U.S. Policy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East

Remarks to the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security and the Korean Association for Middle East Studies

I join all here today in commending IFANS for its collaboration with the Korean Association for Middle East Studies. The Middle East is, without question, a decisive factor in global politics and economics. Developments there have a direct impact on Korean interests as well as indirect effects through their impact on Korea’s allies, friends, and neighbors.

The Middle East is the strategic region where Asia, Africa, and Europe converge. What happens there affects the vital interests and foreign and defense policies of great powers on all three continents and hence the world at large. This is where the trade routes and lines of communication connecting Asia and Europe intersect. It was the site of some of the late 20th Century’s most brutal warfare and largest scale human suffering. In the opening years of this century it has spawned terrorists with global reach and provoked military intervention by the United States and its allies, including the Republic of Korea.

The Middle East and North Africa region contains well over 60 percent of the world’s oil and 40 percent of its natural gas reserves. It is a major source of global investment flows. Its political economy is thus a central determinant of the global future. Its markets, including its capital, arms, and consumer markets, are vital prizes for which the world’s great and middle economic powers, including Korea, compete.

The Middle East is also the epicenter of Islam, an expanding faith that guides the lives of nearly a fourth of humanity. It is the location of the holiest sites of Christianity, the world’s largest religion. It is the precariously reestablished homeland of nearly half the world’s Jews. Jews and Christians with a passionate attachment to Israel play a disproportionate leadership role in the intellectual, political, economic, and cultural life of the United States, Korea’s most important ally. The region’s travails now shake the world. They have become an American foreign affairs and national security obsession.

It is appropriate to begin with an examination of U.S. policy and diplomacy. As a world power, the United States has been a major participant — often a decisive factor — in the evolution of the contemporary Middle East. It is also widely recognized as the nation with the greatest capacity to broker the peaceful resolution of the region’s problems and to underwrite its strategic stabilization. The world has long looked to Washington to fulfill these roles.

The second President Bush bequeathed his successor a set of thoroughly broken policies in the Middle East and the near total estrangement of the United States from former allies and friends in the Arab and Muslim worlds. President Obama has responded with rhetorical “change we can believe in.” Still, to date, in the Middle East and elsewhere his administration has made only minimal changes to longstanding American policies that are conspicuous failures. The short-term stakes in getting these policies right are large. The long-term stakes are vastly larger.

When U.S. interrogators asked Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the 9/11 atrocities, why al Qa’ida had done the terrible things it did that day, he gave a straightforward answer. He said that the purpose was to focus “the American people . . . on the atrocities that America is committing by supporting Israel against the Palestinian people and America’s self-serving foreign policy that corrupts Arab governments and leads to further exploitation of the Arab Muslim people.” In Osama Bin Laden’s annual “address to the American people” this September 11, he reiterated: “We have demonstrated and stated many times, for more than two-and-a-half-decades, that the cause of our disagreement with you is your support to your Israeli allies who occupy our land of Palestine ….”

The centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to the emergence of anti-American “terrorists with global reach” is undeniable. In America, however, any reference to U.S. backing for Israel as a grievance that motivated the 9/11 atrocities in New York and Washington is vigorously disputed and suppressed as politically incorrect. This is a large blind spot. It has left Americans unable to address Arab Muslim reaction to a core U.S. policy. It has greatly hampered the development of realistic strategy to deal with the region or the threats it presents to U.S. interests or global stability.

So it is necessary to begin by recapitulating the obvious. The 9/11 assault on the United States was carried out by Muslim extremists motivated in large measure by their resentment of U.S. support for Israel and its actions. The need to avenge 9/11 and deter a repetition of it led directly to the American invasion of Afghanistan. The so-called “global war on terrorism” that this invasion inaugurated provided a spurious but sufficient justification for the occupation of Iraq in 2003. It inspired the joint U.S.-Israeli effort to reject and overturn the results of the 2006 elections in the occupied territories, even though these elections were universally judged to be free and fair. The same preoccupation with “terrorism” caused the U.S. to encourage Israel in its savage maiming of Lebanon and to protect it from the huge international backlash against its more recent assault on Arab civilians in Gaza. Determination to avoid another 9/11 remains the strategic rationale for the ongoing war in Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan. Meanwhile, the insolent cruelties of the West Bank occupation and siege of Gaza continue to inflame Arab and Muslim opinion.

