Mideast Policy

The following is taken from from

Patriotism, Democracy and Common Sense

(Click here to access the full text of the book)


American failures in the Middle East are in the forefront of overall American foreign and national security policy failures, and so Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense takes a closer look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Israel.

Afghanistan. After September 11, there was widespread support in the United States and around the world for American military intervention in Afghanistan. Yet today, America's legitimate war in Afghanistan to destroy Osama bin Laden has become little more than a holding action to protect one man in his palace while allowing warlords to reign in the countryside, with little sustained ef­fort to move the process toward either reconstruction or some political accom­modation. Deals were cut to enable the United States to operate militarily against the remnants of al Qaeda without reference to what is necessary for future Afghan economic development, political stability, and representative governance.

Iraq. The preemptive unilateral force used in Iraq by America does not build on lessons learned from the history of imperialism. In Vietnam, a poor people's war triumphed over "shock-and-awe" hardware. In the Middle East, Oxford historian Elizabeth Monroe has elegantly recorded how British imperialism was "only a mo­ment in the life of a region with a recorded history of four millennia." Yale historian Paul Kennedy has noted how the rationalizations of World War I-era British impe­rialists "bear an uncanny resemblance" to the rationalizations of American imperial­ist conservatives today. Kennedy suggests that America's "moment" in the Middle East may prove to be as brief in the long run as that of England. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, presents a similar view in chapter 3.

Under the pretense of weapons of mass destruction and an unsubstantiated link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, America embarked on a war to re­draw the political map of the Middle East. The war was designed by the American government to change the dynamics of the Middle East in such a way that a new political order, less hostile to our strategic partner and historic friend Israel, emerges.

As Eric Davis points out in Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense, the invasion of Iraq was designed to set in motion a ripple effect in which neighboring Iran and Syria, and possibly Saudi Arabia, would feel pressured to institute the types of politi­cal and economic reforms commensurate with an American vision of a new Middle East. With the removal of Israel's two most threatening enemies, namely the Ba'athi regimes in Iraq and Syria, this strategy would, it was thought, have a salutary impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It would send a strong message to Palestinian rejecdonists, both Islamists and secularists, that their policies had no future, marginal­ize Palestine National Authority President Yasir Arafat once and for all, and generate the political forces that would replace him with a pro-American government.

This policy assumed that the populations of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia all desired democracy—or, at least, the corrupted American version of de­mocracy, with government corporate welfare and tax breaks for the ruling elite, hands-off market economics that increase insecurity for the middle and working classes, and "zero-tolerance," racially biased prison building for the poor. However, these policy assumptions obviously failed to take into account whether the cultures and histories of the Middle Eastern countries make them receptive to democracy, the American version or any other. Eric M. Davis addresses this lack of historical and cultural perspective in chapter 16.

To state American policy in somewhat different words, American leaders have believed that the establishment of American-style democracy in Iraq will pressure other Arab regimes to reform. Reform will promote moderate groups in Arab coun­tries. Those groups will help force Arab countries to withdraw their support for Is­lamic extremism. According to this view, Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation then will diminish and clear the way for a new Israeli-Palestinian equilibrium that is favorable to Israel. Of course, this doctrine is frightening to a host of observers in the Middle East and Europe. It could pave the way for more American intervention, say, in Syria. And it would remove from the American government the need to seriously re-engage in solving the central conflict in the Middle East between the Palestinians and Israel.

But Iraq is a country that remembers its history, dating back millennia. The people of Iraq, who remember the Crusaders far better than Americans remem­ber the winner of the last Super Bowl, have experienced humiliation after hu­miliation at the hands of the West. As the American occupation of Iraq has demonstrated, the people of the Middle East will make American lives difficult there, as, of course Spain and other nations have recognized by pulling their mil­itary contingents out of Iraq. The American military's torture and sexual abuse of Iraqui prisoners made the situation immeasurably worse. There is a growth of young people joining terrorist organizations, just as there was a growth of terror­ist organizations in Northern Ireland when the United Kingdom unsuccessfully pursued a policy of repression, as Lord Wallace notes in chapter 7. Similarly, Am­bassador Joseph Wilson concludes in his chapter, "At the end of it, I think the chances are really good that the consequences will be far graver to our national security than they were going in."

