January 25, 2007
New ‘big idea’ for Mideast could be big trouble
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Its basic premise is this: The root cause of the pathology of the Middle East is us. The Middle East has its problems, but everything we do just makes them worse. All the big ideas that have failed were about transforming the Middle East. What we really have to do is first transform the United States -- to get ourselves back over the horizon, as much out of the Arab line of sight as possible. And since Israel is our client and its treatment of the Palestinians is blamed on us, we have to pull Israel back -- today.
To do that, we have to treat a domestic problem: We have to democratize our own policy toward the Middle East. Right now it is being dictated by the Israel lobby, which got us into the Iraq War and which could get us into an Iran war.
This is America's own pathology -- the inability of our political system to resist the pressure of a highly motivated, aggressive and determined interest group, whose parochial interest now conflicts with the national one.
And as we pull back, say the engagers, we have to admit that our putative Arab friends are too weak to hold the line. The Saudis, Egyptians and Jordanians are all weak reeds; the radical forces are stronger.
So to manage our withdrawal, we have to talk to the stronger forces -- to Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas. We have to "engage" them in a "dialogue" and find some shared interest with them, so that we can reposition ourselves safely and not leave chaos behind.
After all, they continue, radicals have interests, too. Perhaps if we get out of their line of sight, we might even be positioned to transform them -- it is our policies that made them radical in the first place, so if we change those policies, it might make them reasonable. For in every radical resides a potential moderate -- and we have the power to bring him out, through humility and dialogue.
Now I hope that even in this abbreviated summary of "engagement," you can appreciate its appeal. Why fight what the Pentagon calls the "long war" -- already longer than World War II -- when we can send in the pinstripes and get better results? Why battle the radicals, when we can de-radicalize them by getting out of their sight?
It helps that many advocates of "engagement" call themselves "realists" -- Americans are nothing if not realistic. And proponents of "engagement" come from the pinnacles of the foreign policy and academic establishment -- from the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, from a chaired Harvard professor, from a former national security adviser.
A False Realism
They call themselves realists. But the interesting thing is that "engagement," despite its realist pretensions, actually oozes optimism about the Middle East. And in a bizarre twist, its optimism is fixed first and foremost on Syria, Iran and the Islamists.
"Engagement" rests on the notion that these states and movements don't have big ideas or grand strategies of their own. They have interests, but what really drives them is "grievances." If we were only to address these "grievances," we could diminish their bad behavior -- their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, their support for terrorism, their anti-American incitement. The assumption of course is that these grievances are finite -- that is, addressing them would somehow diminish the pool of resentment.
I could give you lots of examples of "engagement-think," but I will confine myself here to one relating to Hamas. U.S. policy toward Hamas has been to isolate it, sanction it and give Israel a wide berth to punish it.
None of this has moderated Hamas, but it has arguably diminished its popularity. But here is Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, on how "engagement" would approach the problem.
U.S. officials, he says, should "sit down with Hamas officials, much as they have with the leaders of Sinn Fein." And once they are all seated together, what should they discuss?
Haass thinks now is the time for the United States to outline a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement, including the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines. Then he adds: "The more generous and detailed the plan, the harder it would be for Hamas to reject negotiation and favor confrontation."
So "engagement" with Hamas is essentially about appealing to some Hamas sense of fair play -- getting it to say "yes" by being "more generous."
Here you have, in capsule form, the core optimism that infuses the "engagement" strategy -- the idea that a movement whose leaders have vowed they will never, ever recognize Israel can somehow be talked out of it by acts of American generosity.
The flaw of "engagement" is the same flaw that has wrecked the last decade of U.S. policy. It is yet another case of unfounded, unwarranted, unjustifiable optimism about the Middle East. Just as you could not turn Arafat into a man of peace (even with a Nobel peace prize ceremony), and just as you could not turn Iraqis into democratic citizens (even when their fingers turned purple), you cannot change Syria and Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah into our partners by sitting down with them.
That is because they have more than interests and more than grievances. They also have big ideas and grand strategies, just like we do.
The essence of their biggest idea is simple: America will never be anything but an enemy of their regimes, their culture and their religion. So every move they make has the purpose of pushing America back, out and away. Their big idea is served every time America is humiliated, reviled and defeated.