Taken together, these developments have caused a growing number of Muslims to posit a broad American crusade to humiliate them and their religion. Their estrangement from the United States and other non-Islamic societies has deepened. Al Qa’ida has discredited itself through its excesses, but Islamic extremism has continued to metastasize. In Gaza, for example, political forces far more fanatical than Hamas are beginning to emerge from massive suffering. What began as a conflict between Jewish colonists and indigenous Arabs has become a worldwide struggle between Jews, Muslims, and their respective allies. As Israel’s sole protector, the United States has become the target of sustained asymmetric warfare by terrorists who espouse extremist Muslim agendas. Countries allied with the United States or dependent on it — especially Arab and Muslim countries — are targets too.

A just and durable peace in the Holy Land should be an end in itself. But the fact that the conflict there is the infection that enfevers the Islamic body politic worldwide makes such a peace an inescapable, central task of United States strategy. This is why it was right for President Obama to take time this June to deliver a message of reconciliation to Arabs and Muslims at Cairo. Despite all the other urgent tasks before him, he has focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has repeatedly expressed determination to stabilize Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors through a “two-state” solution. The Obama Administration’s initial efforts have met with contemptuous rejection from Israel, feckless dithering from the Palestinians, and skepticism from other Arabs. This should not surprise us, but it does not augur well.

The current government of Israel rejects trading land for peace. It sees itself as on the verge of achieving a level of colonization of Palestinian Arab land that will make anything resembling a Palestinian state physically impossible. In the exclusively Jewish state of Israel that its leading figures envisage, only Jews will be full citizens. Some Arabs will have limited rights but most will live in an archipelago of checkpoint-ringed ghettos. They will be free, should they wish, to call these ghettos a “state” but once they leave Palestine, Israel will not allow them to return. Given this vision, the American attempt to arrange a settlement freeze so that negotiations can create a Palestinian state is, from the Israeli point of view, at best an unwelcome distraction and at worst a hostile act. Mr. Netanyahu does not fear pressure from the United States to change course. He is confident that his American lobby will arrange for Congress to punish the president if the president tries to punish Israel for its intransigence.

An Israeli cabinet-directed assassination campaign has long focused on ensuring that “there is no one to talk to” on the Palestinian side. With a little help from their Israeli conquerors, surviving Palestinian politicians are hopelessly divided. Israel has not presented a proposal for peace to the Palestinians. However, if it now did, there would be no one with authority to accept on their behalf. The United States, meanwhile, is seeking to ease Palestinian suffering in ways that improve the political standing of collaborators with the Israeli occupation authorities. Will Palestinian leaders emerge willing to take whatever they can get from Israel and able somehow to call off the resistance? That seems to be the plan.

Unwilling, at least for now, to put pressure on Israel, the Obama administration has fallen back on the use of diplomacy as psychotherapy for Israel’s political pathologies. It is trying to induce better Israeli behavior by arranging Arab gestures that signal acceptance of the Jewish state. These gestures are conceived as down payments on the normalization of relations with Israel that the Arab League proposed at Beirut in 2002 — the so-called “Arab Peace Initiative.” But the Arabs premised their willingness to accept Israel on Israel’s reaching an acceptable agreement with the Palestinians. With Israel now neither doing nor promising anything that might lead to an acceptable status for the Palestinians, the Arabs see nothing to gain by appeasing it. Nor do they any longer feel obliged by friendship to accommodate what they judge to be ill-considered American requests.

Adding poignancy to the impasse are two dreadful ironies. The state of Israel was established to provide the world’s Jews with a homeland in which they might safely enjoy the pursuit of happiness free from continuing persecution. But the Jewish state has become the most dangerous place on the planet for Jews to live. And, with anti-Semitism now universally rejected in its traditional Christian heartland, Israel’s actions and policies have become the only significant stimulus to anti-Jewish animus there and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the replacement of Zionist idealism, humanism, and secularism with the cynicism, racism, and religiosity of contemporary Israeli politics has precipitated a mounting moral crisis and loss of confidence among many committed to the Jewish state.

The international community, including I daresay most of the Jewish Diaspora, does not accept the settler proposition that Jews can and should by divine right entrench their rule over a non-Jewish Arab majority in the Holy Land. (An anti-apartheid-style campaign of ostracism, boycott, and disinvestment against the Jewish state has already begun over this issue.) Although some settlers continue to arrive, one-fifth of Israelis now reside abroad. Emigration is accelerating.

In combination, current trends portend the perpetuation of violent struggle by the Palestinians against their Israeli overlords, even as the Jewish state is isolated from without and corrodes from within. These trends lead to escalating antagonism between the United States, its allies, and the Arab and Muslim worlds. They threaten a spillover of violence to the Jewish Diaspora and beyond.

So where does this leave the Obama Administration’s peace project? In its own estimation and that of the region, Israel is at a turning point. There are, I think, now only two possibilities.