Palestine and Israel. At the same time, compared with the tireless, hands-on involvement and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East that won President Carter the Nobel Peace Prize, the White House in recent years has demonstrated little leadership to address the heart of Muslim anger in the world: the lack of a two-state solution, which remains the preferred solution of majorities on both sides. Instead, in 2004, the right-wing American government unconditionally endorsed a violence-provoking scheme of the right-wing Israeli government. Initially, the American government gave unprecedented support for Israeli plans to annex large swaths of occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and, in effect, declared null and void the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This was the first time in the history of the peace process that the U.S. president had preempted negotiations by announcing support for a unilateral initiative by one party. The United States essentially adopted the negotiating stance of the Is­raeli right: Palestinians can only be dealt with by force and fait accompli. The 2004 American preemption was the exact opposite of President Carter's strategy of honest brokering with and mutual respect for both sides.

Unless the United States unconditionally opposes the Israeli government's scheme, the war cries of Hamas and other militants will find a receptive audience. The conservative Israeli government always has been most comfortable fighting Palestinians and Arabs. It knows very well that "disengaging" from Gaza, while re­taining the Israeli "right" to bomb or invade the evacuated territory while hunting alleged terrorists, will not bring the conflict closer to resolution. With the American government labeling Palestinians terrorists, the ultra-right Israeli government has more time to pursue an expansionist vision of a Greater Israel—by creating still more "facts on the ground" that the United States is likely to deceptively label "demo­graphic reality."


The struggle between America and Islam is not an East-West "clash of civilizations," to use the misleading and unconstructive language of the America government. Instead, the struggle that seriously threatens America is an ideological war within Islam. A radi­cal Islamist faction is striking out at moderate Muslims and the West.

The United States first must acknowledge and understand the real nature of the struggle. It is more a battle of ideas than bombs. We are losing that war, as our poli­cies in Iraq and Palestine create more and more antipathy in the Islamic world. To win the war of ideas, policy in Iraq and Palestine needs to be significantly altered. We cannot alter that policy without significant help from our moderate Muslim friends. Ideological and religious counterweights must be found to Osama bin Laden and the radical imams. The counterweights must carry on long after the death of bin Laden, because misdirected American policy has strengthened and morphed al Qaeda and related movements into a hydra.

Within this framework, and with an eye to the foreign and national security policy principles in the preceding section, Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense sets out alternatives to present policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Palestine, and Israel.

Iraq and Afghanistan. Progress in Iraq should be based on withdrawal of Amer­icans, multilateralization, provision of security, satisfaction of basic human needs, cre­ation of grassroots democracy at the village level, and reconstruction of the economy, following the proposals of Ambassador Joseph Wilson in this book.

We have rnultilateralized Afghanistan. We need to multilateralize more, but the progress on multilateralism to date in Afghanistan at least provides a model for the process in Iraq. The imprimatur of the United Nations is needed in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Beyond these first-priority countries, American policy needs to international­ize throughout the Middle East. Many benefits can accrue. Internationalization would first and foremost create a policy in the region that reflects a wide interna­tional consensus. At one level, giving the United Nations, the European Union, and the Arab League, just to name three major institutions, greater voice in the formu­lation of U.S. policy in the Middle East might complicate American efforts to bring about change in the region. It would increase the number of political actors that need to be consulted in making political decisions in Iraq and elsewhere in the Mid­dle East. However, opening the process to other institutions would greatly simplify the work of the United States. Having to take seriously views to which we may have only given lip service in the past would require a more nuanced American foreign and national security policy sensitive to the people, history, and culture of each Mid­dle East nation.

