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Is US Middle East policy hopeless?


Please bear with me while I present the following bits of wisdom:

"The United States can be most effective when it pools and leverages resources with the many with whom it shares objectives in the region."

"There are no shortages of challenges and players..."

" ...but with smart management strategies this should increase rather than diminish opportunities for solutions."

" U.S. officials need an organized strategy"

"Taking stock of where the Middle East and U.S. policy for the region currently stand yields a complicated picture."

No, the above are not part of a joke email entitled "Corporate Bullshit Bingo," though the now faded "leverage" cliche is there.

The above truisms are not meant as a joke at all. They are from an article by expert analysts entitled "Reviving U.S. Leadership in the Middle East". The authors are not sophomores in some obscure universities or mediocre middle management executives. One of them has a distinguished career that includes service in the US National Security Council under President Clinton. The other is a scholar with sufficient background to have provided at least sensible and straightforward evaluations. But they must sell the product that is expected, not the one that is needed.

If anyone, including the learned authors, did not understand that there are "no shortages of challenges and players," and that the picture is complicated and that the US has to get organized, it is a bit late in the game to explain it to them. Management strategies might help, but much more than that is required.

Foreign policy is always complicated. That's why gurus are supposed to be smart and know how to separate out all of us confusing foreign folks with our different languages, ideas, customs, costumes and programs. And diplomats, believe it or not, don't always tell the truth and the whole truth, so that makes it even more complicated. It's tough to earn a living as a foreign policy analyst, isn't it? But they are not even trying. That is not what they were expected to do in this article.

The picture is complicated, but the bottom line is simple: In the Middle East, the US blew it in a big way. But nobody can keep a job as a foreign policy analyst in the USA if they say that sort of thing. Fixing the mess is certainly complicated.

The authors' thesis is that while the Middle East seems to be taking care of itself, it can't really get along without US intervention. The US can't keep out of the Middle East despite the Doha compromise in Lebanon that was done without their mediation, and the Israel-Hamas cease fire and the Israeli negotiations with Syria. All these are promising starts, but require US intervention to succeed. And they tell us that the situation in Iraq is "improving," but also requires continued US help. We can't really argue with that general conclusion. A rosy picture on the whole.

But we can also draw much more alarming conclusions. The "agreements" are not a sign of improvement, but of desperation. The Doha agreement is not the result of the light of understanding dawning in Middle East, but the result of American policy failure.

The US and France, as usual, started something they couldn't finish. The collision between Hezbollah and the government could be seen coming for many months, but the US had no plan ready at all. Nothing was done to avert the collision. At the critical moment, when Hezbollah took over Beirut, it was too late. Perhaps even then, the situation could be retrieved. UN paratroopers could have landed to restore order and declare martial law and finally disarm the Hezbollah as dictated by the several relevant UN Security Council resolutions, but that was too risky. The diplomats temporized. When Americans abandoned Fouad Seniora, what could the supporters of the government do? That problem could not be fixed by sending another US diplomat to negotiate. The leadership that was required was of a different order. Faced with the choice of death or capitulation, America's allies in Lebanon chose the latter course. The Doha agreement brought nothing. Lebanese politics are still stalemated. The only result is that Hezbollah advanced toward its goal of taking over the government.

In Israel and the Palestinian territories, after US interventionism first helped bring the PLO to power and then brought the Hamas to power in Gaza, the US walked away. Now the local sides, themselves not overly competent or forthright, is jockeying to make the best out of the mess that is left in order to retrieve either their national interests or the narrow interests of their politicians. The first rule of everyone is to stay alive and look out for number one after all. But the "cease fire" in Gaza is based on an agreement to disagree - Israel pretends that it includes cessation of arms smuggling. Hamas pretends that it does not. What happens when the arms smuggling continues?

The suggestions for remedying the problems that are given in this article are indicative of the kind of thinking that caused the problems in the first place. Consider this bit of wisdom:

To address the Middle East's numerous challenges, we should and must expect the U.S. government to pay attention to the details and have an integrated approach - ensuring coordination between different departments, accountability for actions and proper follow- up mechanisms. For instance, the secretary of state should know and care about getting a Fulbright student out of Gaza, and if we have three military officials working on movement and access issues, one of them should have coordination with the Israelis on this matter as part of his portfolio. Permits, programs, and processes all contribute to making the grand policy.

