The Folly of Realpolitik
Unfortunately, Annapolis and the NIE are only the beginning of Israel’s problems – at least until a new U.S. administration comes to power with a better understanding of the mindset of our enemies and a different perspective on Israel’s strategic importance to the U.S. in the Middle East.
As it stands now, American foreign policy in the Middle East has shifted 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 primarily because it had failed to secure American interests and security even in its heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s.
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 while 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 and laid the groundwork for Saddam’s retribution against the southern Iraqi Shiites and the northern Kurds – an American betrayal neither ever 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 “realism” 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 a surrogate of the Iranian mullahs.
In short, the change in American foreign policy direction that has now been undertaken by the Bush administration may well prove to be as problematic as the Bush Doctrine it purports to replace because it fails to take into account how such policies are perceived in the Arab/Persian Middle East. 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 set of principles 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 Middle East can be made peaceful if it can be made free has now been superseded by other concerns especially America’s fear of rising Islamic fascism. The Bush administration has discovered that Arab culture cannot be transformed quite as easily or quickly as had been originally anticipated. As Semyon Brown noted 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 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.”
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 donate to countries steeped in an entirely different culture and value system. It sees Middle Eastern tribal cultures as too resistant to change; secular Middle East dictatorships as too well-entrenched and Islamic fascists using the electoral process under the guise of �democracy� to acquire power and credibility in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It has belatedly discovered that democracy is not something that a nation can learn like water management or road-building. While much of American foreign policy over the past six years has been devoted to “nation building”, the Administration now recognizes that democracies are not exactly things you “build” or that can be assembled overnight – especially when one considers that it took over four hundred years from the Magna Carta to the restoration of parliament in Britain to establish what we refer to as “the democratic tradition.”
For these reasons, the Bush Administration is now attempting to make deals with unsavory “moderate” dictators whom, it believes can deliver �stability” to protect America’s larger interests. With Hamas in de facto control of Gaza, Iran exporting its messianic version of Islamic fascism throughout the Middle East, the Moslem Brotherhood threatening the balance of power in Egypt, Lebanon facing the prospect of a Syrian-backed, Iranian-funded Hezbollah coup d’etat, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan worsening, and Iraq’s proto-democracy struggling to survive, it has become apparent to the Bush Administration that American hegemony in the Middle East is under massive assault and it is desperate to reverse that trend.
As a consequence, the era of actively promoting democratic change in the Arab world is over, at least for the foreseeable future. With reformist forces in retreat, in fear, in prison or in exile, the Bush Administration has made what it believes to be a logical, calculated, tactical foreign policy shift back to supporting “moderate” secular dictators and despots against “aggressive” Islamic dictators whom they deem a greater threat to American interests. In so doing, it has chosen what it considers to be the lesser of the two evils.
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. Abbas and his associates may be good at begging aid, but they are hopeless at securing or otherwise governing their territory. Yet, the Bush Administration continues to shower Fatah with millions of dollars ostensibly to create an economic infrastructure for the Palestinians, but 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 Israel. Yet, despite this knowledge, and despite the probability of another Hamas coup d�etat on the West Bank, the Administration continues to bankroll Fatah. 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, his Administration has concluded that both are corrupt and self-destructive and that any serious attempts 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.
Similarly, the resignation last year 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 to power of the Arabist wing of the Republican Party – a policy group headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and former CIA Director and now 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 Islamic fascism. 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 an estimated 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.
And Gates�s �realist� foreign policy approach parallels that of Baker�s. While Saddam was poison-gassing the Kurds in northern Iraq in March 1988, Robert Gates was the CIA’s Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, and in 1991 when Saddam was crushing the Shiite uprising in the south and plowing thousands into mass graves, Robert Gates was Deputy National Security Advisor. Nor was Israel exempt from Gates�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 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 (as Gates is now recommending as Defense Secretary) 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 — that 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. It also recommended that the U.S. pressure Israel not to take any military action against Iranian nuclear facilities (an action now deemed even more likely in the wake of the recent NIE) arguing that such Israeli actions would undermine U.S. national interests.
Perception is everything
Today, the Bush Administration is pushing for greater ties with its sworn enemies – Iran, Syria and Libya – but in so doing, it has created the perception of weakness in the Arab world – a perception that can only undermine its long-term efforts. The government�s hope is to reduce Iran-sponsored terrorism in Iraq by toning down the rhetoric and using diplomacy as its primary instrument. In effect, the errors made during the Reagan and Bush 41 era with Iraq are now being repeated by this Administration in its policies toward Syria and Iran.
