The Middle East for Dummies
Confounded and dumbfounded by recent Bush Administration moves, once again I consult that invaluable reference series, this one titled "The Middle East for Dummies." I find their concise, no-BS answers help me through the confusing morass.
Q. Why does Bush keep moving toward attacking Iraq, when nearly everyone except his tight circle of advisors (we’ll call them the Wolfpack, named for superhawk Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz), keeps warning him against such a military adventure?
A. Those who oppose Bush policy here, or Bush policy anywhere, must be fellow-travelers with evil terrorists, the Wolfpack reasoning goes. Bush & his advisors believe they know what’s best for the world, what’s best for the U.S., no need for Congress to get involved with all that messy democracy stuff like debates and hearings and suchlike. Oh, Bush "consults" with U.S. allies, in the region and elsewhere, but when they express doubts as to the wisdom of the Iraq operation, he just ignores them. Bush will do what he wants to do anyway, maybe even postpone the Iraq attack for awhile and come at Saddam Hussein a little later.
As for why Bush wants to attack Iraq:Saddam Hussein is a VERY bad character and there are few in the Middle East, or elswhere in the world, who would mourn his demise. (That’s said in private; in public, Arab leaders think he serves a political function and, as a secular leader, may even be a buffer between their countries and a more Islamicist Iran.) Poppa Bush didn’t remove Saddam when he had the chance at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, and it’s been a sore point in the Bush family, and in U.S. military circles, ever since. Iraq, which was hiding weapons programs from the U.N., finally engineered the inspectors’ departure, so nobody knows what Saddam’s been up to for the past several years. It would be folly to think he’s just been playing pinochle. He’s most likely developed more weapons of mass destruction (WMD) — biological, chemical and maybe even nuclear — and might well be provoked into using them at some point down the road, especially against Israel. Might as well take him out now, the reasoning goes, before he gets the chance to set them off. Suppose the U.S. doesn’t attack now, the reasoning goes, and a year or two from now, Saddam dispatches nuclear- or biologically-tipped missiles at us or our friends? We could have taken them out at the time, we didn’t, goodbye Bush. Oil. Did you really expect something else? There’s Iraq’s oil, which, presumably would be in friendlier hands, but there’s also the warning, delivered not so subtly, to other oil-producing countries in the region.
So something will be going down, probably sooner than later. So what if Arab & Muslim support for the U.S. "war on terrorism" evaporates? So what if Iraq sends scores of SCUD missiles, armed with biological or chemical weapons, at Israel or U.S. troops? The Wolfpack wants to attack Iraq and that’s that — maybe even testing out some of its tactical nuclear weaponry in the process — and there’s no force in the world strong enough to stop them.
Q. Speaking of Israel, why hasn’t the U.S. been more involved in trying to arrange a peace between the Jews and the Palestinians?
A. Bush watched the previous administration devote so much time and energy in trying to arrange a peace there, only to see it blow up in Clinton’s face. Bush is convinced that this is one hot potato to stay away from, let the parties kill each other until they’re so demoralized and wasted that a younger generation of leaders will come to the fore and demand peace negotiations and invite the U.S. in to help them arrange it. In addition, Bush was more interested in the war he started (the one supposedly against 9/11terrorists) and not someone else’s, and figured he could get away with doing nothing about Palestine/Israel. Let Sharon bloody the nose of the PLO and other groups; the U.S. will make noises every now and again about Israel going too far, but essentially keep American hands off.
Now Bush is learning that unless that Mideast problem is solved, the Arab/Muslim coaliton supporting the early phase of the "war on terrorism" will break apart — which translates to no Arab support for the coming attack on Iraq. Now Bush and his Wolfpack have no problems with going it alone, but they risk too much — endangering the very concept of perpetual war, the concept that, they feel, will keep Bush and the conservative hard-right in power — and so have at least to pretend to be doing something about the Israelis and Palestinians.
Q. OK, suppose the Arab world and even Arafat and Sharon buy into the Saudi prince’s peace plan: a viable Palestinian independent state, Israel returns to pre-1967 borders (including abandoning its settlements in Palestinian land), Arab neighbors recognize Israel’s right to exist. Wouldn’t this work?
A. No. The whole plan is based on two incorrect foundations: 1) that the parties really want peace; and 2) that determinative power rests in the nation-state.
If we’ve learned anything in the past several years, it is that real power is often found outside nation-state governmental institutions. Examples: transnational corporations often have more power than traditional government structures; terrorists often have more power than political institutions. Suppose all the Arab neighbors and Arafat agree to the Saudi plan, so what? The real power on the ground belongs to Hamas, Hizbollah, rightwing Israeli settlers, etc. — i.e., non-governmental forces — and they just want to see the other side disappear. Their veto is violence.