How this type of proposal would have saved the poor Lebanese from the clutches of the Hezbollah is beyond my understanding. How can the secretary of state be aware of, and regulate, the details of the lives of over a million Gazans, and 25 million Iraqis and 70 million Egyptians and 7 million Israelis on an individual basis? Exit permits for Palestinians are only one matter among many. Does Ahmed need to export fruit from Gaza? An American must be informed. Does Nabila need to get from Haleb to Baghdad to marry Fahed? An American must be informed. Is Boutros the Egyptian Copt. in need of a church in his village? The secretary of state must know. Did the nice Qassam rocket of the nice Islamic Jihad blow off Udi's leg, and does he have to travel to an American hospital for a replacement? The secretary of state must know. To implement a full gamut of such proposals, would probably require the employment of every adult American in monitoring the lives of every person in the Middle East.

These bright young men who were freed to study under the Fulbright scholarships --were they allowed to leave on the merits of the cases? Were they really held in Gaza only because of the arbitrary recalcitrance of some Israeli military official? Is it conceivable that anyone studied the case objectively after the Secretary of the United States intervened and virtually ordered that they be released? Can anyone guarantee that they will be be seeds of peace in the future Palestinian democracy, or might they instead be Sayyed Qutbs? He studied in America too. The students might be saints of democracy or Shihads of Jihad. It doesn't matter. They travel under the protection of Caesar. "hic enim homo civis Romanus est."

The US has squandered billions of dollars in Iraq without accountability. Its forces are helpless and clueless against guerrilla and terror attacks in Iraq, which has turned into a jungle. This same United States wants to make a "grand policy" without knowing what its goals are. To do so, it proposes to micromanage the security policies of Israel, which is the only country in the world that has at least partial success in controlling terrorism. Since the US officials won't understand Arabic or Hebrew, and have no way, for example, to check the backgrounds of the scholars who require approval, it is not clear on what basis they will give their approval, or on what basis the approval was commanded in the present case of the Fulbright scholars.

Likewise, the US will presumably have people riding shot gun on garbage trucks in Ramallah, and the Palestinians will also report to the Great White Father in Washington.

What bothers the authors is that a few students with Fulbright scholarships didn't get let out of Gaza due to some SNAFU in military organization. A hiccup. The control of Gaza by Islamist fanatics, due to US intervention, is of no concern. The subsidy paid to the Palestinian police in Gaza that support that regime, which is taken from US and European contributions to the Palestinian Authority, is of no concern. The bottling up of over a million Palestinians in Gaza, with almost no reasonable alternative, is not a problem, as long as a few people are freed to study under the protection of the American flag. Continued Fatah corruption and mismanagement, which might in fact benefit from outside control, are not of any concern to the gurus of foreign policy either.

The analysts tell us that the disastrous stagnation of the peace negotiations, continued tacit support of the US funded Palestinian Authority for terror and continued Israeli and Palestinian road map violations are just challenges that require some US leadership which is "critical:"

On the Arab-Israeli front, U.S. leadership in achieving tangible gains on movement and access, economic development, strengthening reform while bolstering pragmatic Palestinian and Lebanese leaders, and ensuring Israel's security concerns are addressed, is critical. Though the United States should continue to strive for achieving President Bush's stated goal of a deal on the Israeli-Palestinian track before he leaves office, it also must work to see that leaders in the region and here at home can anticipate a smooth transition to a new administration in the event a complete deal is not reached.

