Bush's foreign policy catastrophe

The bumbling and arrogance of the administration has made the Middle East -- and the world -- a more dangerous place.

By Gary Kamiya
April 3, 2002 6:09AM (UTC)
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The Bush administration's foreign policy is in shambles. Each passing day in the Middle East brings new horrors, new bloodshed, new hatred. And it isn't just the Middle East: The bankruptcy of the Republican administration's approach, not just to the most explosive and strategically crucial region in the world, but to foreign policy in general, has become impossible to ignore. In a little over a year in office, Bush has allowed the Israeli-Palestinian crisis to explode from a small brush fire to a raging conflagration; squandered the global goodwill toward the United States after Sept. 11; set back the cause of moderates in Iran with a comic-book invocation of "evil"; endangered key allies in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; failed to pursue vital peacekeeping and nation-building efforts in Afghanistan; clumsily pushed the Arab world into greater solidarity with Saddam Hussein; put forward a potentially dangerous new first-use nuclear doctrine; and filled our European allies with contempt and rage at our heavy-handed unilateralism. The Bush administration is rapidly staking a claim as the most incompetent foreign policy presidency in the post-Vietnam era.

The most alarming thing is that Bush's foreign-policy train wreck is no accident: He and his advisors planned the whole mess. As Nicholas Lemann pointed out last week in his revealing New Yorker report on the Bush administration's global strategy, key strategists like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz drafted a brief laying out their aggressive vision of America's global role back in 1990 during Bush I. The centerpiece: a vision of the U.S. as world hegemon, "shaping" (i.e., initiating) rather than reacting to events, and preventing any other country from challenging our domination.


The junior Bush began to act on this decade-old blueprint as soon as he took office, angering European allies with heavy-handed unilateral moves on global warming, missile defense and other issues. But Sept. 11 gave him the domestic political cover to accelerate the process. An enraged and fearful nation anxious to retaliate and wipe out the enemy that had grievously wounded it was not going to ask too many questions about the ultimate goals of U.S. foreign policy. The long-standing strategic centerpiece of the new Rule-America doctrine -- invading Iraq and replacing Saddam Hussein -- suddenly could be sold as a legitimate security move against "global terrorism," not as strategic adventurism intended to impose a new joint U.S.-Israel-Turkey strategic axis in the region and show the Arabs who was boss. Support for Israel in its semi-war against the Palestinians -- support going beyond even the usual blank-check American endorsement -- could be justified in the same way, as "refusing to negotiate with terrorists."

These policies reflect a long-term strategic vision; they're not tactical improvisations. For that reason, it is unlikely that either Bush or his key aides see anything particularly troubling about the current bloody crisis in the Mideast, although they may be slightly worried by the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian violence. In their triumphalist universe, the fact that virtually the entire rest of the world is opposed to American policies means nothing. What Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz and company believe is no secret: We have the power, God and right are on our side and we're going to tell the rest of the world what to do. For too long, under liberal apologists like Clinton, America crept around asking permission and apologizing -- no more. America is now the world's only superpower, and we can basically do whatever we want. Those puling Euros may cavil, the eternally angry Arabs may loudly wail -- so what? As Bush house intellectuals Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami are fond of repeating, the backward Arabs respect only force. (For some reason, the relentless Palestinians have not yet gotten this message.) A boot in the teeth will set them straight, and then America will go about its God-given mission of making the rest of the world safe for U.S. strategic and business interests.

The arrogance and riskiness of this position is breathtaking. The most immediate danger is that the Bush administration will decide to run the Middle East as our personal fiefdom, with Israel as the local Sparta doing our enforcing. This has long been a subtext in American strategic policy, but talk of invading Iraq and, even more, green-lighting Sharon's iron-fisted military responses with no political track is putting us directly on that course. This would be disastrous: The already-shaky despotisms in Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be even more threatened by rage from below, and fearing new regimes that would threaten our interests, we would probably decide to prop them up -- a recap of our disgraceful intervention in Iran in 1953 that would focus Muslim rage directly at the U.S. One need not point out the grave dangers that would attend such rage -- and only a blind optimist would have faith that our military and security forces could protect us from its consequences. The U.S. has always stood alone with Israel against the world -- but now we seem to be trying to put our head directly in the suicidal terrorists' target.