This policy of negotiating with our Islamic enemies shows an appalling lack of understanding of the Middle Eastern mindset. When Secretary Rice forced the Israeli delegation to use the service entrance at Annapolis and acquiesced in allowing the Saudis to treat the Israelis like dhimmis (second-class citizens) by denying them a joint photo opportunity or even shaking their hands, the US demonstrated weakness not strength to the entire Arab world and a willingness to betray a steadfast ally.
And the treatment of Israel is symptomatic of an even greater problem for US foreign policy in the region. Egypt continues to act as a center for the publication of crude anti-Semitic and anti-American 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. It now appears that Egyptian security forces are assisting Hamas terrorists in crossing illegally into Gaza and even facilitating the smuggling of high-tech Iranian weapons and weapon-systems into the region. As a result, Gaza is now an explosion waiting to happen and Palestinian missiles rein down on southern Israel on a daily basis. Egypt�s failure to abide by the withdrawal Accord, however, has not stopped two billion dollars a year in U.S. “foreign aid” from flowing into Egypt.
In Lebanon, in August 2006, State Department officials worked feverishly to negotiate a hollow ceasefire and a meaningless UN resolution 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 and the latest compromise over the Lebanese Presidency worked out behind America�s back at Annapolis only serves to reinforce Syrian control over significant portions of that country (not to mention being a slap in the face to American diplomatic efforts).
In Iraq, multilateral negotiations – the essence of realpolitik – have 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 have been infiltrated and are now controlled by Sadr’s militias. The Shiite forces are being led by Iranian Revolutionary Guards trained in Tehran.
In effect, because the Bush administration fears the spread of Islamic fascism and the loss of its other strategic assets, it has created the perception of weakness rather than strength in the Arab world. In furtherance of that perception, it is now amenable to working with despots and dictators in Syria and Iran and is prepared to throw virtually anything into the bargain – including Israel – or so it appears to the Arabs and Persians. In doing so, however, it has undermined its status in the region. 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 with each passing day, the only image conveyed to our erstwhile Arab friends and our Persian enemies is that the U.S. is a paper tiger – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
In the Arab mind, American attempts to work with its enemies constitute a declaration of surrender motivated by profound weakness. In the Sunni Arab world, Iran is recognized as an existential threat. As a result, what America sees as a realistic, diplomatic, multilateral approach to its foreign policy initiative carries little or no weight in the Arab Middle East. It is only power and the realistic use of that power that determines Arab policy and by that standard, it is Iran not America that is calling the shots. The one characteristic common to the Arab dictators and despots of the Middle East is the ease with which they align and re-align themselves with enemies whom they perceive to be �the stronger horse.� Today, they deem that stronger force to be Islamic Iran. It is for this reason that, in the wake of the damage caused by Annapolis and the NIE, Sunni leaders from across the Arab world (most notably from Saudi Arabia and Egypt) have begun courting Iranian President Ahmedinejad. Unfortunately for the U.S., the Arab perception of American weakness and America�s apparent loss of political will has reinforced the Saudi and Egyptian belief that both had best mend fences their with Tehran quickly � especially since America itself is seeking to do so. Realpolitik after all works both ways. The Arab world prefers to deal with Iranian power rather than align itself with perceived American weakness.
In the final analysis, military action against Iran by the United States is no longer a certainty in the last year of a presidency facing a hostile Congress. From now on, multilateralism will define the rules of engagement. The U.S. will find an excuse to vacate Iraq �with honor� and confirm in the minds of Iran and Syria that America has returned to passivity. Israel may have no choice but to stand alone against Islamic fascism, while the rest of the Arab world (specifically Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE) will see American passivity as a green light to make the best deal they can with Iran.
In this atmosphere, Israel will not only become a bargaining chip in the bazaar of Mideast diplomacy, but bear sole responsibility for preventing Iran from achieving nuclear capability � and American consent for a Israeli pre-emptive strike (if the latest NIE is to be believed) is by no means assured.
Frederick the Great once said that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. Separating American foreign policy from the threatened use of American military power is a recipe for disaster in the Middle East.