Dear Americans, I am sorry to tell you that there is almost no hope for any deal this year. There never was. Even if the Hamas did not rule in Gaza, reality cannot be changed just by announcements at conferences and empty UN resolutions. The negotiations are in basically the same place as they were in 1949 - no Arab recognition of a Jewish state, no actual Palestinian state, and no possibility to set up a normal Palestinian Arab state in the divided Palestinian society. Read what is said in Hebrew and Arabic and you will understand. The problem is spun by the locals into a gap of a few percent on a map, but in reality, it is not a "gap" but a crevasse. That is why the solution always looks so near yet so far. The same crevasse has existed for 60 years. It is very unlikely that any US leadership, any management strategies, or any spin can fix the problem. The deal that you can make, like the Annapolis conference and all the other deals, will be just spin, because spin can only beget more spin. A real solution requires radical rethinking on all sides. If there was hope, the last of it was probably scuttled by the cease fire with Hamas. If it holds, Ismail Hanniyeh or a different Hamas leader may be elected President of the Palestinian Authority in December. A convenience for those in Israel who don't want to negotiate peace, since the Hamas is not interested in peace. That will suit circumstances if, as appears likely, Benjamin Netanyahu is elected to head the next Israeli government. It will be a new reality. There is not much to pass on to a new administration, so why bother?

Consider the title of the article: "Reviving U.S. Leadership in the Middle East." Imagine if a British foreign policy pundit wrote an article about "Reviving British Leadership in North America!" Wouldn't every American find that article threatening and offensive? How about an article originating in Germany about "Reviving German World Leadership?" Aren't we aghast at articles about "Reviving Islamic Leadership in Europe?" How about "Reviving Jewish world leadership?" Are those realistic or beneficent proposals? Are they good "grand policy?" In truth, the authors don't seem to really mean "leadership" in that sense. They are, or they think they are, just urging that the US should not walk away from the Middle East, which is in itself correct. But then again, what do they really intend, when they want to micromanage Israeli security procedures? Do they know what they mean? Do they see where it leads?

The Marshall Plan and NATO are considered successful models of US policy. They succeeded for all the reasons that US policy in the Middle East is a disaster. The architects of those policies were Harry S Truman and George Marshall and a few others like them. They had a decent respect for the opinions of mankind and the independence of other states and a modest and realistic appraisal of the place of the United States in the world and of their own abilities. Truman in particular was not given to thinking in empty cliches, or to imagining that he could micromanage the universe.

The US policy apparatus had a good fundamental understanding of Europe and European politics, a reasonable, if imperfect, intelligence capability created in the CIA and other organizations, and a good appreciation of the strategic threats and opportunities. The Marshall plan provided aid, but not leadership and control. American bureaucrats were not sent to regulate the manufacture of Camembert cheese in France or knockwurst and machine tools in Germany, to teach the British how to make fish and chips or to run British intelligence. This remained true even after it was evident that Soviet intelligence had disastrously compromised the British, resulting in the loss of shared US atomic secrets to the USSR. But Middle East people are not British. We are dumb natives who require micromanagement "strategies" so the US can execute a "grand policy."

In the Middle East, the US has virtually no expertise and has never bothered to develop it. What passes for foreign policy and foreign policy analysis is generated by a few spinmeisters who may have studied Arabic, and who see the Middle East through one or another set of colored ideological glasses that have no relation to reality. Everyone else is even more clueless. The one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind. The somewhat difficult is made hopelessly obscure by willful and deliberate obscurantism and spin.

The Middle East faqirs of the State Department and the think tanks and the security apparatus serve up to the different American political interest groups a picture that suits their ideological predilections and political requirements, ignoring unpleasant realities like exploding automobiles, corrupt officials and a wily, organized and determined set of enemies. If you want a report that says Iran is producing nuclear weapons, then please, we will give it to you. If you don't like that report, we can give you another that says Iran is not probably not maybe not with fair probability developing nuclear weapons. Whatever you like. And if that doesn't suit, then the very next month we can produce a report that states authoritatively that Iran is, probably is, with middling to certain probability is, developing nuclear weapons. One set of Americans reads "experts" who predict that the US or Israel is going to attack Iran next month without cause. Every month the attack is predicted for next month. Another set of Americans reads "experts" who predict that Iran is going to develop nuclear weapons any day now. None of it ever happens, but the "experts" are never called into question. That is because:"Taking stock of where the Middle East and U.S. policy for the region currently stand yields a complicated picture." Why only currently? It was always complicated, no? Everything you don't understand is always complicated or appears to be.

