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After the elections: US Policy in the Middle East

11/13/2006

The stuff is about to hit the fan in this neck of the woods, if we believe any of our favorite or unfavorite Middle East commentators. Pundits in Washington, Beirut and Jerusalem mostly agree that changes are imminent. Many of them seem to believe also that the outline of those changes is at least barely visible. These changes, if they come, will probably not, by and large be due to the Democratic majority in congress. As Marco Vicenzino notes, congress does not make foreign policy. Congress could force the hand of the Bush administration by refusing appropriations for Iraq, for example, but that is unlikely. In any case, Vicenzino is about the only commentator who is not insisting that a big change is in the air.


Others insist that change is surely coming, as both Michael Rubin and Jim Hoagland note. and in Iraq that change will not be good, even though Rami Khouri, also anticipating change, insists that "the alternative would be to continue existing trends, the worst option for all concerned." Rami Khouri forgot that prior to the Bush administration, Lebanon was occupied by Syria. At least formally, that occupation has ended -- for now. But as Hoagland writes so trenchantly:

Only the incompetence and discord of the past three years could cause reasonable people to welcome back with applause policymakers who failed to anticipate and then opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union; who were not
realistic enough to see, much less prevent, the Balkans from plunging into flames; and who "coddled dictators from Beijing to Baghdad," as the Democrats once accurately described the handiwork of Brent Scowcroft, Bob Gates and Jim Baker under Bush 41.

So hold the champagne and cheers for the return of "realism,"... It is too often a euphemism for
cynicism, for playing for time and for passing up big opportunities that carry high risks and potentially great rewards. Bush 43 took such a risk in Iraq and now pays the price for failing to develop anything resembling a Plan B.

...
But the problems of Iraq are so deep today that improved policy coordination in Washington will not fix them. That will become even clearer in mid-December when the Iraq Study Group headed by Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton is due to deliver its findings and recommendations and, in the process, provide Bush with a second firebreak from rising opposition to the war.

The point of Hoagland's article is that the Bush vision was right, but the implementation was faulty. Michael Rubin tells us that the solution that will be offered will be to bring back the old vision, which contributed greatly to the current mess. "Realism" or "pragmatism" seems to mean going back to the era of dirty deals with dictators and despots. It means ignoring little bitty problems like the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which could be converted de facto into a Syrian-Iranian occupation through the proxy of Hezbollah, a process that may be happening before our eyes. Hoagland insists that James Baker is too smart to be a "realist," but in fact, as Rubin points out, Baker's rumored policy of "engaging" Syria and Iran will have to lead to deals that allow US acquiescence in Syrian and Iranian designs, in return for some real or vaunted cooperation in Iran. The appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense is not a promissing sign. One of Gates' dubious achievements was his involvement in encouraging the Mujahedeen insurrection in Afghanistan -- an example of what happens when "realism" goes wrong. But Gates, will probably not lead policy in the way that Rumsfeld did.

As Rubin points out, Saddam Hussein's career, like the Taleban in Afghanistan, was a product of "realism:"

On Dec. 20, 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, then Ronald Reagan's Middle East envoy, met Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. According to declassified documents, the Reagan administration sought to re-establish long-severed relations with Baghdad amid concern about growing Iranian influence. While U.S. intelligence had earlier confirmed Saddam's use of chemical weapons, Mr. Rumsfeld did not broach the subject. His handshake with Saddam, caught on film by Iraqi television, represented a triumph for diplomatic realism.

Iran and Iraq would fight for five more years, leaving hundreds of thousands dead on the battlefield. Then, two years after a ceasefire ended the war, Saddam invaded Kuwait. In subsequent years, he would subsidize waves of Palestinian suicide-bombers, effectively ending the Oslo peace process. Saddam's career is a model of realist blowback.

