"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty." With those stirring words, delivered to the U.S. Chamber of Congress on Nov. 6, 2003, President George W. Bush signaled his complete break with the realist school that had dominated American foreign policy in the Middle East for decades, including the administration of his father.
Last week, however, the so-called realists returned with a vengeance. And their appearance made for one of the worst weeks for Israel in recent memory. First, Robert Gates, a top advisor to the senior Bush and his son’s nominee to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, took a matter-of-fact approach to the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, in his confirmation hearings.
Next came the long-anticipated release of the conclusions of Iraq Study Group, headed by James Baker III, secretary of state under the senior Bush. That report had surprisingly little to say about how the United States might still achieve important policy goals in Iraq, and yet was filled with prescriptions for ways to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which it pronounced the magical key to all the myriad problems of the Middle East.
President Bush indicated both prior to the release of the well-leaked report and afterwards that he does not fully share the ISG report’s analytical framework or agree to its policy prescriptions. But there is little doubt that the report of the ISG, which was appointed by Congress will shift the policy debate in Washington.
And in the case of Gates, it was the President himself who appointed him. In his testimony, Gates downplayed Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe Israel off the map by saying that there are powers above him in Iran. Those higher powers, he suggested, primarily view nuclear weapons as a deterrent against nuclear-armed enemies all around: Russia to the North, Israel to the West, and the United States in the Gulf. Gates basically ruled out an American strike to prevent Iran from going nuclear, while understating the significance of its doing so.
What Gates failed to explain, however, is why those higher-ups, whom he claims control Ahmadninejad, permit the latter to continue waving the nuclear saber against Israel. Nor did he mention that the Ahmadinejad is far from the first Iranian leader to talk explicitly of the calculus for nuclear war with Israel: One nuclear bomb can destroy Israel, but a comparable Israeli second strike at Iran would still leave 15 million Iranians alive.
For one about to be charged with the defense of America, Gates is remarkably sanguine about the threat of a nuclear Iran. Just the possession of such nuclear weapons, even if they were never employed, would largely immunize Iran from Western counter-measures, as it steps up its support of world-wide Islamic jihad. The Iranians are frank about their intentions to spread Islam across the globe. Apparently the news has not reached Gates.
Indeed "realists" as a class are remarkably clueless about the Islamic fanaticism sweeping the Middle East. In their view, all nations have the same sort of interests – thus Gates’ description of Iran as developing nuclear weapons largely as a deterrent – and religious crusades are not among those interests.
One would think that control over the world’s oil supplies might at least be one of those issues to get realists thinking, but even that did not enter Gates’ concerns. Protected by its nuclear deterrent, Iran would be free to stir up its fellow Shiites throughout the Middle East – Hizbullah in Lebanon; Shiite tribes in oil rich regions of Saudia Arabia; the Sadr Army in Iran – without fear of a Western response, and thereby gain even more control over the region’s oil reserves.
GATES’S RESPONSE TO A POSSIBLE IRANIAN STRIKE on Israel was to shrug his shoulders, and say that there wasn’t much America could do about it. The Iraq Study Group recommendations, however, went even farther in their hostility to Israel. The only thing missing was the names of those other well-known "realists", Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, from the list of ISG’s academic support staff.
The ISG Report put its imprimatur on the idea that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the heart of all that ails the Middle East. That idea underlies European polls in which Israel is consistently listed as the greatest threat to world peace. Refuting it is now the major task of Israeli diplomacy.
The authors of the ISG Report contend, "the United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict." Dealing with the conflict, in the authors’ view, requires an international conference to which dozens of states will be invited – with the notable exception of Israel – even though Israel is the only country whose concessions the report specifies in advance: "the Israelis should return the Golan Heights." Among the topics to be discussed is the Palestinian "right of return," a "right" universally acknowledged to be synonymous with the end of Israel’s existence as a state with a Jewish majority.
In fact, there are few propositions easier to refute than that "the gates of world harmony all open in Jerusalem," as Andre Glucksmann sarcastically put in The New Republic. Do our sages really believe, he asks, that but for Israel "neither the deadly Khomeini Revolution, nor the bloody Baathist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq, nor the decade of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, nor the Taliban in Afghanistan, nor the angry warriors of Al-lah the world over" would never have happened? To that list might be added the eight-year war between Iraq and Iran, in which a million human beings lost their lives, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Egyptian use of poison gas against Yemen in the ‘60s, and Assad the Father’s murder of more than 20,000 of his own citizens at Hama. "The root of the trouble," writes Haim Hariri, is that this entire Moslem region is totally dysfunctional . . . and would have been so even if an independent Palestine had existed for 100 years."