The first (and, admittedly, least likely) is that the Administration may find the political courage to confront Israel with the need to make decisions that commit it to a future of respectful coexistence with the Palestinians and other Arabs. What the parties must do to achieve peace is not a mystery. It is spelled out in internationally agreed documents. It requires Israel to end the Jewish holy war for Arab land and withdraw the “settlers” from the territories it seized in 1967. It entails credible acceptance by Palestinians and other Arabs of Israel’s right to exist within its pre-1967 borders. It means the end of the Israeli occupation and the violence it embodies and the concomitant end of violent Palestinian resistance to occupation. It will require Israel to make some sort of recompense for the wrongs it has done to the Palestinians it has displaced in return for a quitclaim by them to the land and other property of which they were dispossessed. It will demand an exchange of internationally backed security guarantees for the states of Israel and Palestine.

Time is running out on the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. No peace is conceivable without the full use of American moral and economic leverage to bring Israel to the negotiating table. But robust American-led diplomacy could achieve peace, given cooperation from Israel. That would enable Israel for the first time to be accepted by the Arabs as a legitimate part of the Middle East. It would end the conflict in the Holy Land. This is the key to deradicalization of the Arab and Muslim worlds and to ending their violent backlash against the West.

The second possibility — most would argue a far more likely one — is that the United States may do nothing effective to alter or impede the Israeli government’s plan to impose a Jewish dominated state dotted with little Arab ghettos. The safety of such a state and its citizens would depend on the so-far undemonstrated ability of intimidation, ruthlessly sustained, to pound Arab resistance into acquiescence. Cairo and Amman would have to be kept within a Camp David framework that Egyptians and Jordanians, if allowed to vote, would even now overwhelmingly repudiate. Israel would have to sustain military hegemony in perpetuity over larger, more populous and modernizing Arab and Muslim neighbors. If these conditions were not met, as they almost certainly could not be, this unilaterally imposed outcome would be an invitation to protracted Arab and Muslim terrorism and other forms of struggle against Israel and its international backers.

The United States or another external non-Muslim great power would have to be willing indefinitely to protect the Jewish state against the political and other consequences of Muslim hostility. Israel’s right to exist as a state in the Middle East would almost certainly be reviewed in intermittent tests of arms, conducted — as in the case of the Crusader kingdoms in Palestine — over decades, if not centuries. It is hard to see this as a formula that leads to anything but eventual disaster for Israel. Israel’s nuclear doctrine — based as it is on an amalgam of Armageddon with the heroic suicide at Masada — seems to recognize this.

A decision by the Obama Administration to confront Israel with the choices it must make would lead to immediate political crises in both Israel and the United States, but it might yield peace. The absence of such a decision can lead only to escalating conflict. In the meantime, the region presents other challenges — all of them important, if not as consequential as those I have been discussing. Let me now briefly turn to these.

It is good that the end of the American misadventure in Iraq is in sight. But its termination is not likely to repair the injury it did to the standing of the United States in either the international or Muslim communities. The “surge” averted disaster; the withdrawal may yet deliver it. The post-occupation order in Iraq is unlikely to emerge smoothly or without further stressing regional stability. In the land between the two rivers, the United States will leave behind a battleground of grievances. The Kurdish and Sunni Arab minorities, among others, must likely undergo still more suffering before things settle down. There is little we can do about this now. There will be no harvest of goodwill from the carnage in Iraq. And even apologists for intervention — to the extent there still are any — will be hard pressed to compose a positive balance sheet to inspire further such risk-taking in the Middle East.

The same is unfortunately true of our eight-year-long intervention in Afghanistan. We began it with simple and straightforward goals — the apprehension of al Qa’ida and the chastisement of its Afghan hosts. But these goals have been buried in meteor showers of competing ideological and special interest objectives. The result is a war whose only apparent theme is its hostility to militant Islam. This has destabilized Pakistan and nurtured a particularly virulent form of terrorism there and in the Pakistani Diaspora. It has spurred a surge in financial contributions to the Taliban as an apparently heroic resistance to infidel trespasses on Islam.

What then to do about Afghanistan, where everyone admits the most likely outcome is now failure? If you ask a religious scholar or ideologue, you will hear a sermon. From an economist, expect a development scheme. Ask an NGO and prepare to receive a program proposal. People come up with the solutions they know how to put together. Ask a general what must be done, and you will get a crisp salute and the best campaign plan military science can devise.

