It is common now to hear of an American Middle East policy in shambles. And why not, given the daily mayhem that is televised from the West Bank, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the overt threats of Iranian President Ahmadinej(ih)ad?
Somewhere in the Sunni Triangle, with costs mounting in our blood and treasure, the United States lost the last vestiges of that wonderful sense of national unity that had swept the country following September 11. About every week now some administration official seems under pressure to resign or in fact does.
Tell-all books by disgruntled former CIA agents and ex-diplomats lament how the supposedly clueless people in power did not listen to their own Protean expertise. Those who leak from the CIA, an agency with analysts seemingly at war with their own government at a time of war, are hardly considered culpable–so long as their tips were to the “right” newspaper and for the “right” cause.
Former proponents of Saddam’s removal and democratization are now unabashedly triangulating–scrambling to be recast as “I warned them” foreign-policy consultants, as they showcase their intellectual wares for the next generation of politicians in 2008. Their support comes and goes, as they wonder whether the good news from Iraq should rekindle guarded approval, or the bad news should reaffirm their belated opposition. Not since the up-and-down summer of 1864 has this country at war seen such equivocating and self-serving editorialists and politicians.
No one pauses to suggest what the region would now look like with Saddam reaping windfall oil profits, 15 years of no-fly zones, ongoing corruption in Oil-for-Food, the bad effects of the U.N. embargo, Libya’s weapons program, and an unfettered Dr. Khan. If a newly provocative Russia is willing to sell missiles to Iran’s crazy Ahmadinej(ih)ad, imagine what its current attitude would be to its old client Saddam.
Or perhaps, as in the 1980s when over a million perished, our realists, who seem fond of such good old days of order and stability, could once again encourage an unleashed Saddam, with Uday and Qusay at his side, to be played against Iran for a (nuclear) round two. How sad that those who once fallaciously argued that the fascist Saddam was the proper counterweight to the fascist Iran now ignore that the genuine corrective is a democratic and humane Iraq.
A few retired generals smell blood, want to even old scores, and have demanded Secretary Rumsfeld’s resignation. They earn not the usual condemnation from liberals for intruding into the gray area around our hallowed civilian control of the military, but praise for their insight and courage–as if speaking out on in retirement is especially brave or calling for radical change at a time of war is always wise. That they are usually Army officers long furious over military transformation is left unsaid–as is the irony that Iraq will largely be saved by the skill of their brethren U.S. ground officers currently deployed.
Scholars under the rubric of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, not the American Conservative magazine, publish a pseudo-scholarly treatise about undue Jewish influence that resulted inexplicably in a disastrous tilt in American policy toward the only liberal society in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, we are faulted for “outsourcing” the problem of Iranian nuclear ambitions when we let the multilateral Europeans take the lead in talks with Tehran. And we are then condemned as itching for more “preemption” and “unilateralism” when we sigh that at some point someone may have to act to prevent Mr. Ahmadinej(ih)ad from arming his missiles. This is a psychopath, after all, who assures those on the West Bank of his love and support by promising to send a nuke soon in their general direction. I suppose Hamas thinks that 50 kilotons can distinguish east from west Jerusalem.
But if we look beneath all these self-serving contradictions, real progress amid the carnage since September 11 is undeniable. It is not just that the United States has not been attacked again. Al Qaeda’s leadership has been insidiously dismantled. Even bin Laden’s communiqués are increasingly pathetic, whining about lost truce opportunities for the Crusaders while warning of more welcomed genocide in Darfur. We can be sure of his war-induced attenuated stature when some on the Left are already suggesting that the 9/11 attacks were mostly the operations of just a few criminals rather than precursors to international jihad.
Some European governments that were patently anti-American–Chirac’s in France or Schroeder’s in Germany–are either gone or going. The European public no longer thinks that the threat of Islamic fascism was mostly something concocted by George Bush after 9/11. American supporters in Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom were returned to power. Finally a parliament is meeting in Iraq. There have been open elections in two regions of the Arab Middle East. In one place, terrorists were voted in; in the other place–the much more criticized one–terrorists are being hunted down.
Hamas wanted power; the Americans didn’t interfere, and they got elected. Now they can galvanize their people for their promised war against Israel (that they will lose), or they can find a way to evolve from thuggery to governance–it’s their call. It is not the decision of the United States, which, after fifteen years, is finally freed from subsidizing West Bank terrorists masquerading as statesmen.
It is a fine thing for all to see the once swaggering gunmen now on television appealing for daily cash from suddenly stingy Middle East benefactors, as Hamas whines that Fatah is in Israel’s hip pocket and decries militants who shoot without government authorization. Democracy, not more autocracy, exposed that absurdity.
Middle Easterners wish that we would be humbler, that we would let more Arabs into the United States, that we would not lecture them so, that we had not used force to remove Saddam, that we did not seem so self-righteous when promoting Western democracy, that we could express our intentions in a more sympathetic and articulate fashion. It is true that at critical junctures we did not explain ourselves well, and did not apprise the public candidly here and abroad about the range of poor options that confronted this nation after September 11.
But aside from these complaints, the people of the Middle East for the first time are watching on television a voting parliament in Iraq–and what sort of killers are trying to stop it. They know that oil skyrocketed and that the petroleum of Mesopotamia was not appropriated by the United States–and that huge windfall profits in the Middle East are still not likely to trickle down their way. They also accept that China in the Middle East cares only for petroleum, Russia only to cause others trouble, and Europe mostly to talk.
Those in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, as elsewhere in the Arab world, want closer, not more distant, relations with the United States. Ever so slowly the Arab Street is grasping that the more its own governments are angry at us for prodding them, the more it is a sign that we are on the right side of history.
As for the Iranian crisis, the only peaceful solution, given Russian meddling and Western fear over oil prices, may be through the emergence of democracy in Iraq, which would then galvanize dissidents in Iran. Anyone who rules out force in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions should support unequivocally the democratic experiment in Iraq.
For all the scrambling to disown the present policies, the irony is that they are bearing fruit and always had the best chance to end the region’s genesis of terror. How sad that those who supported the costly spread of freedom are written off as illiberal, and those who resigned themselves to the easy status quo were seen as wise and sober.
So there we have it: an orphaned policy with a bright future that is being claimed by fewer and fewer–we’ll see if that changes when Iraq emerges as a stable democracy.
I spent recent days recovering from emergency surgery for a perforated appendix in a Red Crescent clinic in Libya. I owe a great debt to the skill and confidence of a general surgeon, Dr. Ayoub, who was roused at 3 A.M., and saved me from a great deal worse, along with Dr. al Hafez who offered his medical expertise and care that allowed me to get back to California. Throughout all this, I did not experience a shred of anti-Americanism, but instead real kindness from Libyans from all walks of life. There is sometimes perhaps hurt and confusion over America’s intentions–but also grudging acknowledgement that for the first time in memory there is real hope for something different, something far better in the future of the Middle East.