Bush to Arab world: Drop dead

Driven by right-wing ideologues and his own zeal, President Bush has taken Ariel Sharon's side in the Middle East even while plotting a war with Iraq. Foreign policy experts say that's a dangerous combination.

Published September 24, 2002 7:12PM (EDT)

In the old days scientists used to look for the "missing link," the fossils that bridged the gap between stupid monkeys and clever men. There is a similar missing link between the U.S. government and a coherent foreign policy. The Bush administration has totally sidelined the Middle East conflict, the one between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world. For a variety of reasons -- the ascendancy of neoconservative hawks in the White House and the State Department; President Bush's own embrace of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hard-line positions; Bush's simple, black-and-white view of the world, in which the "war on terrorism" trumps everything else; the complete absence of any pressure from Congress; and domestic political considerations -- the Bush administration has apparently decided that it doesn't need to reach out to the Arab world by pushing for Mideast peace before a possible invasion of Iraq.

In contrast, when former President George Bush went to war to chase Iraq out of Kuwait, he pledged the world in general, and the Arabs in particular, that the U.S. would push hard on the Middle East peace process immediately afterwards. "And he met the promise, and began the process with the Madrid peace talks," comments Richard Murphy, who was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Reagan administration. Contrasting that with what he calls the present administration's "obsession with Iraq, that we can't deal with anything until Saddam is replaced," Murphy says the Bush administration is missing the obvious -- and he doesn't know why. "They do not buy the argument that they could make it easier for themselves by paying attention to the Israel-Palestine confrontation to buy more space and maneuverability with the Arab world. They just resist it. I can't explain it, but they just don't buy it."

It's not as if the vital strategic importance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a secret. Everyone from close allies like Tony Blair to strategic partners like Saudi Arabia to U.N. head Kofi Annan have been telling Bush that the U.S. needs to advance the peace process -- not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it will help him oust Saddam Hussein without plunging the region into chaos. Such voices of reason persuaded Bush that going to the U.N. was essential to gain European support and to at least contain Arab hostility for his Iraqi adventure, but they have been completely unable to convince him to get involved in the peace process.

In the eyes of most of the world, Bush seized the moral high ground after his speech in the General Assembly -- and then last week he slid off it. It was not merely because he behaved like a petulant kid who took his ball and went home when Saddam Hussein said he would let in the weapons inspectors without conditions, thus revealing the shallowness of his conversion to multilateralism. It was also because it became clear once again that the U.S.'s Middle East policy is barely distinguishable from Ariel Sharon's. (On Monday, the White House broke days of silence and criticized Israel's siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah as having "aggravated" U.S. attempts to reform the Palestinian Authority; it was administration's first explicit criticism of Israel in months.)

Last week the "Quartet" -- the U.N., E.U., U.S. and Russia -- met at the U.N., supposedly to organize an international peace conference on the Israel-Palestinian issue. But far from seizing the opportunity to tackle the problem that has haunted the organization since its foundation, the U.S. showed no interest. One U.N. official commented, "If anything, the U.S. is backpedaling -- after all, the International Conference was their idea, but they don't seem in any hurry to have it now. The idea that you need to promise anything about Palestine to get Arab cooperation seems to have gone out of the window."

Instead of being a triumphant follow-up of the previous week's events, the press conference to announce the Quartet's anodyne report was dominated by a public row between Igor Ivanov, the Russian foreign minister, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, about the appropriate response to Saddam's apparent capitulation. Many of the non-U.S. participants were not happy. Palestine's U.N. representative, Nasser El Kidwa, was terse and to the point about the results of the Quartet meeting. "It was a lousy declaration," he said. For their part, the Europeans also came away angry and frustrated that their attempts to secure obligations for Israel on the "road map" for a peace deal with the Palestinians were overruled by Washington.

The Arab ambassadors came away irate as well. Echoing a complaint heard througout the Arab world and Europe, El Kidwa charged that America was guilty of hypocrisy for threatening to invade Baghdad while ignoring "Three decades of Israeli defiance [of the U.N.]." El Kidwa pointed out that the U.S., almost always acting alone, has vetoed dozens of Security Council resolutions on the Palestinian issue.

Some overseas and domestic policy experts say the administration's refusal to move the peace process forward reflects a lack of planning and foresight, either on how to achieve the stated end of removing Saddam Hussein, or about what will happen afterwards either in Iraq or in the region.

Jim Hoge of the Council on Foreign Affairs says, "There is no sign of planning. If there were, I would think they would be alerting us to it, because it would be reassuring." He suggests that the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq is "diverting attention and energy particularly at the top, where it is so important, from two much more serious problems: the war against Al-Qaida, which is still capable of causing a tremendous damage against the U.S., and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, one of the most potentially disruptive issues in the region and in the world. And over the last 50 years, every time we get diverted or back off, matters get worse not better."