With civilian responsibility for mission direction long forfeited and policy formulation in Afghanistan delegated to our military, the Obama Administration is now pondering yet another military-proposed campaign plan. This one features a pacification effort extending over as much as another decade. It is called a “strategy” but it is not. It strains to find a military way to transform Afghanistan, even though its authors — who are very smart soldiers — recognize there is none. Our civilian leadership finally shows signs of wanting to take charge of policy rather than delegating it to the generals. What we need is a strategy backed by force, not the use of force as a substitute for strategy.

This brings me, at last, to Iran. Iran had nothing to do with the assault on America on 9/11 but no nation has benefitted more from the American reaction to it than the Islamic Republic. Its revolution seemed to be flickering out when 9/11 happened. In short order, its greatest enemy, the United States then eliminated its other enemies in both Kabul and Baghdad and embarked on a military rampage through the Islamic world that estranged Americans from our traditional allies there. But, wait! It gets even better from the Iranian point of view.

In Afghanistan, the Iranians have been able to sit on the sidelines and watch their adversaries exhaust ourselves in inconclusive warfare. In Iraq, Iran is the dominant foreign influence in Iraq’s newly sectarian politics. (Baghdad may or may not continue its de facto alliance with Tehran after the United States withdraws.) Israel and the United States brushed aside efforts by Damascus to dilute its longstanding dependence on Tehran, thus cementing rather than eroding Iran’s influence in Syria. The 2006 Israeli pounding of Lebanon put Iran’s client movement, Hezbollah, at the commanding heights of Lebanese politics. This reduced Tehran’s need to go through Damascus to affect events in Lebanon or to reach northern Israel. Israeli and American efforts to ostracize and overthrow the elected Hamas government in Palestine meanwhile left it nowhere to go but into the arms of Iran. Assertively Shiite Iran has, for the first time, acquired the Sunni Arab following it had long sought. No element of current American policy seems clearly directed at reversing these Iranian gains.

Meanwhile, Tehran seems on track to acquire the ability to field its own deterrent to the threats of nuclear attack Iranians have serially heard from Saddam’s Iraq, successive Israeli governments, and George Bush’s America. David Ben Gurion wrote the book on how to build a clandestine nuclear weapons capability when he skillfully appeased President Kennedy’s passion for non-proliferation even as Israel subverted and circumvented it. The ayatollahs have read and absorbed the Israeli playbook, minus — one hopes — the bit about Masada. The result is a familiar mix of solemn assurances about peaceful purposes belied by endless acts of deception and obscured by shameless lies. We know how this script ends. It is not in a war that succeeds in securing Israel’s nuclear monopoly in its region. It is time to start thinking about how to mitigate the undeniable dangers of an Iranian as well as an Israeli nuclear arsenal.

Let me close with a brief mention of the longstanding Arab friends of the United States and the West in the Gulf and Red Sea regions. Egypt and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have to a great extent been bystanders as a strange combination of American diplomatic default and military activism has dismantled the regional order that once protected them. Iraq no longer balances Iran. The United States no longer constrains Israel. Iran has acquired unprecedented prestige and influence among Arabs and Muslims. The next stage of nuclear proliferation is upon the region. For the first time ever, Shi’ism dominates the politics of Arab states traditionally ruled by Sunnis. Islamist terrorism menaces Egyptian and Gulf Arab domestic tranquility as well as that of the West. The United States, once attentive to Arab security and other concerns, is now obsessed with its own issues and objectives in the region.

The Arabs have the financial resources but neither the institutions nor political capacity for the unified effort needed to cope with these challenges. They are adrift; not sailing to a new strategic strongpoint. The drift is taking them away from their traditional reliance on America and toward new partners. These are mainly the so-called BRIC countries of Brazil, China, India, and Russia, plus South Africa. But they also include other Asian countries, like Japan and Korea, with which Arab ties have long fallen short of their potential. Egypt and the Gulf Arab states will remain on the sidelines. There is little prospect that they will suddenly step forward to play a leading role in the resolution of the disputes of which I have just spoken.

I have been blunt today. I know that it is customary to restrict discussion of the Arab-Israel dispute, in particular, to expressions of pious hope and hypocritical confidence in the possibility that it will soon be settled. One is supposed to apportion blame more or less equally between the parties, despite the enormous disparities in their power, postures, and public relations prowess. I do not apologize for failing to bow to these traditions. The time for wishful thinking, hypocrisy, and “blame games” is past. The perils they sustain for Arabs, Israelis, Jews, Americans, Muslims, and others are too terrible. The time for realism, straight talk, and action should be upon us. It is past time to turn aside from the path we are on. It leads only to tragedy.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr., USFS (Ret.)

Seoul, Republic of Korea

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