Since the Clinton administration came to office in 1993, it has carried out a Middle East policy that is a descending spiral, a squandering of priceless American assets, credibility above all. Can this policy be saved? Maybe, but it will require a major transplant.
It might be difficult for "the world's only superpower" to accept a co-chairman in the stalled Middle East negotiations, but that seems to be the inevitable choice. It is, after all, something that the United States has accepted in the Balkans and even, although it is conveniently forgotten, the Madrid conference on the Middle East. The cure for the American dilemma in the Middle East would be to share responsibility, to give up the fiction of the "honest broker," to recognize that American policy in the Middle East has become distorted. Above all, it would require abandoning the increasingly hollow claim that the United States has some sort of droit de seigneur and sole responsibility to play the peacemaker role in the Middle East. The Wye River Conference, at which the U.S. president played all his cards - including summoning up the heroic appearance of the ailing King Hussein of Jordan - to produce an agreement that barely lasted weeks, pounded a final nail into the coffin of that illusion.
The United States needs help. The only logical partner for the United States would be the European Union (EU), which is already becoming a full financial partner in paying for the development of what will become the state of Palestine. At a conference at the State Department, the Europeans, led by the EU, were far and away the chief pledgers, promising some $2 billion out of a total of about $3 billion. Beyond that, despite American and Israeli resistance, the EU has begun to edge closer to the political arena, in effect gradually filling the vacuum left by the failure of American diplomacy.
How about the United Nations as a cochairman? It wouldn't have a prayer because of the complex political currents involved. Israel would simply walk away from the peace process. That need not be the case with the European Union, if it were given specific, limited duties that the Israeli authorities would see as benefiting Israel in the long run.
There is certainly an advantage for the United States if the EU were to play an enhanced role, given the diminishing U.S. ability to extract concessions from hard line Israeli governments. Assuming the current trend in Israeli politics continues, with neither Labor nor Likud likely to come up with majorities, it is probable that the most extreme elements of Israeli politics will continue to define the Israeli position in future negotiations. In the last three years, the militant settlers and the ultra-Orthodox religious groups within Israeli society have been setting the parameters of the negotiations and creating "facts on the ground" in the form of rapidly expanding Jewish settlements that will shape the landscape of the future Middle East. They have been allowed to do that because flaws in American policy have laid the logs for what could be a another major conflagration.
Even the worst policies can serve as examples for others to avoid. Thus, to find a way out of the Middle East maze, it is useful to look at how the United States lost its way. The lesson of the country's painful Vietnam experience was that a foreign policy cannot be sustained without domestic support, both in the streets and in Congress. The opposite extreme - putting domestic politics ahead of foreign considerations and requirements - has distorted U.S. policy in the Middle East. This is especially true with the now embedded Clintonesque tendency in the executive and legislative branches to begin running for reelection immediately upon election. The new lesson should be: A foreign policy based primarily on domestic political considerations, including Congress, will ultimately fail because it doesn't treat the parties in the region with the respect they deserve.
This lesson - domestic-based policy doesn't make good national-security policy - is not novel. It could be seen in the China policy of the United States in the 1950s. Not least of the damage then was the loss of the Old China Hands that resulted from domestic political inquisitions, fed by a well-connected Republic of China lobby that focused on the fallacious question, "Who lost China?" Suspect State Department experts who knew Asia and Asians were excluded from the policy councils that then engaged in fantasies about how the United States could prevail in Asia by supporting Chiang Kai-shek and barring any contact with Communist leaders. First came the foolish attempt to isolate "Mainland China." Then came the McCarthy attacks on the State Department. Then came Vietnam.
In terms of Latin America, the lesson can be read in the inflexible, anachronistic policy of the United States toward Cuba after the Cold War, which was dominated by the considerable political influence of the conservative leadership of the Cuban American community in the key political state of Florida. That leadership and its advocacy of a policy of overthrow of Fidel Castro began to dissolve with the death of the Cuban-American leader Jorge Mas Canosa. Cautiously, after the November 1998 elections, the Clinton administration began to lift some of the quarantine regulations that were causing hardship among the Cuban population. It was a tacit, timid admission that supporting the Mas Canosa groups and their congressional supporters didn't help American national interests.
So too in the Gulf, where the policy of "dual containment" - designed to isolate both Iran and Iraq as parallel pariahs - remained administration doctrine for five years despite its manifest failures. This policy coincided with the wishes of the strong Israeli lobby in the United States in 1993, but it never really conformed to reality (or to the view of State Department specialists in the area) because it did not recognize the essential differences between Iran and Iraq, including the obvious fact that they oppose each other. It also did not recognize the inevitable collision with European allies who had similar aims in the region but different tactics - "critical dialogue" versus "dual containment." That policy, too, has begun to be orphaned, belatedly.
Israeli leaders have described the Clinton administration as the most Israel-friendly U.S. administration in 50 years. This is no mean accomplishment since the bar was set extremely high by previous American administrations, all of which recognized that Jewish-Americans vote more faithfully than other Americans and in greater numbers, proportionately, than some other ethnic groups such as African Americans or Arab-Americans. In key, populous states such as California and New York, Jewish-Americans are prized financial contributors and important influences on the national media.
Exceeded only by the Republican Congress, the Clinton administration has gone well beyond previous administrations in recognizing the importance of Israel in the American political process. It has virtually purged the upper ranks of the State Department and National Security Council of the senior officials known as Arabists. They have been replaced by what might be called Israelists, those who have worked closely with Israel, sometimes in the employ of the Israeli lobbying groups. The rationale has been stated by Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an influential think-tank which is a spin-off of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He is one of the few people on earth (Daniel Kurzer, current U.S. ambassador to Egypt, might be another) who are both Arabists and Israelists. Satloff says: "It used to be that the United States tried to keep Israel on one side and the Arab world on the other, but there has been an evolutionary change. U.S. policy recognized that the peace process is a mechanism to reconcile. The peace process became the future of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. It is trying to create a common interest."
That was a reasonable policy when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres were leading Israel, and Egypt and Jordan were enthusiastic supporters of the peace process, and Syria was edging closer to serious talks with Israel. It lost its rationale when Benjamin Netanyahu came to power and Saddam Hussein somehow survived despite all expectations in 1993. However, the American policy, which virtually eliminated a whole class of Foreign Service specialists in the Arabic speaking world, continued despite the evident fact that the heavily promoted U.S.-led peace process has been dead in the water since the assassination of Rabin and the coming to office of a Likud coalition led by Netanyahu.
For every non-Arabist moved into a position of influence in the American Middle East policy structure, there is an Arab specialist who was moved to another bureau or another bright newcomer, discouraged by events, who has decided to go to a more promising area such as Chinese studies. This has an impact on American policy and on the perception of that policy among Arab states. Nicholas Veliotes, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, says, "The Arabists, even when they didn't prevail, were seen by the Arabs as a balance in the American political policy machine. They now see that the balance is no longer there."
A related problem of surrendering American foreign policy to domestic political interests or formidable lobbying groups such as AIPAC (or the Chinese or Cuban lobbies) is that it doesn't take into account that there are opposing views within such blocs. The Zionist Organization of America, for example, handed out leaflets at a recent Middle East conference in Washington labeling Middle East chief mediator Dennis Ross a "self-hating Jew." Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, a strong supporter of the Labor government in Israel, has been attacked by a right-wing politician in Israel as a "Jew-boy" and was heckled when he appeared before the annual AIPAC conference in Washington this year.
To even comment on the disappearance of the Arabists within the State Department inevitably raises the specter of antisemitism and brings back the memories of ugly arguments which continue to this day and influence domestic political debates about Middle East policy in Washington. During the Truman administration, the charge was that the "elitist" State Department Arabists in the 1940s and 1950s were not only anti-Zionists but also antisemites. That description was given some currency by President Truman himself, who was often at odds with the "pin-stripers" at the State Department. He overrode the objections to the early recognition of Israeli independence by his secretary of state, George Marshall, and much of his cabinet, including his secretary of defense, James Forrestal.
Those who continue to believe the calumny that Assistant Secretary of State Loy Henderson in the 1940s and 1950s was an influential antisemite ought to read the measured account by H. W. Brands, Inside the Cold War; Loy Henderson and the Rise of the American Empire 1918- 1961 (Oxford University Press, 1991) about the complex reasons that Foreign Service professionals like Henderson urged going slow on recognition of a new Zionist state that had not even defined its borders and was headed for an inevitable clash with the Arab states. But Henderson was out of step with the Truman White House, and the decision to support the new state of Israel had already been made in what Secretary of State Marshall called "a transparent dodge to win a few votes." Henderson, whose other specialty was dealing with the Soviet Union, went to his grave believing that the campaign against him and the other Arabists in the State Department, accusing them of antisemitism, was "planned by persons whose real grievance against me was that they considered that I was advising the American government to adopt a firm stand with regard to the Soviet Union." These are the unpredictable currents that operate when domestic considerations intrude on foreign policy.
It is a fact that domestic politics drives American foreign policy. In most foreign policy issues - trade, tariffs, dealing with other countries - there are offsetting lobbying groups. For every free-trade manufacturer, there is a trade union wanting barriers against cheap foreign labor. For every human-rights group that wants to penalize the Chinese government for its human-rights record, there is a corporate voice who wants to save American jobs by exporting American products to China.
That is the way it is supposed to work. But in terms of the Middle East there has been a breakdown that created an effective policy monopoly by the backers of Israel, who have skillfully become the most powerful voice on Capitol Hill. In contrast, the voice of Arab-Americans, a group that began to arrive in numbers in the United States somewhat later than the European Jews, has been nearly inaudible in the national debate driving American policy. One American specialist in the Arab world explains, "The Arab-American community doesn't want to become prominent or important. They want to be embedded. They want to become Americans without the hyphen."
Even with 20 ambassadors in Washington, the Arab voice is heard only faintly in Congress. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat showed his innocence about the American political system when asked by an American diplomat about the lack of Arab clout in the U.S. Congress: "I don't need to lobby Congress. I deal with President Clinton." The Arab world clearly needs some help in this uneven struggle in which one side understands and uses the American political system and the leadership of the other side doesn't have a clue.
A not-insignificant result of the American neglect of the Arab side in the peace process is a growing despair and sense of estrangement from U.S. policies on the part of traditionally friendly Arab governments, without a corresponding policy of accommodation on the part of the Israeli government. The American policy has managed to create a lose-lose situation. Palestinian spokeswoman and Minister for Higher Education Hanan Ashrawi, says, "The United States is perceived to be helpless before Israeli policies. There has been an erosion of confidence. Can a global power afford to destroy itself by showing itself to be so powerless?"
The crisis in the Middle East underlines the point that an American policy driven by domestic politics is a false compass. It doesn't please anybody, even the domestic groups, because they are divided and, more important, because it doesn't work. This has been clear to the Europeans (as well as the government of China and others). It has certainly become clear to the majority of Israelis who prefer a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians to the alternative. It should be apparent that the Americans need help to extricate the Middle East peace process from a quagmire created by a failure of American nerve in dealing with Israel.
The European Union, far less susceptible to Israeli lobbying efforts than the United States, could be used by an American president prepared to offer som
Since the EU is picking up a predominant part of the bill for keeping the Palestinian Authority on life support ($500 million per year, compared to the $77 million by the U.S. government), it has paid its dues for a greater role in the peace process. The EU gives 54 percent of the financial support of the outside aid that the PA receives compared to 10 percent from the United States, which gives its money directly to the Israeli government with no controls - under congressional direction - on how the money is spent.