For this preoccupation to make sense, Hoge says, the administration has to prove that "there is an imminent danger from Saddam Hussein's regime that has to be met. If there is such a case I haven't seen them make it. They are far from answering the important questions: what are we going to do, what happens afterwards if we conquer Iraq, what effect will it have on the region."

Richard Murphy agreed that the president "still has a lot to tell us about postwar planning, and I suspect that is because there isn't much of it." In his speech to the U.N., Bush suddenly promoted Iran from being a charter member of the "axis of evil" to being the first victim of Iraqi aggression. It certainly pleased the Iranians, but there was no follow-up; any hopes that the White House might be considering a thaw toward Iran were dashed. Murphy skeptically recalls that Bush told off his speechwriters recently for trying to put some "nuance" in his orations: He was having none of it. The overture to Iran was apparently as expedient as the momentary multilateralism of the rest of his speech, to be blown away as soon as Saddam Hussein ruined the game by giving in.

Trying to find some reason why the President is not taking the obvious diplomatic steps, such as reassuring the allies he needs to mount a successful military operation, Murphy suggests, "Being obsessed may be why he's not interested in the tactics of building support with Iran or with the Saudis. He's done a little bit to smooth them over -- but they are in a pretty fussed state."

There is a reason why the Saudis are fussed. Their regime, like the other precarious, despotic ones that sit on much of the region's oil, may not survive the anger that would follow all-out American unilateral war on Iraq, without some gesture toward the Palestinians. And if, as many Palestinians and some Israelis fear, Sharon used the cover of a war with Iraq to "transfer" (i.e. ethnically cleanse) Palestinians, moving them from the West Bank to Jordan, then a more general conflagration would be inevitable.

The ideologues driving the Bush administration seem to believe, first, that the threat of the "enraged Arab street" is exaggerated, and second, that if the "moderate" regimes do fall, that might be OK. (In a profile in the New York Times Magazine Sunday, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz is characterized as "not ... so sure that rocking the stability of tyrannies in the Arab world, even West-leaning tyrannies, is a bad thing.") For many veterans of the international diplomatic arena, that kind of thinking is disturbingly over-optimistic -- even disconnected from reality. In attempting to explain Bush's actions, Murphy sees the president as someone who is acting on faith, rather than facts.

The president "is a believer," says Murphy. "This is a man who's on a mission. He is very evangelical about terrorism: he's got to root out evil. I wonder if in his mind there really is a very strong linkage between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. Evil is there, and evil must be uprooted and the fixation on terrorism has now encompassed Saddam Hussein -- who 'tried to kill my father' as a footnote. He seems to think the facts are there about the linkage -- if only we could discover them. In his mind they are joined up. He does not speak as man with any doubts."

Is the president's policy based on a series of deeply felt but disconnected prejudices in which Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Iran and Osama bin Laden metamorphose into one single evil entity, and Ariel Sharon and the USA are together on the side of the angels? The Brookings Institution's Judith Kipper sees this as "not an inappropriate analysis of the way they think. This is a very, very ideological administration, more than conservative, and the president does have a sense of priorities that sees everything in black and white."

Referring to the well-known schism in the Bush administration between the moderates and the hawks, Kipper says, "There's no doubt about who's in charge. He is closer to the Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz point of view." The hawks, of course, tend to be avowedly and uncritically supportive of Likud policies: Rumsfeld, for example, referred to the "so-called occupied territories" recently.

For the hawks, removing Saddam Hussein will make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict easier to resolve, because it will weaken the Palestinians. (The hawks believe that regime change in Iraq will also keep Iran, another major backer of the Palestinians, in line.) Kipper deduces that the administration "tends to see the Arab-Israeli conflict, in fact most foreign policy, through the prism of the war on terrorism. They think that if you remove the regime in Iraq then it will be much easier since then rogue states and people will have less of a mandate."

If, for Bush, invading Iraq is part of a war between good and evil, most European allies, and all the Arabs, are much less sure about where Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat place on the scale. Without the ideological views of the president's coterie, they see the need to enforce U.N. resolutions as one that does not just apply to Iraq. Few of them are the slightest bit convinced that Saddam Hussein had anything at all to do with Sept. 11, and most of them are worried about the possible consequences of an attack and the Bush administration's lack of forward planning.

Talking about democracy in the Middle East sounds good, but in reality a democratically elected government in Baghdad is likely to be just as militantly pro-Palestinian as Hussein's regime, or even more so. As indeed are other regimes that could replace the U.S. allies toppled for their connivance in what most Arabs see as an Israeli-inspired American crusade against Iraq. If the hawks are right, invading Iraq will open a new era of democracy, freedom and prosperity in the Arab world. If they are wrong, they will be remembered as ideologues who wanted to defeat the forces of evil, but succeeded only in losing Saudi and Gulf Oil -- or, in the worst-case scenario, opened a Pandora's box of global terrorism even worse than bin Laden's.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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