Bush's tangled arms deal

By selling weapons to "moderate" states, Bush would again be playing puppet master and jerking around the Middle East with disastrous consequences.

Published August 14, 2007 11:08AM (EDT)

When it comes to dealing with countries in the Middle East, the Bush administration knows only two approaches. It either tries to blow them up or bribe them. God forbid that Washington should try to find out what the people in the region actually want -- or what might actually work.

Bush tried the blowing-up approach in Iraq. With the results now in, he has returned to the more traditional approach of bribery. After the bizarre neocon aberration of Iraq, with its highfalutin talk of democratization and its ostentatious hand-wringing over Washington's past support for autocratic regimes, Team Bush has returned to the tried-and-true path: propping up dubious allies with vast arms deals and using them as proxies to fight an evil empire. Belatedly, the Bush administration has embraced a Cold War paradigm in the Middle East, with the good guys -- Egypt, the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia -- being paid off to contain the bad guys -- al-Qaida, Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.

The Bush administration's proposed $60 million to $70 billion Mideast arms deal takes us back to the cynical realpolitik of traditional great power politics, with puppet-master America jerking around half-willing strongmen with billion-dollar strings. Washington is offering to sell $20 billion of high-tech weaponry to Saudi Arabia, and also sell arms to the Gulf States of Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. To ensure that Israel maintains its military superiority over its neighbors, the U.S. will increase the already vast amount of annual military aid it gives the Jewish state by 30 percent, offering $30 billion over 10 years. And Egypt will also wet its beak, with a $14 billion 10-year arms deal.

By paying off the "moderate" Sunni states to confront hard-line states and militant groups, Bush is hoping to reverse the changes he brought about in Iraq -- the most pernicious, in the eyes of the U.S., being that the war greatly empowered Iran. By demonizing Iran and inciting U.S. allies to take a hard line against it, Bush hopes both to stabilize Iraq and to roll back Iran's and Syria's influence. In a larger sense, he aims to place the entire region back under American strategic control -- just as it was before his Iraq war threw everything into chaos. It's the time-honored American solution for every problem: When in doubt, buy more guns. It worked in the Wild West, why not in the Middle East?

The Bush administration is presenting the arms deal as part of a grand strategy. "This is a big development because it's part of a larger regional strategy and the maintenance of a strong U.S. presence in the region," a senior official told the Washington Post. "We're paying attention to the needs of our allies and what everyone in the region believes is a flexing of muscles by a more aggressive Iran. One way to deal with that is to make our allies and friends strong."

But Bush's last-second swerve into supposedly realistic, high-strategy policies is completely incoherent. It is self-contradictory to try to roll back Iran while simultaneously propping up the Shia regime in Iraq: One action undoes the other. And Washington's larger strategy of trying to create a stable Mideast NATO made up of moderate Sunni states that are fearful of both Iran and militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas depends on a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis -- which the Bush administration, despite loud lip service of late, is completely incapable of achieving. The Bush administration is too in thrall to its neoconservative, pro-Israel ideology to be an honest broker. As a result, its proposed arms deal will only tighten the lid on the Middle East pressure cooker -- perhaps postponing an explosion for a time, but increasing the danger of a bigger one later. The arms deal will further destabilize Iraq and the region, spark the dragon's teeth of sectarian hatred, alienate the Sunni regimes from their people, stall Arab reform, increase the risk of an arms race with Iran, and further weaken America's standing in the Middle East. It's a move that reeks of desperation and short-sightedness.

America has a long history of such heavy-handed meddling in the region, and it has always in the end backfired. The most glaring example was our support for the dictatorial Shah of Iran, which blew up in our faces when the Ayatollah Khomeini led the 1979 Islamist revolution. Reagan's clumsy attempt to intervene on the Christian-Israeli side in Lebanon in the aftermath of Israel's invasion in 1982 led to the bombing of the Marine barracks and a hasty, humiliating U.S. withdrawal. Our support for Saddam Hussein in his bloody eight-year war against an enemy we feared more, Iran, achieved nothing except adding to a mountain of corpses.

It isn't just meddling that has gone wrong. Sincere efforts to resolve the region's most bitter conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, have foundered because the U.S. has never been even-handed. Even Jimmy Carter's much-praised Camp David agreement had equivocal consequences. It may have prevented another Arab-Israeli war, but because -- as Carter himself admits -- it failed to resolve the underlying issue, the tragedy of the Palestinians, it left the door open to future conflict. By essentially bribing the Egyptians not to attack Israel, thus removing any leverage that the U.S. had over Cairo, Camp David also contributed to the stagnation and despotism that has plagued the Arab world's most powerful state.

In short, as the British journalist Robert Fisk has eloquently chronicled, our blundering 60-year course through the Middle East has retarded the development of the region, propped up autocratic regimes, helped give rise to al-Qaida, damaged human rights, turned an entire region against us, enabled Israel as it stumbled into a calamitous occupation and severely harmed our long-term global interests.

Now Bush, having briefly tried to change the Middle East through the direct use of American military might -- call it gun-barrel democracy -- is back to "merely" being a heavy-handed puppet master. But this is no cause for celebration, for he hasn't changed his underlying beliefs at all. One of Bush's hands is on the puppet strings, but the other is still on the trigger, and he could easily decide to start another war against Iran. Even if he refrains from that mad act -- which would have consequences that would make Iraq look like Grenada -- his new strategy is a terrible mistake. At best, it will simply lock in place the unhealthy status quo, in which autocratic "moderate" leaders -- now armed with billions of dollars' worth of weaponry -- do the absolute minimum to comply with U.S. demands, while the region's underlying problems fester. At worse, it could lead to a Middle Eastern Cold War with religious-sectarian overtones, a Sunni-Shia confrontation far more volatile than the U.S.-Russia standoff.