The United Nations must take over genuine authority in reconstructing Iraq politically and economically. The United Nations should not accept a scheme in which it tries to clean up the mess made by America while the United States still holds ultimate political control over Iraq. The United States should set a date for withdrawal of American troops and companies.

Human needs must be satisfied. People need water, food, access to medicine, ac­cess to medical treatment, medical insurance, new hospitals, new schools, provision of other public services, and social security when they are seniors. Reconstruction must be based on action, not political rhetoric. Cash must be infused into the econ­omy to allow people to buy goods. Economic reconstruction in manufacturing, oil production, and services must be financed. Iraq must control the means of produc­tion and the oil, not American corporations that make generous campaign contri­butions.

The United States needs to develop a more open and internationally oriented economic policy in the Middle East that does not merely privilege American firms and business interests. The most egregious example of American war profiteering can be found in Iraq, where contracts were awarded, sometimes without competitive bidding, to large firms that already had close ties to the American government, like Halliburton and Bechtel. At least thirty-two top officials in the American govern­ment served as executives or paid consultants to top weapons contractors entering government service. President Eisenhower's warning about the military-industrial complex has been ignored.

The populations of Afghanistan and Iraq must feel that they are safe in their own homes, can ride their bicycles, can walk or drive to where they have to go, and can do what they need to do without fear of bodily harm to themselves or their fam­ilies. That has been accomplished in Kabul. It hasn't been accomplished in the Afghan countryside. To begin to make any progress in Iraq, we need United Nations Chapter 7—authorized peacekeepers and police trainers.

International institutions need to help Iraq reconstruct its defense and security apparatus. Iraq has a long border to protect. It has enemies who wanted to impose their views on Iraq long before America preemptively chose to do so. Those ene­mies will be there long after we have departed. Iraq needs a policing operation. It's a difficult country to govern, to say the least.

To the extent that any form of democracy is possible in Iraq, given America's success in uniting Shi'i and Sunnis in their common hatred toward us, we need to begin at the village level, as Ambassador Wilson observes. People in the village want to see the same sort of things that people in American communities want to see. They want to see the trash picked up, the kids going to safe schools, the education system functioning well, and the police working effectively to ensure their safety. The initial trainers in democracy building should be European, not American, and Iraqi trainers should take over as quickly as possible.

Iran. As Roger Owen reminds us in this book, the most important thing to observe about Iran is that it is in the middle of a hugely significant process of muta­tion from a kind of monolithic Islamic government to a pluralistic Islamic one. This is so important to the global history of the twenty-first century that it must be al­lowed to continue and to work its way through with the real prospect that this mu­tation will, over time, lead to a more secular pluralism with religion confined to the place where most people believe religion ought to be, in the mosques but not in the offices of government.

Iranians have to be left alone to work things out for themselves. Unfortunately for them, and for the rest of the world, this not going to be an easy passage. There are the repercussions from the American government's talk about regime change. There is the proximity to Iraq, which means that, if things continue to go wrong in Iraq, they could spill over to Iran.

There is also, of course, the question of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Considerable consensus exists among Iranians that they should get themselves into a position where they could produce a bomb if that seemed vital for national self-defense. They live in a region with several nuclear powers already: Israel, Pakistan, and India. And the obvious lesson to be drawn from the different American policies toward Iraq and North Korea is the need to get quickly to a position where you can produce a bomb at short notice to preempt a potential American attack. America needs to be very, very careful and to develop a multilateral strategy that returns to the old notion of a nuclear-free Middle East. That, of course, raises the difficult problem of Israel's weapons of mass destruction. But solutions, however difficult, are possible, and we now turn to them.

Palestine and Israel. The core of Muslim hatred of America is our presidential leadership failure to create an equitable peace between Palestine and Israel. There is a direct link between security on Main Street America and peace in Palestine-Israel, a reality the American government and mainstream American media fail to com­municate. Without a new plan that America facilitates but does not preemptively im­pose, terrorism against America is likely to continue.

