Attempts by Osama bin Laden to cast his attacks on America as part of a jihad against Israel failed to fulfill his dream of a clash of civilizations. Yet the Bush administration, belatedly, has recognized the potential damage such a linkage could have on the United States. No one in Washington is buying Bin Laden’s anti-Semitic fantasies, but there is a grudging realization that American support for Israel may need to be doled out with more subtlety. The idea that the Israelis and Palestinians can be left to their own devices without a risk to American security is one of the many casualties of Sept. 11.
LIES ARE EASILY exposed if there isn’t even a grain of truth in them. Bin Laden’s lies about Western civilization, about the Quran, about America’s national will and character, all have proven far less potent than The Liar himself expected. However, one barb aimed at the United States which did strike a chord — not only in the Islamic world, but in the larger international community and in the halls of American power as well — was his accusation that America had ignored Arab opinion and national interests in its support for Israel.
Let’s be clear right up front: Bin Laden is not interested in a “just solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People like bin Laden equate “justice” with the annihilation of Israel. Thankfully, even in the Arab world, this kind of fanaticism is primarily the realm of radical splinter groups these days, plus a few dictatorships — Iraq and Syria, for example — with little else to offer their people beyond 60’s-era anti-Zionist claptrap. Ra’anan Gissin, a senior advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, rightly notes that bin Laden’s grudge is “not with the little Satan” (Israel) but rather “the big Satan, and all that it stands for.”
A NEW WORLD
Still, Sept. 11 did change the dynamics of America’s involvement in the Middle East. Assumptions that motivated decisions made by the Bush administration and its predecessors have been called into question.
Is it wise for the United States to back conservative Arab dictatorships and monarchies like those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, if those very regimes are going to abuse their populations or, worse still, finance radical Islamic movements abroad as a way of winning legitimacy in the eyes of homegrown zealots?
Does it make sense to maintain American military bases in Saudi Arabia? Do the advantages of our policy toward Iraq, which involves almost daily bombardments and an economic noose that continues to hurt all the wrong Iraqis, outweigh its disadvantages?
Can the United States afford any longer to tolerate bickering over the details of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement when the conflict itself is such a powerful recruiting tool for Islamic extremism?
SIGNS OF PROGRESS
These questions have no easy answers. But the Sept. 11 attacks provided a wake-up call for those who make American policy toward the Middle East and the wider world as well. Some changes already are apparent. For instance, “nation-building” is no longer a dirty word. This is a direct result of the fact that some of the most threatening nations in the world right now — Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon — are places the United States cut and ran from when the going got tough. Similarly, foes of the United Nations in the American Congress appear to be keeping a low profile, too, perhaps realizing that the only other viable post-Taliban option involves an American occupation force.
Other changes are in the wind. American policy toward Iraq is under review. Even if the Iraqi regime is not targeted in the “war on terror,” there appears to be a new willingness on the part of the U.S. government to admit that the past decade’s attempts to contain Saddam have been a titanic failure and, in particular, a public relations disaster.
The jury is still out on U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia and “friends” like Egypt. The debate rages on: should these regimes be selectively assassinating suspected extremists, or should they be pressured to allow free elections? Neither seems a short-term solution, since so much of what passes for “news” or “history” in these nations is twisted propaganda that hardly lays the foundation for democracy. Perhaps we might start by demanding that Saudis and Egyptians be told the truth about their own governments. From that grows an appetite for peace and democracy.
THE MAIN EVENT
None of these tweaks and tune ups are as important as the reassessment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is taking place, however. The change in thinking, particularly in regard to American willingness to put pressure on Sharon and Yasser Arafat, was evident in Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech on Monday. A state called “Palestine” is now routinely mentioned in such speeches. But Powell went further, asserting that the U.S. would lead the way to a settlement and, for the first time, that American troops might take part in a “stabilization force” to secure any peace deal.
These are huge changes. For decades now, American policy toward this conflict has resembled a political version of the futile trench warfare of World War I. The parties to the conflict — Palestinians and Israelis, along with the United States, hunker down in their diplomatic trenches, watching the two sides exchange fire and the occasional suicide bomber charge into no-man’s land.
Occasionally, one side or another sees an opportunity for a truce. A flag goes up, and they crawl cautiously from their foxholes to chat, grievously exposed, across their frontlines. If talks make progress, they inch further and further into no man’s land — recklessly far from their defensive positions. Invariably, just as it appears peace is at hand, someone lobs an artillery round into the gathering — usually someone not even represented at the talks. Then everyone scatters back to the trenches, cursing themselves for being so naive and the war resumes.
The American president is always the last one back to the trenches, pleading all the way for both sides to stop shooting, but ultimately resigning himself to reality. It’s then that his American issues this statement: “The United States feels that the parties to the conflict need to make progress before any American mediation can resume.”
In effect, the conflict goes on auto-pilot. And the cycle starts all over again.
This cautious American approach to Middle East peace rested on an assumption that was destroyed along with the World Trade Center: that peace in the Middle East is a laudable goal, but one that really doesn’t have a direct impact on American national security. It was that assumption that allowed presidents to put the conflict on auto-pilot when the chances diminished for a breakthrough — and the attendant political bump for the White House.
This same erroneous notion lay behind some of the power of the Israeli lobby in the United States, which has in the past used less- than-subtle threats of electoral retaliation to get its way on policy questions. The power of the lobby always was exaggerated by its foes, and it has diminished further since the end of the Cold War. But Sept. 11 may finally have leveled the playing field by making it absolutely unacceptable to appear to be putting the interests of Israel or any other nation ahead of American national security. The flames of Sept. 11 forever welded the two issues together.
The decision this week to resurrect the post of Mideast envoy — a position that had been deliberately eliminated as George W. Bush entered office — is solid evidence that this lesson is being absorbed. Next week, newly appointed envoys William Burns and Anthony Zinni, the former military commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, will arrive in Israel for talks with Sharon’s government.
This is a far cry from the “hands off” philosophy of Bush’s early months, when the new president let it be known that Palestinians and Israelis could not expect the United States to save them from each other.
“The parties need to make peace with each other,” Richard Boucher said in April, answering a reporter’s question about the lack of alarm being shown in Washington at the continuing violence between the Palestinians and Israelis. “In the end, it depends on the parties. The parties have to make the decisions.”
The new administration only deserves some of the blame. After the frantic, legacy seeking summitry of Clinton’s last months, you can hardly blame them for wanting to back off a bit. But they did more than back off; they abdicated responsibility, an approach of that grew out of a study released in January by the conservative, somewhat pro-Israeli Washington Institute.
Citing the need to protect the prestige of the presidency, as well as the slim prospects for progress, a group of such well-known Mideast policy luminaries as Anthony H. Cordesman and Daniel Pipes have recommended that Bush “limit his intervention into Arab-Israeli negotiations to imminent breakthroughs or breakdowns.”
What ultimately broke down was the illusion that the politics of Middle East peacemaking wasn’t worth the political risks. Bush now knows that America has a dog in that fight, and that dog’s name is Peace.