January 25, 2007
New ‘big idea’ for Mideast could be big trouble
(Page 3 - Previous Page)They aren't interested in helping us to achieve final settlements or our visions of a "new Middle East."
They are out to defeat us -- and to replace us.
And nothing so feeds their big idea than our own defeatism. They were ecstatic when Haass wrote these words: "Less than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the American era in the Middle East ... has ended.... The second Iraq War, a war of choice, has precipitated its end."
We're on the run. In a recent Newsweek, a report from Damascus by a veteran journalist described the mood in ruling circles as "cocky," because they overhear us. A Syrian analyst close to the regime has told the foreign press that Syria has its terms for "engagement," but the package, in his words, is "all or nothing."
This is "engagement" Syrian-style: the dictation of terms by the victor to the vanquished.
So "engagement," which masquerades as realism, is as naive and ahistorical as any big idea America has produced about the Middle East. It envisions a fantasy new Middle East of radicals transformed, working with us over Iraq, proliferation and resolving the Palestine issue.
This fantasy, if carried to its conclusion, would simply continue and complete the failures of the past decade. For although proponents of the idea give it the feel-good name of "engagement," in the Middle East, it looks, feels and smells like appeasement. It is emboldening our enemies, and it is leaving our allies bewildered.
Appeasement can work if your opponent has limited aims. But everyone in the Middle East knows that the aims of Iran, Syria and the Islamists are not limited; that every concession will give rise to a new demand, that every sop to violence will produce more violence.
"Engagement" is one more disaster just waiting to happen -- one that would leave a Middle East under the thumb of Iranian nukes, Al Qaeda insurgents and Bashar al-Assad's mafia. "Engagement" is the enemy within-because only we can so thoroughly defeat ourselves.
Now so far, we have been winning the battle against "engagement." The White House has resolved instead to engage its Arab friends more intensively, and that means Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- what is coming to be called the Arab Quartet.
One of the more fanciful notions of the neocons was that you could make Iraq work while criticizing your own Arab allies for being undemocratic. That has been jettisoned for a new approach of bringing together all the Arab forces that fear a Middle East dominated by the wrong people.
The strongest of those forces are the status quo regimes. They are much stronger than they are made out to be, and if they were provided with packages of incentives and generous offers -- and if we were to stop delegitimating them -- they could do more.
In the short term, this is the real realism -- a policy that doesn't accept America's decline as a fait accompli, and that is savvy enough to know that you keep your position in the Middle East by rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, not vice versa.
This probably will not end the American quest for the next big idea for the Middle East, because Americans are attracted to big transformative ideas. This is a fatal attraction.
The last decade has shown, time and again, that big ideas lead to big trouble, because they underestimate the strong undercurrents of Middle Eastern societies. A process has to start of disabusing Americans of the notion that the pathologies of the Middle East have one root cause and one grand fix. There are lots of different pathologies in the Middle East and no single fix. For some of the pathologies, alas, there may be no fix at all.
This article was first presented as an address at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy program in Beverly Hills.