An illustration of why US micromanagement in the Middle East would be disastrous is provided by the tragicomic case of Al-Hurra television. Having an American presence in Arab world television seems like a good idea. But well meaning incompetence has caused the project to wander between vapidity and self-inflicted bodily harm. A 60 minutes-Propublica investigation (to be aired Sunday June 22) shows that Al-Hurra aired a viciously anti-Israel speech, with no attempt to balance the view that Israel is a racist state. How did this happen?

... Brian Conniff, assures Scott Pelley things have improved editorially. "We now have a fully functioning assignment desk that views all packages and scripts...I have an independent monitoring system..."

You get what you pay for, right? For half a billion dollars, your might expect pretty thorough programming review, right? But not everything can be fixed with money.

... 60 Minutes and ProPublica monitored the broadcast last month... found a Palestinian guest named Hani El-Masri on its flagship show "Free Hour,"... His exact quote, unchallenged by the host or balanced by another panel member, was "[Israel] is the occupying and racist state that imposes the stifling and deadly blockade and perpetrates a holocaust against 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza."

Conniff, who speaks no Arabic, says he was unaware of this and after looking into the matter...

. All those fancy monitoring mechanisms and half a billion dollars later, and they are "looking into the matter." This did not happen in the wilds of Iraq, but in a comfortable air-conditioned studio in the USA. It happened because the big chief in charge of the operation speaks no Arabic. All the money, all the gadgets, all the review mechanisms are wasted because ignorant people are put in charge. They are in charge, because there is nobody else to put in charge. The US is deaf and blind in the Middle East

How will this work when the US micromanages Israeli security? When US officials, who speak no Arabic are vetting and questioning prospective Fulbright scholars through Hamas - supplied interpreters? Two weeks - or 7 years - after the "student" blows himself up in an American city, the officials, who speak no Arabic, will be "looking into the matter" just as they are still "looking into the matter" of how the 9-11 culprits escaped the attention of the CIA and the FBI.

The US doesn't have thousands and thousands of Arabic and Farsi and Hebrew speaking experts who have a good feel for the Middle East in the way that say, George Kennan and the squads of Sovietologists had for the USSR. Zbigniew Brzezinski is in his element in Warsaw or Moscow or Gdansk and so is Condoleezza Rice to an extent. Even they certainly made mistakes, but they knew approximately what the Soviets were about, and what the other players wanted and who they represented. Americans had gained, through hard experience, a realistic idea of who Stalin was and what he wanted - at least at the end, and they had some grasp of the other leaders and of the Soviet hierarchy. We could not imagine that Voice of America would broadcast Communist propaganda and that the director would be "looking into the matter" because nobody speaks Russian.

But there is no Zbigniew Brzezinski for Tehran, Tel Aviv, Beirut or Cairo. In Iran, nobody outside the country is even sure who is really in charge, and the nature of the regime is not understood in the US. For example, there are illusions that someone like Rafsanjani or Khameinei is a "moderate" rather than representing a more dangerous and subtle version of Ahmadinejad.

In Iran, the US faces a formidable, dedicated, resourceful adversary that is determined, for religious motives, as well as for the usual motives of power, ego and money, to provide its own brand of "leadership" - A world without America. That part is not "complicated" at all. You do not have to understand Arabic or Farsi - it was translated for you. They tell you what they want: "Death to America." They will try to achieve their goals with nuclear weapons if you let them, and if not, they will try to achieve them with suicide bombers. The same is true of Al Qaeda and its affiliates and mutants. They are organized. They have strategy and tactics and they work. They have "management strategies."

The US has done almost nothing to create any tools or instruments of foreign policy or to train personnel who could understand or deal with this threat. There is a tiny and abortive section on Iran in the US State Department. The whole place is as much an enigma in 2008 as it was in 1979.

