Meddling in Jerusalem
most striking thing about the current violence in the Middle East
is the manic meddling by various elements of the "international
community," that floating craps game of diplomats, bureaucrats
and experts who consider themselves the avatars of good sense and
acceptable international behavior. Whether itís President Clinton
frantically working the phones as if this were an election, Madeleine
Albright summoning the principals to Paris and getting miffed that
not everybody followed to Cairo, or UN Secretary General Kofi Annan
sticking his two cents in and making appearances wherever a TV camera
was in evidence, the fixers have been out in force.
I remember learning the theory of international relations in a nation-state
system when I was in college. The theory is that each nation-state
is sovereign in its own territory, with full authority to manage
domestic affairs, while dealing with other sovereign states as at
least theoretical equals. Obviously, some nations will be more powerful
and influential than others, but to observe the forms properly even
the powerful are supposed to pretend to respect the rights of smaller
nations unless theyíre actually in a war or other overt conflict.
And theoretically there are supposed to be rules for conducting
wars properly as well.
OF THE WORLD?
Bill Clinton, for example, is acting as if he were not simply elected
President of the United States, but King of the World. He has treated
the Middle East as if it were Arkansas or South Dakota. He has let
it be known that he really, really wants a summit meeting on the
Middle East, that heís terribly disappointed that Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak doesnít seem awfully eager to host such a meeting.
essence, then the President of the United States handles other countries
as if they were imperial satrapies, subdivisions of the world government
he heads rather than independent, sovereign entities whose leaders
have supposedly the same authority and legitimacy he has. Instead
of any pretense of treating other national leaders as equals whose
rights and prerogatives are to be respected, he treats the leaders
of the Middle East as something analogous to provincial governors
who owe allegiance, loyalty and obedience to the President of the
United States, who is in essence the worldís emperor.
be sure, whether he has thought the matter through completely or
not, there are some possible reasons for Mr. Clinton to believe
he should be able to snap his fingers and have other leaders fall
into line. He intervened heavily in Israeli politics, even dispatching
campaign consultants, to defeat former Israeli prime minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and support current prime minister Ehud Barak. The U.S.
has provided substantial funding for Yasser Arafatís Palestinian
Authority and has generally been solicitous of Palestinian demands.
perhaps it is only natural for Mr. Clinton to figure that he who
pays the piper calls the tune, and that the leaders of both sides
owe him big-time and should pay respectful attention when he finds
himself pondering deep Middle Eastern issues, as he does fitfully.
Even so, the sheer arrogance with which Mr. Clinton and Ms. Albright
even as they publicly acknowledge that these are difficult issues
and the leaders must be attentive to their main constituencies and
weíre just trying to help think they can swoop in and order people
who have been struggling with deep-seated hostilities for centuries
to straighten up and act like Americans or responsible World Citizens.
appalling aspect is that in all likelihood all the well-meaning
meddlers in the Middle East have made matters worse rather than
better. It is becoming increasingly obvious, especially as larger-scale
geopolitical considerations have receded, that the Israeli-Palestinian
dispute is a local matter, perhaps even a classic tribal dispute.
The likelihood that Bill Clinton, Maddie Albright, Kofi Annan, and
all their horses and men can solve it through will and veiled threats
is close to nil.
many it was clear at the time that Julyís Camp David meeting, where
Mr. Clinton went through numerous gyrations (and came close to kidnapping
the participants) to get any sort of paper agreement to burnish
his legacy, was misconceived. It is becoming increasingly clear
that by trying to force an agreement before its time, the process
may well have exacerbated tensions and made the violence the world
has deplored for the last two weeks more likely.
Deborah Sontag of the New York Times wrote Monday, the violence
of the past 10 days in Jerusalem and other disputed territories
in the Middle East left many Israelis "staggered by this swift
tumble from what seemed to be the brink of resolution back down
into the depths of the elemental ethnic hatred at the root of their
blood-soaked conflict." Many observers fear, as Ms. Sontag
put it, that "from underneath, the longer the battle rages,
a more primal conflict surfaces, too, tribe against tribe."
notion of elemental tribalism coming to the fore after decades of
what international leaders have chosen to call a "peace process"
is certainly tragic and definitely unsettling. But as Leon Hadar,
a scholar at the Cato Institute, teacher at American University,
Washington correspondent, and author of "Quagmire: America
in the Middle East," wrote here a few months ago, it might
be most accurate to think of the current conflict as a tribal conflict
and to recognize that outside observers and forces face extremely
limited options until the two tribes get together and work out a
practical means of living together.
likelihood of a permanent, comprehensive peace characterized by
mutual respect and amity might be low, but avoiding war is possible,
especially if Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright and European
leaders back off and reduce their frantic machinations.
other words, Mr. Hadar told me in a conversation Monday, it would
be prudent to lower our expectations and hope for the best without
many decades most world leaders viewed the Middle East through Cold
War lenses, with the area seen as a potential prize in the superpower
struggle. The United States backed the Israelis (while lecturing
and sometimes hectoring them) while the Soviet Union sought to curry
favor with various Arab states. Every twist and turn in Middle Eastern
politics seemed to carry life-and-death superpower implications.
many in the foreign policy and media establishments this new conflict
seems almost like the old days coming back again, with familiar,
almost comforting themes of great threats to world peace,"
Leon Hadar noted. "But how much can the United States and the
United Nations really do, especially if they donít understand that
this isnít like the old Cold War days but more like those much older,
more deeply rooted conflicts that still have not been resolved."
seems very much to be the case that the "international community,"
by raising expectations and by applying pressure at the recent Camp
David meetings for an agreement the two parties werenít ready to
accomplish, has contributed to this most recent outburst of killing
in and around Israel.