Of all those places where the Arab-Israel conflict has had no impact, war-torn Iraq must surely rank towards the top of the list. Sunnis and Shiites would be slaughtering one another with or without Palestine. What we are witnessing today is largely the fulfillment of the plan laid out by the unlamented Abu Musad al Zarqawi in an intercepted communication to Osama bin Laden.
Zarqawi’s professed goal was to prevent democracy – an infidel import -- from taking hold in Iraq, and his chosen means of doing so was to bring about civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Terrorist attacks on Shiites, he rightly predicted, would provoke in turn, retaliatory attacks on Sunnis.
THE BAKER COMMISSION HAS PRETTY MUCH GIVEN UP HOPE of extracting anything positive from Iraq. Its goal is to allow America to beat a dignified retreat with a minimum of chaos and American casualties. The proposed means of achieving this result is to engage the Iranians and Syrians in a constructive dialogue.
The first axiom upon which Baker’s call for engagement rests is that it is always better to talk to one’s enemy than not. Yet the history of American attempts at engaging both regimes demonstrates that such attempts frequently backfire, and with disastrous consequences. After the 1979 overthrow of the Shah in Iran, National Security Advisor Brzezinski met with the Iranian Prime Minister in Algiers. In response, Iranian students, including Ahmadinejad, seized the American Embassy in Teheran with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s blessings.
Baker himself took 16 trips to Damascus to persuade Assad the Father to participate in the 1991 Madrid Conference on the Middle East, conferring great prestige of Assad in the process. Yet Assad’s only contribution to the "peace process," such as it was, consisted of repeated efforts to short-circuit it in any fashion possible. In 1990, writes Yoram Ettinger, the ever pragmatic Baker ignored Assad’s ties to international terrorism to lure Syria into the anti-Saddam coalition. In recompense, Assad spent the first Gulf War on the sidelines and concentrated instead on violently extending Syrian control over Lebanon.
One would expect the realists to appreciate that the value of talks depends greatly on the bargaining position of the respective parties. Yet for all their professed pragmatism, the realists remain incapable of entertaining psychological considerations and incapable of appreciating that there could be any mindset other than their own. In particular, they ignore the Middle Eastern wisdom of Osama bin Laden, "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, they naturally prefer the strong horse."
Baker would have the United States approach Iran and Syria in the position of the weak horse – the party in need of them to preserve its dignity in retreat. In so doing, the ISG has fueled the single most dangerous idea possible: Islam is ascendant, and the West, represented by the United States, is in decline. In response to the ISG Report, Abu Ayman, a leader in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, proclaimed, "The Americans came to the conclusion that Islam is the new giant of the world and it would be clever to reduce hostilities with this giant." Similar sentiments were expressed all over the Moslem world. Egyptian editor Mustafa Bakri urged Arab countries to "capture the moment as America is now in its weakest period."
To avoid assuming the posture of supplicant, Baker argued, unconvincingly, that Iran and Syria both have an interest in a stable and unified Iraq. That claim, however, is belied the actions of both countries over the last three years. Syria has provided a haven for the recruitment and training for Sunni insurgents, and has opened its border to them. Iran has sponsored the Shiite Badr Brigades, and its security services have their tentacles throughout the Shiite sections of the country. Were the Shiite south, with its rich oil fields, split off from Iraq, Iran would be only too pleased.
Even from a realist perspective, it is a bit of a stretch to suppose that Iran, with memories of a bloody and interminable war with Iraq still fresh, seeks a strong and unified Iraq. But what Baker does not get at all is that America is Iran’s number one target, and that Ahmadinejad is deadly serious when he calls for "a world without America". As a consequence, Iran will do nothing to save America’s face in Iraq. Indeed causing America to lose face is its first priority.
The only bargaining chip that the United States has to offer Iran is acquiescence in its nuclear ambitions. But a nuclear Iran represents a far greater threat to America even than a humiliating exit from Iraq. In any event, after observing three years of Western foot-dragging over Iran’s nuclear program, the mullahs are convinced that they can have both – nuclear weapons and American humiliation.
Similarly, the Syrians have repeatedly demonstrated that the Golan is not a prize in their eyes. Their sites remain on Lebanon. With Syrian fingerprints all over the gun with which Pierre Gemayel was assassinated, acquiescing in return to Syrian dominance in Lebanon, in return for whatever small services the Syrians could offer in Iraq, would be a bit much, even for Baker. By dangling the Golan Heights before Syria as an incentive for Syria to shut down insurgent training camps and seal its border, instead of just using its own power to destroy those camps, the United States would, in Bernard Lewis’ words, be conveying the image of a country at once treacherous to its friends and from whom its enemies have nothing to fear.
For so long has the United States been Israel’s only staunch ally that Israelis have stopped contemplating what a world without American support might look like. If the Baker Commission Report and Gates’s testimony represent new winds from Washington, we may yet come to fully experience the words of last week’s parshah, "Va’yevaser Yaakov levado."