Giving the EU more of a partnership role, in light of the extraordinary clout of the Israeli lobby in Washington politics, would be difficult, perhaps painful for any American political leader. But it is necessary if the United States is to be - and is to be perceived to be - a true superpower. If an American leader, at the end of his final second term in the presidency, cannot find the courage to take up such an opportunity, it will be a strong signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. claim to global leadership has a hollow core.
Without any encouragement from the United States or Israel, the EU has started to move toward a more visible role. At year's end, the presidency of the EU issued a statement saying that the EU "deeply regrets the decision by the Israeli government to suspend the implementation of the Wye River Memorandum. This step contravenes both the spirit and the letter of the Memorandum. The European Union especially deplores the refusal by the Israeli government to carry out the second phase of the redeployment from the West Bank." This was a sharp departure from the usual respectful role played by the EU and was meant as a helpful nudge for the Americans.
The Israeli government predictably responded with its own furious "regrets" about the EU's statement. That was to be expected from a country whose officials have occasionally expressed the fear that having a second chairman would enable the two to gang up on Israel with a "good cop, bad cop" routine that would put Israel under great pressure to return more land than Israel thinks is prudent. But such intentional whipsawing would be unlikely given the continuing influence of the American-Jewish community on U.S. actions.
It is disingenuous and self-serving for both the United States and Israel to suggest that adding an EU element to the peace process now would somehow be changing the rules of the game in the last quarter. That view ignores the fact that the Madrid conference on the Middle East in October 1991, which marked the beginning of the current phase of the peace process, was convened with two chairmen, the United States and the Soviet Union. There was a reason for that. The Arab states, Syria in particular, were wary of any singular peacemaking role by the United States, given its track record of siding with Israel. The addition of the Soviets as co-chair was a device to bring in the Syrian government. Without the Syrians, the other Arab states would not have joined the conference, and there would not have been a peace process. By an accident of history and economics, the Soviet Union made an untimely disappearance and the successor state - Russia - has neither the energy nor the money to become seriously involved in the Middle East. Thus, the American monopoly on mediation came by default, not by international consensus or divine right.
How might an EU mediation role play out? Clearly, it would be a nightmare if the EU were to try to play twin to the American mediators, with both sitting in on every stage of the negotiations with the Israelis and the Arabs. One chair would be played off the other by both sides and the result would be chaos or paralysis or both. But a division of labor would make sense, with the EU playing the mediator role with the Arab states, as EU mediator Angel Moratinos has already tentatively started. Having the EU as a coequal partner would mean that Damascus would know Moratinos had the authority to speak for his co-chair, the United States. This would increase the chances that the Syrians, and consequently the Lebanese, would be inclined to give the Middle East peace process more respect. That would be good for Israel.
The Americans could continue to play the leading role in mediating the Israeli Palestinian dispute, with some input from the EU in terms of its financial and technical support for the Palestinian Authority. One of the incentives for the Israelis to make concessions on the West Bank would be the realistic promise of a settlement with Lebanon and a comprehensive peace with the Arab world, including Syria over the Golan Heights The new German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said on a recent visit to the United States that the EU would not be ready to take on a full role in the Middle East peace process "because the EU doesn't have a foreign policy." But EU participation would not require a fully developed foreign policy, other than the generally accepted belief that Middle East peace is good for Europe, as well as the United States. A mediator role does not require some greater, more complex design; in fact, a simple desire to bring peace to the Middle East would be a credible ticket of admission to the arena.
Finally, any policy has to be judged on its alternatives. In the case of the Middle East, a continuation of the status quo is impossible, if only because the Israeli government shows no sign of backing off its expansionist settlement policies. The continued Israeli land-grabbing in the West Bank and Jerusalem, combined with the continuing expansion of the frustrated Palestinian population, is a guaranteed formula for an explosion in the Middle East.
The acceptance of the European Union as co-chairman and co-mediator in the peace process would have the added advantage of confirming that the U.S. government accepts the EU as a full partner in global affairs. Such a recognition might help avert the next big crisis in international affairs: How the United States deals with the growing resentment among Europeans that the United States does not recognize the importance of a united Europe.