Drear America: You don't know what you want or how to achieve it. You can't even understand what people are saying on your own television shows. You experiment. Iraq was one "experiment." Gaza is another "experiment." The experiments fail and you abandon them. Because the US has no intelligence capabilities to speak of in the Muslim world, you are still searching for Osama Bin Laden. You don't know for sure if he is alive or where he might really be. Objective number one, locating the enemy - mission not accomplished yet.

This woefully inadequate, wasteful, irresponsible American foreign policy and security apparatus does not propose to help, or to advise or to aid in the Middle East. Those modest and mutually beneficial offers would be accepted with gratitude, as the US does have much to offer after all. But the US wants to lead -- no less-- to impose its solutions based on its limited and defective understanding. It proposes to tell everyone what to do. To impose elections on an unready Palestinian electorate with disastrous results. To bog down Israeli security in the kind of red tape that prevented the killing of the Mullah Omar in Afghanistan (waiting for permission from the military pasha in charge). As in ancient days, when potentates of client satrapies received their crowns from Caesar, America will lead the Middle East and approve every decision. How can they lead when they can't see where they are going and can't read the maps?

Dear Americans: If you want to succeed in the Middle East, prepare the tools of success. Do your homework. Prepare executives and policy makers and intelligence experts and diplomats who really understand the Middle East and don't need interpreters. Stop trying to fool your own people. Stop trying to control, start listening and learning.

Dear Americans: Study what is working so well for Iran and the Jihadists in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and in Gaza. Think what could be done with American resources! They are doing all this mischief with the most minimal of resources, because they have inside knowledge, they are rooted in their societies. They are performing conjuring tricks that make tall buildings in New York collapse and allow tiny guerrilla forces to embarrass and confound large armies. They can convince women that repression is good for them, and make them fight for the "right" to wear the hijab and burqa. Armies of men are willing to blow themselves to kingdom come in return for rewards in heaven, if only they can destroy America. Something diabolical, counter-intuitive and improbable is being accomplished, but nonetheless they are doing it. You had better try to understand how and why before plunging in with your "leveraging" and your "grand policy" and your permits and your officials who will be omniscient. It is not so easy to understand and perhaps we do not either, but we do not propose any "grand policy." And we are going to be responsible for our mistakes, whether we like it or not. We can't be made responsible for your mistakes.

Dear Americans: You are right that you cannot walk away from the Middle East entirely. But you have to prepare yourselves for your role. You have to respect our independence. You have to shape the role to suit your limited capabilities, and you can't let appearances and spin substitute for actual reality. You can't do Enron accounting to show progress where there is none. You can't force us to leave our fate in the hands of ignorant executives who will "look into the matter." As long as you have inadequate knowledge, all the billions of dollars spent out of well-meaning generosity will be wasted. They will bring more harm than good. If you start something, as in Lebanon, you have to think how you will finish it. If you abandon allies they will never return. They may all be dead.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 2 comments

Dear Americans: Leave the Middle East and let the regional actors decide for themselves how to maintain stability. Without us Israel talks to Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. With us Israel sees no reason to talk to anyone. Without us Sinoria is forc ed into a deal he may not like but may maintain stability. With us Lebenon's fragile peace falls apart.

Dear Ami: Get informed and stop acting arrogant.

"In Iran, the US faces a formidable, dedicated, resourceful adversary that is determined, for religious motives, as well as for the usual motives of power, ego and money, to provide its own brand of "leadership" - A world without America. That part is not "complicated" at all. You do not have to understand Arabic or Farsi - it was translated for you. They tell you what they want: "Death to America." They will try to achieve their goals with nuclear weapons if you let them, and if not, they will try to achieve them with suicide bombers"

Tell me where is the proof Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Neither the NIE or IAEA has said as much. Stop making assumptions with out facts.

"They can convince women that repression is good for them, and make them fight for the "right" to wear the hijab and burqa."

Tell me Ami when did you become an authority on what is repression? Stop acting arrogant thinking your view of life is the only just view that exists.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 06/23/2008 01:19 AM CST

This site is no longer a peace site. Just a neocon right wing blogger who criticizes any ounce of hope there is because it doesn't in what he views as peace.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 06/23/2008 01:21 AM CST

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