on Mideast: Seduced or Cynical?
I almost hope that Secretary of State
Colin Powell’s opening to more involvement in the always-ephemeral
Middle East "peace process" is a public relations gesture
that is essentially a cynical ploy rather than a serious move. One
can imagine it being so. There are not only governments in the region
but established and influential lobbying groups on both sides of
the Middle East working to get the United States more directly involved
with mediating (and financing) the spurts of negotiation.
So it is just possible to imagine that Gen. Powell and his top aides,
knowing that former Maine Sen. George Mitchell was about to release
his hopeful but unrealistic report on the current nastiness, along
with some goodhearted but probably unattainable policy proposals.
What could be the harm in endorsing the report, hoping in public
that the disputing parties would take it seriously, and even sending
a special envoy to the region for a few weeks of desultory consultation
especially if you’re reasonably sure nothing much will come
of it and the United States won’t end up with even more extensive
and expensive obligations in the region.
As cynical as such a scenario might be, it would be preferable to
the determination that an administration that had come into office
with a bias against deeper involvement in at least some of the multifarious
quarrels and disputes of this sad old world had decided that maybe
it should give the old Middle East peace process a shot. Unfortunately,
that seems more likely to be the case than the cynical view.
The most puzzling thing about all the
news stories I have read and some of the people I have talked to
is the implicit assumption that the more violent and intractable
the conflict in the Middle East the more important it is for the
United States to get involved. This seems profoundly counterintuitive
to me, especially considering the very real possibility that Bill
Clinton’s insistent micromanagment last summer remember?
was in important contributor to the current violence by sharpening
the issues rather than resolving them.
Secretary Powell seemed to understand this when he came into office,
and in some ways he still seems to understand it. In announcing
an envoy and ballyhooing the Mitchell report he did eliminate
violence in Northern Ireland recently, right? he acknowledged
that "at the end of the day it [a peace settlement] is not
something that the U.S. can impose leaders need to look beyond
the passion of the moment and take the action necessary to bring
the cycle of violence to an end."
Almost all the news stories and commentaries have acknowledged that
solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now, after some eight months
of violence that seems to show little sign of leveling off and may
even be increasing, will be more difficult now than it might have
been earlier and might be later. As Time’s State Department correspondent
Jay Branegan put it, "Right now, neither side sees any advantage
to being the one to take the first step towards ending the violence.
Both have painted themselves into positions where taking the first
step would be counter to their principles and their domestic political
One can imagine that it would be shrewd and perhaps even statesmanlike
for the United State to continue to maintain the position even
implicit in Sec. Powell’s comments that the most constructive
role the United States can play is to be available when the two
sides are getting close to an agreement and can use a bit of help
getting past minor obstacles. The notion that the United States
should become more intensely involved at precisely the moment when
a solution is most difficult is not especially wise and perhaps
borders on the pathological.
One can understand Dennis Ross, who
was the Clinton administration’s designated Middle East troubleshooter
and has a good bit of his life invested in the notion that the United
States is the logical facilitator and broker of a comprehensive
Middle East peace settlement. But it is difficult to understand
how his opinions resonate with others especially with Secretary
of State Colin Powell and with a Bush administration that seemed
to have a more realistic outlook when it assumed office.
think [the Bush administration] put a premium on working with the
parties, but hoping the parties themselves could find a way out
of this, Mr. Ross told NBC News Monday. "I think we can see
this isn’t going to work. We need more intense involvement."
Two questions should arise. How can one make a judgment as to whether
a few months of trying a half-articulated policy of somewhat less
engagement in a conflict that has lasted for decades is or isn’t
working? And what evidence is there that "more intense involvement"
by the United States is likely to make things better either for
the Israelis and the Palestinians or for the United States itself?
If anything, most of the evidence is
to the contrary. Even if you don’t believe, as I do, that by intense
involvement and the implicit and often quite explicit promise
that it is more than willing to use American taxpayers’ money to
purchase the appearance of compliance the United States invites
manipulation by both sides, you should be concerned.