In chapter 17, Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., articulates such a plan. It proceeds from several premises.

The first premise is that the fundamental obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, an occupation which has been in place since the conclusion of the 1967 \var.

The second premise is that, in the short to medium term, by far the best hope for a mutually satisfactory peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains the two-state solution, as envisioned by UN. Security Council Resolution 242, whose lan­guage the United States helped to draft in 1967. This resolution and its successive follow-up resolutions proposed a state of Israel inside its pre-1967 borders, recog­nized by the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors, and a state of Palestine in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Jerusalem would be the shared capital of both sides, Israel to the west and Palestine to the east. Israeli settlements in the occupied terri­tories would have to be removed or rendered subject to Palestinian sovereignly.

The third premise is that Israeli policy is rendering achievement of the two-state solution increasingly difficult. Not only did the construction of West Bank set­tlements proceed at a furious pace during the course of the Oslo peace process of the 1990s, but Israel also constructed a series of bypass roads to link the settlements to Israel proper. Together with Israeli military bases, the settlements and bypass roads have established a lattice of Israeli control over the territory of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that can be exercised even when Israeli troops are not present in every square meter of that territory. The Israeli government is adding to this lattice of con­trol by building a "security fence." In some places, this "fence" is a complex of barbed wire and ditches; in other places, it is a twenty-five-foot-high, concrete, Berlin-like wall. At first, this wall roughly followed the 1967 armistice line, but sub­sequent phases of construction have made it encroach deep into the West Bank.

The fourth premise is that Israel and the Palestinians are very unlikely to reach a mutually satisfying peace accord on their own without significant external help. Hopelessness on both sides has created an extremely volatile situation, characterized on both sides by disturbing insensitivity to the suffering of the other.

Based on these premises, the United States must sponsor international inter­vention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of an armed peacekeeping force, ideally dispatched by the United Nations, to be inserted into the occupied ter­ritories. This form of international intervention offers the best hope of enforcing the two-state solution relatively quickly, with a minimum of further loss of life on both sides. The peacekeepers would replace the Israeli army, which would withdraw from all of the occupied territories inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel. The peacekeep­ers should be invested with a political mandate as well as a security mandate.

The political mandate must adhere to a strict timetable set by the United Na­tions. There must be a peace at the end of the peace process. If such a time-delimited political mandate were firmly endorsed by the international community and backed by facilitating diplomacy (not unilateral dictates) by the United States, then public opinion on both sides could very well support final status negotiations aiming at the establishment of the two-state solution and the resolution of other outstanding issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the lack of hope on both sides for a negotiated peace today, polls continue to show with great regular­ity that majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians continue to believe that nego­tiation is the only way to achieve peace and that the two-state solution is the best vision.

Should the negotiations determine that Israeli settlements were to be removed, UN. peacekeepers might be required to stay and enforce their removal, as such a re­moval might be politically impossible for any Israeli government. Should the nego­tiations determine that Jewish settlements would remain as part of the state of Pales­tine, UN. peacekeepers might be required to stay and protect both the settlers and Palestinian civilians from the attacks of extremists on both sides. That function, how­ever, should be turned over to the Palestinian police as soon as possible.

UN. intervention to ensure independence for East Timor makes for an inter­esting, if imprecise, comparison to the Palestinian situation today. As with the Pales­tinians, the world overwhelmingly supported East Timorese self-determination, against the wishes of the occupying power, Indonesia, which at the time was heav­ily backed by Washington. The United States and Australia both resisted deployment of an international force to safeguard East Timorese independence because Indone­sia did not accept it, the same reason that is always adduced for the American refusal to back proposals for an international presence in the occupied territories. Finally, though, reports from East Timor became so grim that the United States abruptly in­formed B. J. Habibie's government that aid was suspended. Three days later Jakarta relented, and today UN. peacekeepers have successfully overseen East Timor's tran­sition to statehood. The keys to the success of the East Timorese experiment were the very strict timetable and the clearly defined political goals.