But the problems presented by the new American triumphalism go beyond the Middle East. No country, no matter how powerful, exists apart from the rest of the community of nations. Diplomacy and international relations are fragile things that can be destroyed by rough handling, with painful results in almost every sphere of public life. Realpolitik and "realism" has its place, but it must be tempered by strategic thinking that includes the necessity of giving up short-term gain for long-term stability, even of altruism. Nor does the banner of "the war on terrorism" serve as a sufficiently transcendental, or for that matter coherent, rallying flag for the rest of the world to follow. As students of the term have long realized, and the current Middle East situation proves, defining "terrorism" is a political exercise. One man's "terrorist" is another man's "freedom fighter."

Bush's brash imperial reach has not yet sparked a strong response from the American left. This is due in part to the feelings of national solidarity that rightly sprung up after Sept. 11, when the country rallied to destroy the al-Qaida terrorist threat. The left's response has also been muted by the strong passions that many liberals feel for Israel. And finally, the stunning ambition of Bush's global policy has not yet fully sunk in, since it represents a sharp departure from the mainstream foreign policy doctrine of the post-Vietnam period.

There are three reasons why Bush embraced what we might call the Rule-America doctrine: ideological, political and religious. Ideologically, that doctrine resonated with Bush's hard-right beliefs, a morally absolute worldview in which America is a uniquely blessed nation, our enemies are evil and willingness to use force is a sign of moral strength. Those who subscribe to such views believe viscerally in the validity of immediate moral judgments, which makes it difficult to acknowledge a political dimension to a conflict as complex as the Arab-Israeli tragedy. The terrorist attack on America only strengthened this black-and-white view, with the Palestinians being lumped together with the dark cause of bin Laden.


Politically, the doctrine was attractive as a reprise of the Reagan era. Reagan, whose presidency conservatives regard as America's 20th-century highwater, was a popular two-term president, while conservatives believe that Bush's father lost to the hated Clinton because he was too wobbly on core right-wing values. Bush was determined not to make the same mistake, with "the war on terrorism" replacing "the war on communism."

Bush's fervent Christianity also strongly influences his view of America's global role, particularly as it relates to Israel. According to Israel's consul general in Houston, as reported in Salon, "Bush's fervent Christianity was the basis for his deep support for Israel." Many Christians accept that God gave the land to the Jews, and some believe that the coming of the Rapture depends on Israel. This is not a fringe phenomenon: As the Israeli historian Tom Segev shows in "One Palestine, Complete," the support of philo-Semitic (who were also often simultaneously anti-Semitic) British officials was vital to the Zionist enterprise, and support for Israel based on divine revelation is active in influential quarters today. In a recent speech on the Senate floor, for example, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) listed seven reasons to support Israel and reject the Saudi peace plan. (The plan proposed that Israel return the territories it occupied after the 1967 war in exchange for peace -- a position that, with the exception of the United States, Israel and one or two Arab rejectionist states, reflects the international consensus since 1967.) "No. 7, I believe very strongly that we ought to support Israel; that it has a right to the land. This is the most important reason: Because God said so. As I said a minute ago, look it up in the book of Genesis. It is right up there on the desk. In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says: The Lord said to Abram, 'Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, and southward, and eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever ... Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.' That is God talking."


Whatever the source of the voice that is speaking to the Bush administration, it does not seem to be giving it very good advice. The last few months have seen a succession of foreign policy debacles, culminating in Vice President Dick Cheney's disastrous trip to the Middle East to line up support for an attack on Iraq. Instead, Cheney's mission was capped by the humiliating specter of Arab leaders kissing and embracing Saddam's envoys at their summit meeting and pledging that an attack on Baghdad was an attack on all Arab countries. The peculiar thing about Cheney's trip was not that it failed, but that the administration bothered to send him at all. By all accounts the Bush high command has made up its mind to take out Saddam Hussein, and nothing the Arab leaders told the vice president was going to affect that. Cheney's mission was simply a bit of window dressing designed to give the illusion that the United States consults with other regional players before it embarks on invasions.