So far, congressional and media reaction to the proposed deal has consisted of predictable and superficial Saudi-bashing. (Saudi Arabia is the only country equally despised by left and right alike, by Michael Moore as much as by Fox News.) Some of this is justified; much of it, as Sameer Lalwani argues in the Washington Note, is not. Lalwani points out that Saudi Arabia cooperated with the U.S. on Iraq, has taken strides to combat jihadists, is moving toward economic reform and is acting constructively to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But the problems with the arms deal run far deeper than simply the question of the reliability of the Saudis. Until those problems are openly discussed, America's Middle East policy will continue to run in circles, even after George W. Bush is no longer president.

The new "hard-headed" plan, just like the old "idealistic" plan, is almost entirely based on wishful thinking. Just as Bush and his neocon brain trust convinced themselves that Iraqis would put flowers in the barrels of U.S. guns, so they have now convinced themselves that the U.S. can happily ride the tiger of an ever-more-divided and ever-more-heavily-armed Middle East, pulling on the tiger's fur when it veers too far in one direction. This is not just delusional, but dangerous.

It's dangerous because Bush is not simply paying off shaky allies to try to get them to stop making trouble in Iraq (a bargain that has rarely worked, as Rachel Stohl noted in Foreign Policy in Focus) but playing the far more explosive game of divide and conquer. Bush claims to be supporting "moderates" against "extremists," but in fact he is strong-arming Sunni states to line up against Shia Iran and Hezbollah. As Brian Whitaker noted in the Guardian, this gives a free hand to the harsh regimes in Cairo and Riyadh to persecute their Shiite minorities. Worse, it opens the door to a poisonous regional sectarianism, which will only encourage a threatened Tehran to pursue nuclear weapons.

Moreover, the "moderate-extremist" distinction exists only in Bush's mind. By insisting on acting as if it were a reality, and refusing to talk to "extremists" (except in Iraq, where the stakes are too high for such moral niceties, and yesterday's "terrorists" have become today's "valued allies in the fight against al-Qaida"), he is making it impossible for America to achieve its policy goal of a stable Middle East. Sunni regimes may fear the threat posed by Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, but the uncomfortable truth is that most of their people respect the "extremists" for standing up to America and Israel. The Shia militant group Hezbollah is supported by large numbers of Sunnis across the Middle East, just as the Sunni militant group Hamas is by many Shiites. Moreover, these groups, which America refuses to talk to because they have engaged in acts of terrorism, are deeply embedded in the fabric of their societies -- which is why they cannot be destroyed, short of quasi-genocidal means that the world no longer deems acceptable. Whether the United States likes it or not, these guerrilla groups are a fact of life and cannot be bludgeoned into surrender -- not by military means, as Israel has discovered, and certainly not by loading up Egypt and Saudi Arabia with shiny new jet planes and high-tech equipment.

The answer to Hamas and Hezbollah is not to try to smash them out of existence, but to remove the conditions that have allowed them to appeal to so many. This is not appeasement, but simple realism. As the veteran Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein recently noted in Haaretz, there will be no peace between Israelis and Palestinians unless Hamas is part of the equation. After the fallacy of Bush's wishful, moralistic thinking was exposed in Baghdad, one might have hoped that America's foreign policy establishment would have rejected it in Jerusalem and Ramallah. Yet the Bush administration keeps on making the self-destructive mistake of equating Hamas and Hezbollah with al-Qaida, to nary a murmur from Democrats or the media.

Perhaps the least-noticed part of Bush's proposed arms deal, though, is simply that it will keep the U.S. deeply enmeshed in the Middle East, a more or less shadowy, more or less active military presence and power broker. As the events of the past 10 years prove, this is a stance that America should be moving away from, not embracing. As William M. Arkin points out in the Washington Post, the deal will "once again renew the cycle of American penetration into the heart of Islam, one of Osama bin Laden's original and most compelling rallying points."

Ever since the Carter Doctrine, it has been an article of faith for both parties that America must control the Middle East so as to have access to its oil. And that fundamental strategic orientation remains unchanged today. Of course, unless and until the U.S. figures out how to free itself from dependence on petroleum byproducts, we'll need Mideast oil to keep our country running. But as we should have learned by now, there are wiser ways to maintain access to vital resources in the Middle East than sending in gunboats -- or hiring local bullies.

The first step is to acknowledge reality. Instead of demonizing Iran and risking a catastrophic war that plays into the hands of its hard-liners, we should accept that Iran is going to be a major regional player, and start working out ways of minimizing tensions between it and its neighbors. Such a realistic, non-hysterical approach, if part of a unified strategy for addressing all the major issues in the region, and which would include Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and of course Iraq, would safeguard our access to Middle Eastern oil far more effectively than a surge of 200,000 troops.

Bush's plan will probably be heavily modified, even eviscerated, by Congress. But if history is a guide, the debate will take place within narrow parameters, mostly having to do with arms falling into the wrong hands and threatening Israel. Until the American establishment is willing to explore the deeper reasons why Bush's Middle East policy, of which this arms sale is a sadly characteristic part, has been a disaster, the U.S. is likely to keep repeating its tragic errors.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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Iran Iraq War Middle East