The Palestinian extremists won’t agree for a moment to any arrangement that limits Palestinian plans to drive Israel into the sea. Add to that Ariel Sharon’s bloodlust on the other side — his desire to destroy the Palestinian political and actual infrastructure — and it’s clear that there can be no meaningful negotiations right now because neither side really wants peace. They simply want their enemy to vanish in a puff of smoke. The Wolfpack may be right: the insane revenge-violence may continue until, after many tens of thousands are slaughtered, a new generation of leaders says enough is enough and begins to think about heading toward the peace table.
But there may be one more chance. If the U.S., as the only world superpower, were to work with the U.N. and/or organize a global coalition for Mideast peace, and help arrange a way for both sides to back down, with armed peace monitors inbetween the warring parties, maybe, just maybe, there might be reason to hope. But it’s clear that Bush & the Wolfpack have no vision on this matter, no desire to come up with a vision (which must include altering U.S. policy in the region to lower the level of tensions), and instead continue their meaningless sending of envoys to the area to arrange…what? another piece of paper signed, another set of promises made. As soon as the envoys depart, the violence ratchets up another notch, because both sides know that America is not seriously engaged and therefore there are no unbearable penalties to acting irresponsibly.
There’s no guarantee that deep and serious U.S. engagement right now would send both sides moving, however slowly and vaguely, toward an eventual peace treaty. But if the U.S. continues to do the little or the nothing that passes for American Mideast policy these days, Bush & the Wolfpack are going to have a lot of blood on their hands as the Israeli/Palestinian war grows in intensity.
Q. But how can Jews and Arabs ever sit down at the same table and talk peace after the decades of slaughter, suspicion and hatred?
A. One way might be to lower everyone’s expectations. The object is not to get the enemies to trust each other, or like each other, or to revise their opinion that they’re dealing with anything other than bloodthirsty zealots. (If peace is ever achieved, those attitudinal changes might come later, as byproducts of a treaty.) The object here is to get each side to say to the other:
"We’re here, we’re not going away, you’re here, you’re not going away; we wish you would disappear, or that we could make you disappear, but we realize realistically that it’s not going to happen. Military slaughter simply doesn’t get either of us to where we want to be. Each of us wants security, and to raise our children and grandchildren in peace. So, what can we do to bring that security and peace about? What compromises might you have to make, what compromises might we have to make, to begin to bring us to that point?"
If both sides can come to a public realization — as they almost did a decade ago — that the other side is here to stay and their just demands must be taken into account, and that military slaughter does not lead to what they want, then they can move on to the necessary-compromises stage. Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories, abandons its settlements, recognizes a viable Palestinian state, reins in its extremist, Arab-hating terrorists; the Palestinians formally recognize Israel, rein in their extremist, Jew-hating terrorists. Both sides, probably under some international arrangement, share jurisdiction over Jerusalem.
Is this THE solution? Probably not. But it’s a starting point, and the U.S. simply must take the lead in making sure something like these ideas begins to alter the agenda and discussion in the Middle East. To do nothing serious, to simply let bombers and tanks and suicide-diplomacy rule the day, is to condone utter madness.
Q. But isn’t Bush trying to do something like you’re suggesting in the Middle East? Why not give the guy some credit?
A. To Bush, the Middle East is a sideshow, and is liable to suck in the U.S. dangerously; the real war is the one against terrorists around the globe, because that one can, and will, go on forever — or at least for the next seven years, which coincides, in Bush’s mind, with the length of his imperial term. But since the Middle East seems to be of great concern to everyone else, he’s going through the motions of serious diplomacy. But there will be no changes in essential U.S. policy, and, most likely, in a few days the combatants will be back slaughtering each other at a record pace.
Q. You’re not really part of the "Dummies" publishing operation, are you?
A. Clearly, you’re no dummy. You realize what needs to be done to change the existing policies of the Bush Administration, and thus help bring peace and progress to the Middle East. But none of that will happen unless you organize, organize, organize to send Bush and his advisors the Big Message in November.
When the Republicans lose the House and the Senate, and thus have their far-right domestic agenda blocked, they may see the electoral handwriting on the wall for 2004 and begin pulling in their horns in both domestic and foreign areas, behaving like more rational, moderate politicians.
In short, in addition to whatever else you’re doing, join the call for an Independent Prosecutor in the Enron influence-peddling scandal and support Democrat candidates, even if sometimes you have to hold your nose to do so. Everything — peace in the Middle East, the conduct of the "war on terrorism," the future of Constitutional democracy and civil liberties in this country — depends on the election results in November. We all can have a part in determining America’s political future by our action, or inaction.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught politics and international relations at various U.S. universities; a poet and playwright, he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades.