To paraphrase Tolstoy: You may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. American tax dollars, not to mention lives, are being inhaled by the military in both the destroying and the rebuilding of Iraq, as “insurgents” are pursued town to town, street to street, house to house. The costs of no peace in Israel/Palestine are also astronomical. Aid to Israel alone accounts for the major share, augmented by payoffs to Egypt and Jordan for playing ball with us. Oil and gas prices skyrocketed in late 2004, and light, sweet crude may never roll back to the $25 a barrel that both Washington and Riyadh thought appropriate before the “forever war” was initiated.
The Middle East Policy Council tries to enrich the debate on these and related issues in its live forums and in this journal, as well as at www.mepc.org. Our most recent Capitol Hill conference dealt with the one truly vital U.S. interest in the region we analyze, where two-thirds of proven oil reserves lie: “Securing U.S. Energy in a Changing World” (see the transcript on our Website and the edited proceedings beginning on page 1). The myth of U.S. energy independence is analyzed, along with others, such as the fantasy that Iraqi oil could finance our recent Mesopotamian incursion. According to Frank Verrastro of CSIS, one of our panelists, “There’s damage to the oilfields . . . ; the country is saddled with significant external debt. There are obvious ongoing governance and security issues. Pipelines in Iraq have been blown up over 150 times since the president’s declaration of the cessation of major hostilities . . . .”
Many in the commentariat who pooh-pooh conspiracy theories conjured by Arabs often put forth one of their own: that oil prices are “controlled by an evil cabal that can move them up and down at will” (Chas. Freeman, refuting the charge at our conference). In fact, Saudi Arabia during the 1980s and ’90s was “forgoing a netback of about 30 cents a barrel,” according to oil expert James Placke (see p. 7), because they wanted to maintain a special relationship with the United States. That’s history now. The Saudis are going where demand takes them – to China, for example (see Jin article on that nation’s relations with both the Arabs and Israel, p. 113). Even more troubling for the United States, the world may not continue to support the dollar as the only currency in which oil is traded. That would mean real trouble for the U.S. economy (see Freeman p. 8).
Though many of these issues were ignored during the 2004 election campaign, the demonizing of Saudi Arabia reached unprecedented levels. It seems, unfortunately, that one is free to lash out at the kingdom for domestic political advantage, no matter how flimsy the evidence or counterproductive the charge. Decades of Saudi-U.S. cooperation appeared to count for nothing after the 9/11 assault, despite the victimization of both countries at the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists. In the poisoned atmosphere, anything touched by the United States becomes tainted for most Saudis, indeed for most Muslims. Americans’ lack of comprehension of the role Saudi Arabia plays in the Muslim religion is often a source of amazement to Saudis. And the U.S. global crusade for human rights has taken on an avenging cast in the eyes of the Islamic world. These concerns were recently aired at a high-level meeting between American and Saudi representatives under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation. The first meeting of the group produced a report in 2003 that was published in this journal last fall. The second installment, “U.S. Saudi Relations: A Rocky Road,” is presented in this issue (see p. 26).
Not only the Saudis are found wanting, to be sure. Most governments that are not democratic are disparaged by U.S. officials and academics, though the mess in Iraq indicates how difficult a transition to democracy can be (see Katzman on the possible endgame scenarios, p. 58). Washington has shown particular favor toward “the only democracy in the Middle East” (though the CIA did what it could to thwart Iranian democracy back in 1953 – see Kazemzadeh, p. 122). The leaders of the Arab states of the Gulf are aware of other reasons to become more responsive to their people: “Democracy has started . . . . Either you open the door, or they break the door [down],” said Qatar’s foreign minister on CBS’s 60 Minutes (see Kéchichian on the challenge of democratization for the Gulf monarchies, p. 37; Takeyh and Dvosdev on the struggle in the rest of the Muslim world p. 86; and Kamrava on the connection between political and economic reform, p. 96).
To Saudi Arabia and the other GCC governments, it is galling in the extreme for Israel to be held up as a model of good governance when it stands with its boot on the neck of an abject population of Arabs. The “facts” that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other Israeli leaders so deliberately placed “on the ground” in the occupied territories may be able to block a territorial compromise with the Palestinians (see Golan, p. 65). The settler movement has developed during the decade since the signing of the Oslo agreement into a monster that can threaten even its creator. And Israel is indeed threatened by the one state alternative the settlers represent. Worse, U.S. politicians, whether Democrat or Republican, are putty in their hands.
The purpose of facts on the ground is to make enforcement of legal obligations politically impossible. Seldom is it mentioned in the American media that Israel, in its treatment of the Palestinians, is in wholesale violation of international law. The subject is now almost taboo, since the U.S. occupation of Iraq has landed the two scofflaw governments in the same boat (see Zunes on the U.S. reaction to the World Court’s ruling on the Wall, p. 72). To try to avoid repercussions down the road, President Bush has just nominated as U.S. attorney general his personal counsel, a lawyer who characterized some of the Geneva conventions “quaint” in the context of Abu Ghraib. The message is not lost on the rest of the world: When laws are inconvenient and you are a superpower, disregard them. You are accountable only to the American electorate.
It should come as no surprise that in the wider world the United States is sometimes considered more of a threat to peace than the groups it labels terrorists – the PLO, for instance. In our next issue, the role and significance of Yasser Arafat will be assessed. For now, one might be forgiven for doubting that his passing will force Sharon (under the watchful gaze of the Quartet: the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) to the negotiating table with the next leader of the Palestinian people. Arafat will be missed by his foes; he was a convenient excuse for their own intransigence. Though the Old Man was often pronounced “dead,” he wouldn’t lie down, until now. May he rest in peace.
November 11, 2004