You don’t have to go all the way to the position that the best hope
is to let the Israelis and Palestinians duke it out after eliminating
all forms of aid to both sides and informing them that no more will
come until a settlement is reached to understand that to a certain
extent the United States is and has been subsidizing conflict in
the Middle East. The United States doesn’t acknowledge this, of
course, and most of the media are too polite to point it out. But
we pay both sides, purchase weaponry for both sides, and let both
sides know we are terribly eager to pretend there’s progress being
made on the eternal peace process.
Do you blame both sides for wondering, given the history, whether
a real resolution of the problem might mean an end to or a reduction
in subsidies from Uncle Sugar? As long as they keep the conflict
going, while also gulling the United States into thinking just a
little more money, just a little more help with intelligence, just
a few more trips to Washington or Madrid just might lead to a resolution
Hope springs eternal when it’s not your own money you’re spending.
And then there’s the world-historical
seduction. "There’s a recurring temptation," Cato Institute
director of defense and foreign policy studies Ted Carpenter told
me, "for American presidents to muse: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if this were the administration that finally brought lasting peace
to the Middle East?’ I hope the administration has not been seduced
by this attractive yet elusive notion."
To be sure, Secretary Powell’s acknowledgment that the US cannot
impose a peace settlement on the Middle East suggests a becoming
modesty and realism. But modesty and realism seldom coexist long
with political ambition and the desire for a place in history. In
fact, the most constructive thing political leaders can do about
most of the problems in the world today is to get out of the way
and allow free people to seek their own solutions without mandates
or punishment from government. But getting out of the way doesn’t
look active or forceful or decisive or masterful. So politicians
seldom do it.
Ted Carpenter believes peace is likely
only when war-weariness on both sides is such that large majorities
of both Israelis and Palestinians pressure their leaders for an
end to conflict which might not be for decades. One may hope
he is overestimating the time frame while acknowledging that the
leadership on the two sides is far from facing demands from a majority
to shut down the conflict.
Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister and the virtual collapse
of the Israeli peace movement suggest that popular sentiment for
doing almost anything to secure peace is not exactly high in Israel.
Among Palestinians, at this point anger seems to predominate over
a desire to see conflict ended.
It is possible that there is a deep war-weariness on both side that
is not surfacing now, will not surface for some time to come, but
could develop into majority sentiment rather quickly if the right
circumstances develop. It is possible, but evidence is hard to come
THE WRONG MESSAGE
At the beginning of the Bush administration
the sentiment among the incoming foreign policy experts seemed to
be that the United States should approach the Middle East with restraint
and refrain from too much pushing or micromanagment. Some policy
makers and more than a few observers believed that sending the message
that the parties involved have to solve the conflict, that they
can’t depend on the United States to come rushing in when things
get rough, would be the best way to offer incentives to come to
some kind of resolution.
But if that is the strategy, you have to refrain from meddling,
then refrain from meddling again, and refrain again and again. Only
when the parties get the message that the United States will intervene
only when they are reasonably and realistically close to a settlement only when the answer to repeated requests for more intensive intervention
is a resounding and finally convincing "no" will they
take their own responsibilities seriously. That still won’t guarantee
a settlement the differences may well be too deep for resolution
in the near or even medium term but it’s the way to go if your
goal is to wait for the parties to resolve things.
If that was the Bush strategy, it has been torpedoed by the latest
flurry of activity. Even if the current flurry is just a cynical
ploy intended to appease various interest groups and the permanent
foreign policy bureaucracy, it has undermined the possible strategy
of pushing the parties through inaction and a determined placement
of responsibility on those doing the fighting.
Unfortunately, the latest flurry seems not to be mostly a ploy.
Instead, the administration seems to have been seduced, either by
the hope of a place in history or by the calculations of those running
the American Empire that the mighty US simply must be involved or
face a loss of prestige. I’ve never been able to figure out the
concrete dire consequences that are supposed to follow from simply
letting events play themselves out in the Middle East without US
meddling. But the keepers of the empire don’t need real consequences
to justify their meddling.
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