Some Mideast Realism, Please

As George Kennan observed 50 years ago in American Diplomacy, American foreign policy has been periodically affected by bouts of evangelical idealism, which date from the country's Puritan founding and which have led Americans to seek to transform the world in our image -- and to demonize any country or regime that stands in the way. Since September 11, a group of Washington neoconservatives, some of whom serve under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have attempted to define America's objectives in the Middle East and the war against terrorism in these evangelical terms. Arrayed against them have been Secretary of State Colin Powell and his principal ally and mentor, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft. While Powell has eschewed major statements of strategy, Scowcroft has voiced their common outlook in a Wall Street Journal column this August and in a Washington Post column in November.

Scowcroft, a student of the late Columbia University political scientist Hans Morgenthau, is a realist who worries about international stability and sees the world in shades of gray rather than white and black. Like other realists, Scowcroft and Powell have sometimes erred in being overly cautious and in slighting the struggle for human rights. But in the present debate over the Mideast, their realism has been a welcome corrective to the evangelical idealism that has gripped the rest of the Bush administration and to the Democrats' unsubstantiated complaints that the administration is "not doing enough to win the war on terrorism."

Scowcroft and Powell's realistic approach to the region can be boiled down to two propositions: first, that if forced to choose among waging the war against terrorism, seeking regime change in Iraq and reviving the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, regime change in Iraq is the least important and should be approached the most gingerly; second, that immediately resuming negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is integral to waging the war on terrorism. By contrast, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense; Richard Perle, the chairman of the Pentagon's Policy Board; William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, and other neoconservatives see removing Saddam Hussein as an overriding priority, and Hussein himself as a figure of transcendent evil. Moreover, they believe that out of Hussein's ouster will come a transformed, democratic Middle East in which the Palestinians, deprived of their radical leadership, will accept a significant Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Scowcroft and Powell reject the Pentagon obsession with ousting Hussein -- which recalls an earlier American fixation with getting rid of Cuba's Fidel Castro. They see the Iraqi leader as a brutal dictator but not as an immediate threat to the United States or to its neighbors. A nuclear-armed Iraq could menace its neighbors and the stability of world oil supplies, but as Scowcroft argued in his August column, this threat could be met initially through resuming United Nations arms inspections. If Hussein clearly defies the United Nations by preventing its arms inspectors from doing their job, the United States could go to war with the backing of a multinational force.

Under pressure from Powell, George W. Bush reluctantly endorsed the mission of UN arms inspectors but still seems wedded to the war plans of Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Perle. Cheney and Rumsfeld are probably more interested in removing the threat of Hussein developing nuclear weapons and in gaining leverage over Iraq's copious oil supply, but the administration's neoconservatives harbor dreams of what Kristol calls a "chain reaction" from Hussein's overthrow that could wipe out Islamic radicalism. When Olivier Roy, an authority on Islamic radicalism, visited Wolfowitz earlier this year, he asked him whether he was worried that a U.S. invasion of Iraq could precipitate the overthrow of other Arab regimes. According to Roy, Wolfowitz replied, "And then?" -- meaning, as Roy understood him, that he not only expected but welcomed the resulting upheaval in countries such as Saudi Arabia. In a New York Times interview last September, Wolfowitz predicted that a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, subjected to an American occupation similar to the one imposed on Japan after World War II, would become the "first Arab democracy" and would cast a "very large shadow" over its neighbors.

The heart of Scowcroft and Powell's realism is a rejection of this post-Hussein millenarianism and their belief that war should be the last, not first, resort. If the United States invades Iraq, even with substantial international backing, they fear it could easily get bogged down in a protracted and costly occupation. Hussein's Iraq -- deeply divided by religion, tribe and nationality and lacking an independent bureaucracy or even civil society -- cannot easily be turned into a post-Hideki Tojo Japan. But an invasion without UN backing could transform Hussein into an Islamic martyr. The United States could eventually pay a price in a deep and unyielding anti-Americanism -- just as it eventually did in Iran after it overthrew nationalist Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and installed the Shah. And as for a "chain reaction," it's equally likely that after an interval of months or years, Hussein's overthrow would set off an explosion of Islamic radicalism and terrorism that would resound for decades to come.

