan Crocker, a State Department Arabist, will replace the current American ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad (who is respected by Sunni, Shiite and Kurd alike). Crocker is America’s ambassador to Pakistan and on his watch, Pakistan made a series of peace agreements with the Taliban and al Qaeda, essentially offering them safe haven to launch attacks on American and allied forces in Afghanistan. He also stood by passively as Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf released some 2,500 al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners this year. It seems that under this new policy of “realism”, the U.S. will no longer hold its Arab allies accountable for sponsoring or supporting terrorism even as these allies continue to undermine American interests. In effect, because the Bush administration fears the spread of Islamic extremism and the loss of its other strategic assets, it is now more than amenable to working with despots and dictators in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and willing to throw virtually anything into the bargain – including Israel. In classic realpolitik fashion – the enemy of my enemy is my friend and what is expendable depends upon any given situation.
This is a far cry from the moral clarity enunciated by the Bush Doctrine in the aftermath of 9/11 (“You are either with us or with the terrorists”), but the experiences of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections, Hezbollah in the Lebanese elections, radical Shiites in the Iraqi elections and the Moslem Brotherhood in the Egyptian elections, the need to secure America’s energy sources, the need for foreign bases to protect American strategic interests abroad, the threat posed by Iranian funding of global jihad, continuing to develop atomic weapons, offering safe houses to and training hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists and supporting the Iraqi insurgency with money, weapons and terrorists, the expanding Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the arrogance of Syria in openly flaunting UN Resolution 1701 by providing safe haven to some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations while re-arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah penetration of Somalia (and the presence of Somali Islamic forces in southern Lebanon), the stalemate with nuclear North Korea, and America’s growing isolationist mood – all have led to a re-evaluation of American tactics. As Jacob Laksin wrote recently in FrontPageMagazine: “…..with the war in Iraq going poorly and the polls routinely unkind, the temptation to recant the sound principles of the War on Terror and forge a separate peace with terrorists and their state sponsors may seem seductive.” But looks can be deceiving and there is no reason to expect that the policies of realpolitik will work any better now to accomplish America’s strategic interests or provide her with security than they have in the past.
In the final analysis, military action against Iran by the United States is extremely improbable in the final two years of a presidency facing a hostile Congress. From now on, multilateralism will define the rules. The U.S. will find an excuse to vacate Iraq and confirm in the minds of Iran and Syria that America has returned to passivity. Israel will have no choice but to stand alone against Islamic extremism while the rest of the Arab world (specifically Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE) will see American passivity as a green light to openly contravene the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and pursue their own nuclear programs – ostensibly for civilian purposes, but ultimately for their own survival against the radical Shiite wave engulfing the Middle East.
In this atmosphere, Israel will gradually move from a staunch American ally in the war on terror to a political bargaining chip in American Middle East politics. The responsibility for preventing Iran from achieving nuclear capability has now passed from Washington to Jerusalem, but American consent for an Israeli pre-emptive strike (should it become necessary) can no longer be assured. Such is the price to be paid when realism ceases to be realistic and Israel comes to be seen more as a strategic liability than as a strategic asset.