American policy should support the rapid deployment of such a peacekeeping force in the occupied territories. The United States should not assume the task of peacekeeping itself. American intervention would have scant credibility among Palestinians, Arabs, and the international community.

However it comes about, any kind of peace settlement has to include a sub­stantial component of economic aid from the United States^and the international community. Large-scale economic aid is the most practical way to deal with the refugee issue. Most of the Palestinian refugees in the Arab world, particularly in Jor­dan, are very well integrated into the economy and even into politics. It is unlikely that they would want to come back. The same goes for the Palestinians living in Eu­rope and America.

The refugees who will need to be resettled are many of those living in the oc­cupied territories and those living in Lebanon. Lebanon has a horrible history of dealing with Palestinian refugees. Lebanese law forbids Palestinians from holding sev­enty kinds of jobs. This law essentially consigns Palestinians born in Lebanon to lives of menial labor or attempts to get out by any means they can find. Those refugees will need to be resettled in the course of a comprehensive peace settlement. The most logical course of action would be to resettle them in the territory of the future Palestinian state. That will require significant resources.

The economic codependency that once existed between Israelis and Palestini­ans has now gravely eroded, as Chris Toensing documents. Israel formerly relied upon Palestinian labor, particularly in such fields as construction, and Palestinians re­lied upon those jobs for their income. Those jobs, by Israeli state policy, have now been filled mostly by immigrants from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Southeastern Europe. Even after peace breaks out, the new Palestinian areas will need substantial foreign aid and foreign investment to create job opportunities. Some of that will have to come from the Palestinian diaspora. Some of it will have to come from other places in the Arab world and some from the West.

Nowhere is the need for a humane and equitable American foreign aid pro­gram based on seven tenths of 1 percent of America's gross domestic product more pressing than in creation and development of the Palestinian state.

America, of course, has a very daunting political environment for the discussion of sane solutions. Conservatives do not want to do anything to jeopardize the Christian-right vote, Christian-right campaign contributions, a share of the Jewish vote, and Jew­ish campaign contributions. Democrats are equally reluctant to jeopardize the Jewish vote and Jewish campaign contributions.

However, most people in the American Jewish community do not feel repre­sented by the major organizations that claim to represent their interests in Washing­ton. The leaders of those organizations stake out positions considerably to the right of the consensus among the American Jewish community.

Similarly, the Christian right is more extreme in its views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than anything but a small minority of the American Jewish com­munity. What is the basis of the position of American Christian conservatives? Here is one interpretation, by George Monbiot:

In the United States, several million people have succumbed to an extraordinary delusion. In the 19th century, two immigrant preachers cobbled together a series of unrelated passages from the Bible to create what appears to be a consistent narra­tive: Jesus will return to Earth when certain preconditions have been met. The first of these was the establishment of a state of Israel. The next involves Israel's occu­pation of the rest of its "biblical lands" (most of the Middle East), and the rebuild­ing of the Third Temple on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques. The legions of the antichrist will then be deployed against Israel, and their war will lead to a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. The Jews will either burn or convert to Christianity, and the Messiah will return to Earth.

Monbiot claims that perhaps 15 percent of American voters belong to churches or movements that subscribe to these teachings. They are a major political con­stituency that represents a significant proportion of the conservative core vote. For these people, aggression to secure the Holy Land is a personal, religious issue, not a remote foreign policy.

But the radical right does not have an unbreakable grip on public opinion when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and certainly not on American Jew­ish opinion, which supports a two-state solution and is mostly antagonistic to the set­tlements. To better inform American public opinion on alternatives like the plan here, a major campaign is needed to address the typically shallow and deficient re­porting of the Middle East in mainstream American media. A reform movement would do well to build on new websites like Electronic Iraq.