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Advice to candidates: US Middle East Policy

06/12/2008

To inhabitants of the Middle East, the oddity of American Middle East policy is perhaps exceeded only by the even odder nature of commentary about the Middle East, and the fantastic gyrations and contortions of candidates for the U.S. Presidency on the subject of the Middle East.

America has always been an insular country. What really matters in US elections are issues such as farm subsidies, health care, income tax, and Roe vs. Wade. US presidential candidates are often chosen based on whimsical criteria. Nixon's beard may have been the deciding issue of the 1960 presidential campaign, along with his failure to arouse enthusiasm among an essential electorate - the dead people of Cook County Illinois, who voted overwhelmingly for John F. Kennedy. Nixon's McCarthyism, racism and sleazy politics were hardly at issue. The major foreign policy issue that engrossed Americans in that campaign was the hypothetical defense of two islands - Quemoy and Matsu, offshore from Taiwan ("Formosa"). Most Americans had no idea where these islands were. A significant minority thought that Formosa was the name of a baseball player.

Not surprisingly, US presidential candidates formulate their foreign policy platforms in generalities and tend to drift with public sentiment. Two years ago, John McCain, in an interview with Ha'aretz, advocated Israeli return to approximately the Green Line, and, to the horror of most Israelis, believed it would be a good idea to bring James ("F--- the Jews, they didn't vote for us") Baker III to the Middle East to broker a solution. Barack Obama was once known for his support for Palestinian causes, and his long time relationship with his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who visited Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi along with Louis Farrakhan in the 80s. In their recent speeches to the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, both McCain and Obama advocated very different positions. Obama pledged support for "undivided" Jerusalem. Of course, is stance left Arabs "shocked". And of course, Obama had to backtrack quickly in the following days. An unidentified aide explained:"

But a campaign adviser clarified Thursday that Obama believes "Jerusalem is a final status issue, which means it has to be negotiated between the two parties" as part of "an agreement that they both can live with."

"Two principles should apply to any outcome," which the adviser gave as: "Jerusalem remains Israel's capital and it's not going to be divided by barbed wire and checkpoints as it was in 1948-1967."

He refused, however, to rule out other configurations, such as the city also serving as the capital of a Palestinian state or Palestinian sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods.

"Beyond those principles, all other aspects are for the two parties to agree at final status negotiations," the Obama adviser said.

Obama himself obfuscated the matter further soon after, making it clear that he hasn't a clue what policy the United States should follow regarding Jerusalem. McCain now advocates an uncompromisingly pro-Israel stand, including the now standard (and never honored) pledge of US presidential candidates to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

These gyrations reflect an abiding ignorance of the Middle East and of the Muslim world, and neglect of the subject that continues to inform US policy, though for obvious reasons, it is no longer possible to consider the Middle East a peripheral issue. In the absence of real knowledge, policy is driven by interest groups and by ideologies that recast Middle East realities in terms that are understandable to Americans from their social studies classes, like "democracy" or in terms of local American politics or in terms of irrelevant cold war confrontations between super powers. How else can we explain that "liberals" and "progressives" take a tolerant attitude to reactionary forces like the Hamas and Hezbollah? How else can we explain that conservatives lionize Anatoli Shcharansky, proponent of excluding Arabs from East Jerusalem, as an advocate of "democracy?"

When candidates voice their ignorance and deliver themselves of campaign fluff, it does little real harm. When the same candidates get into office, it produces 9-11, the failed Oslo "peace process," Hamas in charge of Gaza, Hezbollah in charge of Lebanon.

Some advice for United States presidential candidates:

Invest in learning about the Middle East - The great failure that underlies 9-11, the handling of the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is lack of information at all levels. While US intelligence regarding Eastern Europe and the USSR was defective, it was not absent. There were and are policy experts, technical experts and military experts on the USSR, as well as "assets" - agents - in abundance. The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright documents above all else the abysmal ignorance of the United States government and people about the Middle East and the Muslim world, as regards a "passive" response to threat or even the understanding that a threat exists. The fiascos of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the Iraq war illustrate what happens when this ignorance is applied in an activist policy. Without real policy experts, Arab speakers, Hebrew speakers and Farsi speakers, reliable "human assets" and just plain acquaintances inside the Middle East, the United States operates in this region and in the Muslim world like a blind auto-mechanic performing neurosurgery. Its policy makers, its intelligence services and its citizens are either totally uninformed about the Middle East, or have adopted a fictional version of the Middle East based on fables woven by biased "experts."

Many of you are familiar with the Star Gate adventure series. Fearless US military personnel go through space-warping worm holes to confront monsters possessed by lizard-like aliens, and of course, the good old USA wins every time. Compared to a lot of Middle East "analysis" and policy I find that Star Gate is relatively firmly rooted in reality. Yasser Arafat as peace maker and humanist was less credible than "ancients" with the ability to bring back the dead. SG-1 always has a better chance of defeating the Guouald aliens than McCain has of defeating Iraqi insurgents. At least, SG-1 can identify the actual enemy and has allies against them.

Dealing with Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad or Osama Bin Laden is quite a bit different from Andropov or Khrushchev, just as removing a brain tumor is different from replacing a clogged fuel filter. Appallingly, no candidate has pointed out this ignorance or the need to vastly increase resources devoted to education about the Middle East at the university and high school level, and to development of intelligence capabilities in the Middle East.The U.S. has done nothing to correct the major problem revealed by 9-11 and the Iraq war. The continuing lack of hard facts and ability to interpret those facts was illustrated in the fiasco of the NIE report on Iran nuclear development as well as in the Baker-Hamilton study group report on Iraq, each amateurish documents that were more summaries of ignorance than contributions to information and decision making.

How could it be that no candidate addresses this problem or even indicates they know there is a problem? Because they don't know that they don't know. Their own rhetoric betrays the fact that they are still thinking in terms of cold war ideas - offering alternatives of invasion or negotiation, focusing on dramatic but perhaps irrelevant issues such as the Iranian A-Bomb. We are not fighting the Cold War. Even the Cold War was not what you thought it was. The USSR was not brought down by an invasion or by nuclear weapons.

Do no harm - The US would do well to apply the ancient motto of the Hippocratic oath, adopted when physicians were as ignorant of physiology as the US is of the Middle East. In the absence of knowledge, every activist initiative, whether it is diplomatic pressure or negotiations or invasion, should be avoided if at all possible. Without intelligence, American negotiators are likely to be swindled, and American war efforts are likely to get bogged down in situations like Iraq where, after 5 years, they still can't even identify the enemy with certainty. "Activists" of every stripe advocate US involvement in invasions and peace negotiations without a clear program, without understanding the risks, and without a plan "B" in case the efforts fail.

If you break it, you bought it - This applies to Iraq and Lebanon, it would apply to any action in Iran, and it applies to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. If the US and the industrialized countries essentially imposed a solution on Lebanon, they need to follow through. If the UN resolutions call for disarmament of Hezbollah and other militias, then that policy must be carried out at whatever cost. If you are not ready to implement your policy, don't impose it. Having gotten into Iraq, the US cannot simply walk away. That idea, born of US partisan politics, is a non-starter. If the US forced elections on the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and forced the participation of the Hamas, they are responsible for the consequences. If the US fostered a Middle East peace process, announced with great fanfare in Madrid in the last century, and renewed at Annapolis, it cannot simply abandon it like a kid who neglects a toy that is no longer wanted. Of course, that also makes it imperative not to start what you can't finish.

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/00000699.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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