The president of the Middle East Policy Council, George McGovern, has been appointed U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, headquartered in Rome. This honor from President Clinton is particularly appropriate; Senator McGovern's first federal post was head of Food for Peace in the Kennedy administration. The Council staff is happy for him, but we will miss him greatly. His special qualities of intelligence and grace have made friends for the organization both here and around the world over the past seven years.
Senator McGovern's involvement in international affairs could not have been more appropriate to our work or more in synch with the times. A reminder of just how appropriate was published in the December 29 issue of The New Republic, where the editor-in-chief explains why, despite being a lifelong Democrat, he could not bring himself to pull the lever for McGovern in 1972: The Senator's stance against the war in Vietnam revealed an attitude that might leave Israel unprotected. Never mind that the Senator had always voted for generous aid to Israel and counted among his close friends a great many American Jews and Israelis. The sticking point was the McGovern worldview.
This worldview clash in American politics began in the late Sixties, when a significant constituency started questioning the merits of intervention in foreign disputes where U.S. vital interests are not involved. Those who feared that the United States might "abandon" Israel, began formulating arguments for why that state was a strategic bulwark against the Soviet juggernaut. Now that these arguments have lost their rationale, new ones have to be designed; otherwise, Americans may eventually decide to use the peace dividend for their own national interest. Apologists have draped a great deal of window dressing over this political maneuver to keep it from appearing too ethnically centered. But The New Republic has pulled back the curtain a bit.
With the Cold War won, many influential voices, most of them traditional conservatives, agreed with Francis Fukuyama that history of a sort had ended (The End of History and the Last Man, 1992). This view was a major concern for those advocating continued unilateral U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Discussions of the Fukuyama thesis are still going on, particularly as part of an effort to counter the idea that the United States can relax now. A hunt began immediately for other dragons to slay, like political Islam. Rogue states too, almost all of them in Israel's neighborhood, were identified as possible candidates; but it is obvious that the combined might of Sudan, Libya, Iraq and Iran do not amount to a credible military threat to the United States.
Unfortunately for Americans, however, these countries and others are home to those who hold the United States responsible for much of the suffering in the Middle East. And with Iran and Iraq on the road to possessing deterrent weapons in the form of anthrax spores, the paradigm, as they say, may have shifted again (so soon!). Saddam Hussein has teased the world with rumors of his own germ potential, making his foes hesitate to launch a preemptive strike against him. Those who dare to cook up the apparently simple but deadly biological broth are now on the verge of swinging a rather big ladle - big enough at least to ward off a preemptive strike and possibly to carry out revenge attacks in American cities. Thwarting manufacture is apparently futile. Richard Butler, head of the U.N. weapons-inspection team in Iraq has admitted that Baghdad could be back in the anthrax business within three weeks of an inspection. And transporting these toxins may only require some sort of deluxe Tupperware and a self-styled patriot.
The United States has been furnishing such people with excuses for revenge by ignoring legitimate grievances and stigmatizing Muslim and Arab groups that do not measure up to American political norms or that reject Likud's version of peace. For example, punishment and attempts at isolation have been used rather than diplomacy or other efforts to defuse tensions and bring Iran and Iraq back into the diplomatic dialogue. Washington could keep itself very busy trying to straighten out the unruly domestic affairs of countries in the Greater Middle East (crusading). Many in the region think current U.S. policy is an expression of Christian prejudice against Muslims, and who can fault their logic? Partisans of the Israeli hardline in the major media are even exhorting the U.S. government to protect Christians in Muslim countries (and China). This effort to get Americans emotionally involved with their persecuted coreligionists is appreciated by the Christian Right, who are actively proselytizing abroad. It is also useful to some in Congress, who are using this concern for Christians as cover for business as usual - the trading of legislative favors for money from ethnic and religious lobbies.
These parochial attitudes are not in synch with those of most Americans, who now seem to share Senator McGovern's worldview, according to two recent polls (reported in The Washington Post on January 4) from the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Respondents overwhelmingly (74 percent) favored international cooperation through the United Nations and rejected unilateral U.S. intervention except where their own health, safety or economic well-being is directly threatened. U.S. global activism aimed at reforming nondemocratic regimes and promoting U.S. values has dwindling appeal.
Many in the foreign-policy establishment will continue to seek common enemies of the United States and Israel, even as the anthrax specter seeps into public consciousness. There are clear signs, however, that insiders have already reassessed basic U.S. Middle East policy and are beginning to market it to influential business, media and government audiences. When the Council on Foreign Relations publishes in their prestigious quarterly, Foreign Affairs, policy recommendations by their director of national security studies (Richard K. Betts, "The New Threat of Mass Destruction," January/ February 1998), it is a sure bet that national leaders are taking them very seriously. Betts concludes his long essay with this warning:
The [security] interest at the very core - protecting the American homeland from attack - may now often be in conflict with security more broadly conceived .... The United States should ... tread cautiously in areas - especially the Middle East - where broader interests grate against the core imperative of preventing mass destruction within America's borders.
Public debate on this issue will be lively, and Senator McGovern's successor as president of the Middle East Policy Council intends to be an active participant. He is Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., former U.S. assistant secretary of defense. Ambassador Freeman brings to this new post a formidable intellect, the admiration of his peers, and a lifetime of diverse foreign-policy accomplishments (President Nixon's interpreter in China, ambassador to Saudi Arabia). The Council considers itself lucky to have him on board.