While Cheney wanted to talk about Saddam, Arab leaders were focused on the growing Israeli-Palestinian conflagration. The escalating bloodshed, which carries dark hints of even greater chaos to come, is terrifying the entire world, and the Bush administration has come under increasing criticism for its on-again, off-again policy of engagement. Bush's long stretch of inactivity did indeed allow the situation to deteriorate, as even Cheney recently acknowledged. And the president's resolute support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's intransigent policies, coupled with his refusal to address the political dimension of the conflict because "fighting terrorism comes first," has locked U.S. policy in the region into moralistic paralysis. But it would be unfair to blame Bush alone for the current crisis. He is no doubt handling it less competently than his predecessors would have, but he has also had the bad luck to have the fruits of decades of U.S. and Israeli neglect of the Palestinian plight fall into his lap. The truth is, American policy in the region has always been so biased toward Israel as to be worthless, and Bush is simply being forced to pay the bill. Although Bush has been an even more pro-Israeli president than Bill Clinton (who is widely regarded in Israel as the most pro-Israeli president ever), his administration's position on the Middle East differs only in degree, not in kind, from the positions of every U.S. administration since 1971.

Bush is facing a unique crisis in Israel and the occupied territories, one that exposes all the hypocrisies, moral incoherence and flawed realpolitik that has characterized American foreign policy there for 30 years. It's unique because Israel's legitimate security needs and its unacceptable occupation have finally become inextricably tangled. America has condemned the occupation, but it's a hollow gesture -- we keep funding the settlements and the tanks and F-16s and the soldiers who enforce it. The U.S. has always given Israel a green light to pursue its "security," allowing it to define that term however it wanted -- but out of a desire to maintain good relations with the oil-rich Arabs, we have also insisted that there is a certain limit beyond which Israel cannot go. In the current situation, that incoherent combination of blank-check approval for virtually all of Israel's actions, justified on the loftiest moral grounds, and highly cynical geo-strategic limitations, has been revealed to be devoid of principle and fundamentally untenable. So Bush, being a man of principle if nothing else, has chosen what he believes to be right. He has, at least for now, thrown in his lot with Ariel Sharon, whose response to an unprecedented series of terrorist attacks has been to launch an invasion of the occupied territories -- an act of aggression also unprecedented since the 1967 war. By so doing, Bush has departed from the pro-Arab constraints that have governed America's Middle East policies.


There are, as far as I can see, only two ways out of the current impasse, and neither of them conform to the iron rules that have always governed how America has dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The first is a definitive military solution, endorsed by the Israeli right as represented by Binyamin Netanyahu, the American intellectual right as represented by the Weekly Standard, the nonintellectual American right as represented by Rush Limbaugh and the pro-Likud die-hards in the Bush administration. The second is a political solution along the lines of the Saudi peace plan -- endorsed by the mainstream Palestinian leadership, nearly every government in the world, what's left of the Israeli left and many Americans of various political stripes -- but none of the political class (many Israeli doves despise the U.S. Congress as a far-flung extension of the Likud) and very few intellectuals or influential journalists.

The problem is that both solutions are politically unpalatable to the U.S. The first is too unseemly, with its specter of mass slaughter, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. The second could only be imposed on Sharon -- and the U.S. has never slapped conditions of this seriousness on Israel. (George Bush Sr. once threatened to hold up $10 billion in loan guarantees to force Israel to the negotiating table in Madrid, and there have been a handful of other occasions when the vast flow of money from the U.S. to Israel was threatened, but far less was at stake.) Even when Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin launched their ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982, an invasion that magically morphed from a minor incursion to a full-on assault on Beirut (with civilian casualties from indiscriminate high-level bombing considerably greater than those suffered by Israel so far), the U.S. did nothing concrete.

Bush and his team stand at a crossroads. Wolfowitz and his cadre of pro-Israel hawks may be dreaming of giving Sharon the final green light. They will probably not win: There are limits even to the hubris of neoconservative bully boys. But what then? The most hopeful scenario is as follows: The U.S. uses the opportunity of some "fortunate" Israeli atrocity to rap Sharon's knuckles. Using the respite from this, if there is one, we pass a message to Arafat that this time we're serious about brokering a peace, that Powell will be doing the negotiating and he'll be focusing on political solutions and the Saudi plan and in the meantime the Palestinian leader better call off the suicide bombers if he can. Then, it'll get interesting: Unless the talks quickly progress to a point where what's being offered goes at least slightly beyond Camp David, they'll break down and attacks are likely to resume. At that point, will the Bush team have the guts and vision to stay the course, until a lasting deal is finally hammered out -- and save Israel and the Palestinians from themselves?


They had better, or there will be more Sept. 11's. And Americans will want to know how and why the war and misery in the Middle East became their own.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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