In his November column, Scowcroft argued that having mobilized the UN Security Council against Hussein, the United States should now devote "the same kind of skill, audacity and laser-like attention to the Israeli-Palestinian issue." Such an effort, Scowcroft promised, "would show the U.S. determination to deal with the one issue that is the primary lens through which the Arab world views the United States" and "would also reduce the appeal of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups." This Bush administration could emulate the first Bush administration, which used economic leverage to pressure a Likud Party prime minister into talks with the Palestinians that eventually led to the Oslo Accords and to seven years of relative peace in Israel.

Bush's administration has rejected this strategy. While proclaiming its nominal support for a Palestinian state, it has cast its lot with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a foe of the Oslo Accords and a proponent of continued settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Sharon's version of a two-state solution consists of a Palestinian Bantustan on 42 percent of the West Bank, surrounded by new Israeli settlements. In December, Bush appointed Elliott Abrams, a foe of the Oslo Accords, to be in charge of Arab-Israeli relations on the National Security Council. Abrams' opposition to a genuine Palestinian state, based on thorough Israeli withdrawal from its settlements, will be seconded by Perle, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and other administration neoconservatives. Just as liberal Democrats have usually sided with the pro-negotiation Labor Party in Israel, these Republicans have aligned themselves with the anti-statehood, pro-settlement Likud.

These neoconservatives share the millenarian view that by overthrowing Hussein, the United States will intimidate and isolate Palestinian radicals. In an interview last month, Wolfowitz recounted how "big breakthroughs" in power relations in the Mideast had brought about new developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations. "I think the fewer troublemakers around or the weaker the troublemakers, the better our chances for peace," Wolfowitz said. By the same token, these neoconservatives also reject Scowcroft's argument that achieving reconciliation in Israel is essential to eliminating Arab anti-Americanism. They contend that Arab hostility toward Israel and the United States is the result of despotic Arab leaders trying to displace onto Israel and the United States the anger that the Arab masses might otherwise feel toward them. If the overthrow of Hussein were to lead to the overthrow of these despots, that could lead to regimes that wouldn't have to use anti-Israeli and anti-American propaganda to curry favor with "the street."

Scowcroft and Powell rightly reject these views. For one thing, Arab hostility toward Israel is not simply the product of current manipulation by cynical elites. While the Jewish settlement in Palestine was justified by the oppression of Jews in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust, it was seen in the Mideast as an outgrowth of European imperialism that had earlier carved up the region and robbed its resources. That resentment was reinforced and deepened by Arab military defeats in 1948 and 1967, the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Opportunistic and cynical leaders certainly have stoked this hostility, but it won't disappear if Saddam Hussein is overthrown. If anything, it will grow and intensify, providing a breeding ground for the deeply reactionary currents of Islamic radicalism from which al-Qaeda recruits.

The failure to resume the peace process in Israel could also lead to the spread of Palestinian terrorism to Europe and the United States. One achievement of Oslo was to end the export of terrorism, which had begun in the 1970s after the Palestinians -- driven out of Jordan and subject to Israeli repression on the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- sought to revenge themselves on Israel's backers. If the pro-Likud strategy of the Bush millenarians leads to another Israeli attempt to quash the Palestinian national movement, resistance to the Israelis is likely to spill over into the West. The war on terrorism will intensify.

To sum up the Scowcroft and Powell argument: If the principal American objective is to win the war on terrorism, invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein will do little to reduce the threat of terrorism, and if the invasion is done in such a way as to cast Hussein in the role of martyr, it will vastly increase the dangers of terrorism over the next decade. Equally -- and this is a point that eludes Democratic critics of the administration -- if the U.S. objective is to win the war on terrorism, the most important thing it can do is to pressure the Israelis and Palestinians into resuming the peace process. If, instead of this, the United States buttresses the Likud Party's intransigence, the United States and Israel will likely inspire the further use of terrorism. The United States may win the war against Hussein, but it will lose the war against terrorism.

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