On Sept. 23, 2002, as Saddam defied international inspectors and U.N. sanctions crumbled under the greed of Paris, Moscow and Iraq's neighbors, Newsweek published a cover story, "How we Helped Create Saddam," that once again thrust the forgotten handshake into public consciousness. Across both the U.S. and Britain, the story provoked press outrage. NPR conducted interviews outlining how the Reagan administration allowed Saddam to acquire dual-use equipment. Mr. Rumsfeld "helped Iraq get chemical weapons," headlined London's Daily Mail. British columnist Robert Fisk concluded that the handshake was evidence of Mr. Rumsfeld's disdain for human rights, and Amy and David Goodman of "Democracy Now!" condemned Mr. Rumsfeld for enabling Saddam's "lethal shopping spree." While 20 years too late, progressives decried the cold, realist calculations that sent people across the third world to their graves in the cause of U.S. national interest.

The new model Rumsfeld is reformed, and no longer a "realist." What is replacing him is not a new adjustment to the dynamic realities of the Middle East, but an attempt to return to the past. But you can't put the Middle East toothpaste back in the realist tube any more. Rubin writes:

What a difference a war makes. Today, progressives and liberals celebrate not only Mr. Rumsfeld's departure, but the resurrection of realists like Secretary of Defense-nominee Robert Gates and James Baker. Mr. Gates was the CIA's deputy director for intelligence at the time of Mr. Rumsfeld's infamous handshake, deputy director of Central Intelligence when Saddam gassed the Kurds, and deputy national security advisor when Saddam crushed the Shiite uprising. Mr. Baker was as central. He was White House chief of staff when Reagan dispatched Mr. Rumsfeld to Baghdad and, as secretary of state, ensured Saddam's grip on power after Iraqis heeded President George H.W. Bush's Feb. 15, 1991, call for "the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside." In the months that followed, Saddam massacred tens of thousands of civilians.

While Mr. Rumsfeld worked to right past wrongs, Messrs. Gates and Baker winked at the Iraqi dictator's continuing grip on power...

Progressive inconsistency will only increase with the unveiling of the Baker-Hamilton commission recommendations calling for reconciliation with both Syria and Iran. In effect, Mr. Baker's proposals are to have the White House replicate the Rumsfeld-Saddam handshake with both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The parallels are striking. First, just as Saddam denied Kuwait's right to exist, Mr. Assad refuses to recognize Lebanese independence (Damascus has no embassy in Beirut) and Mr. Ahmadinejad calls for Israel's eradication. Washington realpolitik enabled Saddam to act out his fantasies; evidence suggests both Mr. Assad and Mr. Ahmadinejad aspire to do likewise.

Second, just as the Reagan-era Rumsfeld turned a blind eye toward Iraqi chemical weapons, so too does Mr. Baker now counsel ignoring their embrace by the Syrian and Iranian leadership. Tehran used chemical munitions in its war against Iraq, and senior Iranian officials have also threatened first-strike use of nuclear weapons. Syria is just as dangerous: On April 20, 2004, Jordanian security intercepted Syrian-based terrorists planning to target Amman with 20 tons of chemical weapons. Mr. Assad has yet to explain the incident.

And, third, there is the issue of detente enabling armament. Following his rapprochement with Washington, Saddam transformed investment into replenishment. The cost of ejecting Iraqi forces from Kuwait was far greater than any benefit borne of engagement.

Trade with Tehran has likewise backfired. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled. During this same period, Iranian authorities used their hard currency windfall not to invest in schools and hospitals, but rather in uranium processing plants and anti-aircraft batteries. Mohammad Khatami, Mr. Ahmadinejad's predecessor and a man often labeled reformist by U.S. and European realists, showed the Islamic Republic's priorities when he spent two-thirds of his oil-boom windfall on the military. Said Mr. Khatami on April 18, 2002: "Today our army is one of the most powerful in the world. . . . It has become self-sufficient, and is on the road to further development." Subsequent discovery of Iran's covert nuclear facilities later that year clarified his boast. The Assad regime has shown its willingness to spend its discretionary income on a wide-range of weaponry and terror groups.

Realism promotes short-term gain, often at the expense of long-term security. With hindsight, it is clear that Mr. Rumsfeld's handshake with Saddam backfired. While it may have constrained Iran in the short-term, its blowback in terms of blood and treasure has been immense.

Assuming that the leak concerning the intended "engagement" of Iran and Syria is correct, it is amazing that nobody has asked the crucial question, "How is this going to solve the problem of Iraq?" Syria and Iran are very probably contributing factors in Iraqi instability, but it is hard to believe that they are the key factors. Let's suppose that in the familiar style of the Great Game, the US gives Lebanon to Syria and Iran, forces Israel to withdraw from the Golan heights and make "peace" with Syria, and somehow establishes a Palestinian state as well. Will this resolve the enmity of the Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunni in Iran? Will it stop Al Qaeda infiltration? Assume that Syria and Iran are allowing shipments of arms and supplies to Iraqi insurgents, if the US can't control the borders of Iraq, can Iran and Syria control the borders from their side? Despite the prognostication of Rami Khouri, the overall result may be worse. The consistent surmise is that Iraq will disintegrate into two or three states, as Monica Duffy Toft argues in the Washington Post. In that scenario, "engaged" Syria and Iran would in a position to carve out spheres of influence in Sunni and Shi'a Iraq respectively. That may be in fact the game plan, but not even James Baker could be expected to be that "realistic." Throwing parts of the carcass of Iraq to the hyenas in return for peace and quiet on other fronts is a plan so "realistic" that it is worthy of Joseph Stalin.

On the other hand, the things that your liable to read in the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, "they ain't necessarily so." There is no real evidence that the Baker-Hamilton group is going to recommend engaging Syria and Iran, dissection of Iraq or any other measure, and no evident that President Bush would adopt such recommendations. On the contrary, President Bush today reiterated his call for international isolation of Iran, at least for the benefit of visiting Israeli PM Ehud Olmert.

Change must come. The slaughter and chaos in Iraq cannot and will not "continue to continue" indefinitely. Lebanon is undergoing political convulsions as Hezbollah bids for power, and PM Saniora defiantly passed a draft law approving the tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of PM Rafik Hariri. "Sister" Syria, and her supporters, the Hezbollah and pro-Hezbollah ministers who resigned from the government were not too interested in such a tribunal, for good reason. Above all, as always, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be the focus of events and change. The current impasse cannot continue. Israel cannot suffer rocket attacks indefinitely, and the Palestinians cannot suffer devastating Israeli retaliations, which include inevitable mistakes like the tragic killing of 19 innocent people in Beit Hanoun. Of course, when "mistakes" are inevitable, we have to ask if they are really mistakes. Israel is not going to allow kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit to remain in Palestinian hands indefinitely. Hostages are a dynamite issue that not even the totally insensitive government of Ehud Olmert can ignore indefinitely. Palestinians cannot remain "under siege" indefinitely, nor will Israel allow the continued smuggling of illegal arms, purchased with the money that Palestinians supposedly don't have. Palestinian unity talks are apparently going to succeed, and when that happens, Ehud Olmert promissed that he would negotiate with the resulting government. What will he offer? That is another matter. In Iran, the centrifuges keep whirling away, bringing it inevitably closer and closer to the day when it will become a nuclear power. And finally, Syria has sent clear signals that it isn't going to wait indefinitely to regain posession of the Golan heights.

The US, Israel, the Palestinians and moderate Arab countries must set "real" realistic policies that will meet the challenges, rather than reverting to failed policies of the 1980s, favorite panaceas such as "engagement" or neocon slogans about "victory" and "democracy." We don't see it happening, and if it doesn't happen, things will get worse, Rami Khouri to the contrary notwithstanding.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000534.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 6 comments

What exactly might these "real, realistic" policies be?

Posted by Spike @ 11/16/2006 03:12 PM CST

I think Michael Rubin distorts what realism really is. I disagree both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's Mujahadeen were products of the same vein as Rumsfield's pragmatism. The U.S. used Saddam as an a weapon against the Iranians just like Bush attempted to use Iraq as a model of Democracy to spread his vision. Sounds like the same garbage to me. The U.S. interfering in the Middle East creates a problem in itself as well as good.

Second why should the West care for who rules the Middle East? As Michael Scheurer once put it the Arabs greatest anger are three things:

1. US support for Arab dictators
2. US influence to keep oil prices low
3. US stance on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

Should the US continue to interfere where it is not needed? I think not.

While making peace may hurt another front, assuming that every solution must be 100% perfect like this paragraph implies is a dream:

Assuming that the leak concerning the intended "engagement" of Iran and Syria is correct, it is amazing that nobody has asked the crucial question, "How is this going to solve the problem of Iraq?" Syria and Iran are very probably contributing factors in Iraqi instability, but it is hard to believe that they are the key factors. Let's suppose that in the familiar style of the Great Game, the US gives Lebanon to Syria and Iran, forces Israel to withdraw from the Golan heights and make "peace" with Syria, and somehow establishes a Palestinian state as well. Will this resolve the enmity of the Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunni in Iran? Will it stop Al Qaeda infiltration? Assume that Syria and Iran are allowing shipments of arms and supplies to Iraqi insurgents, if the US can't control the borders of Iraq, can Iran and Syria control the borders from their side? Despite the prognostication of Rami Khouri, the overall result may be worse. The consistent surmise is that Iraq will disintegrate into two or three states, as Monica Duffy Toft argues in the Washington Post. In that scenario, "engaged" Syria and Iran would in a position to carve out spheres of influence in Sunni and Shi'a Iraq respectively. That may be in fact the game plan, but not even James Baker could be expected to be that "realistic." Throwing parts of the carcass of Iraq to the hyenas in return for peace and quiet on other fronts is a plan so "realistic" that it is worthy of Joseph Stalin.

Ami
Your second mistake in your article is that by making peace between Israel and the Palestinians or Israel and Syria the world would give up Iraq to Iran and Syria. You have taken two or three different issues that for the most part are separated from each other. Making peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict does not have anything to do with Iraqis making peace between themselves. Making peace between Israelis and Palestinians doesn't come at the cost Iraqi strife. Its possible that making peace in certain areas of the Middle East would allow U.S. and the world to focus more on areas like Iraq. If anything an Israeli-Palestinain peace would free up resources.

What happens should no excuse to not push for peace on other fronts and should not sacrifice the Iraqis in anyway.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 11/17/2006 02:15 AM CST

"What happens should no excuse to not push for peace on other fronts and should not sacrifice the Iraqis in anyway."

I meant to say:

What happens in one conflict of the Middle East should be no excuse to not push for peace on other fronts and should not sacrifice the Iraqis in anyway.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 11/17/2006 02:18 AM CST

It's all a simple matter of plant your imperialist armies in the backyards of your trade partners to ensure you get the most bang for your buck. It has been repeated throughout history by every imperialist nation. A little intimidation goes along way towards making sure your king of the hill. the US has troops in Afganistan and Iraq putting the squeeze play on Iran. We have Turkey by the nards dangling our endorsments just outside their reach. Syria isn't much of a concern other than pushing them around kind of pokes arabs in the eye as it is the historical home of Saladin. The US's presence in Iraq is only prolonging an inevitible civil war that will divide the nation into several states. But, that is not the US's concern, we are not there to help, we are there to make money. When we (we does not mean the people as we have already lost a fortune in blood and tax dollars, we = military suppliers) loose more than we make we will leave, but not before installing dictators who will do our bidding. Those are the simple facts, a nation reacts to world event based on how it affects it's financial status. An imperialist government is a cold ruthless creature that does nothing if not for profit, in the words of "Deep Throat" ...follow the money...policies = $$

Posted by OMFG @ 11/17/2006 06:59 PM CST

btw...If we are at peace with arab nations, then we must respect them, that includes trade rates. It is not in the US's best intrest to have peace in the Mid-East, the barganing chips available, when at odds with a nation who is war torn and constant conflict are much more diversified. *Food for Oil*, Medical supplies for Oil, stop bombing you for oil....though I don't think they would really use that last one as the program name...a little too obvious. ;)

Posted by OMFG @ 11/17/2006 07:06 PM CST

How about ditching all the "political" nonsense lock-stock-and-barrel and taking a fresh honest look at the whole thing:

http://www.truth-and-justice.info/2005/middle-east-settlement.html

It would work and would be cheaper for all concerned.

Posted by shams ali @ 12/04/2006 07:08 PM CST


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