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A Reality Check for U.S. Policy

Are U.S. plans for the Middle East too optimistic?

November 10, 2003

Are U.S. plans for the Middle East too optimistic?

There are three reasons to question the emphasis of a U.S. mission in the Middle East. The first relates to whether the United States can overcome the deep legacy of distrust — and even hatred — past U.S. policies have created in the region.

Neo-conservatives in and around the Bush Administration like to believe the United States is a different kind of hegemonic power.

They assert that the country does not seek imperial advantages and that it uses its power for the common good. In some parts of the world, it is true the United States has acted in such a far-sighted manner.

In the Middle East, however, the United States has traditionally fallen short of that standard.

It has succumbed to the temptations of raw economic interest (oil) — and fallen prey to the narrow agendas of key ethnic and business groups.

Indeed, the very essence of U.S. policies over the last three decades has been antithetical to Arab democracy and self-determination.

For all that time, U.S. policy in the region has been driven by two at times incompatible goals: the support of Israel and (indirect) control over the world's oil market.

In fact, managing the tension between these two goals has been one of the most important and difficult foreign policy challenges of every U.S. president since Lyndon Johnson.

Every U.S. president up to George W. Bush has followed essentially the same three-part strategy: First, the subsidization of the defense of Israel and the promotion of some kind of peace process between Israel and its neighbors — and more recently between Israel and the Palestinians.

Second, the encouragement of pro-American governments in Egypt and Jordan, removing them from the ranks of hostile frontline states.

And third, the nurturing of a close alliance with the ruling families of the Persian Gulf oil-producing states — especially with the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

The first two pillars of this strategy were seen as critical to the defense of Israel — and the third to America's global oil policy goals.

However, each of these pillars has deeply alienated the Arab people.

U.S. support for Israel has done so because U.S. policymakers, in practice, have not been able to distinguish between the legitimate defense of Israel — and tacit support for its illegal occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — as well as for its overly aggressive military policy.

Next, U.S. help for Egypt and Jordan hurt, because it led to these governments' perceived betrayal of the Palestinian people — as well as to the suppression of democracy.

Finally, the cozy relationship with royal families in the Gulf is a hindrance because it has confirmed Arab suspicions that the United States only cares about oil.

America's relationship with the Gulf sheikdoms has been particularly malignant. It has aligned the United States with the most backward feudal governments of the region — and made Washington complicit in the export of Islamic fundamentalism.

In order to maintain some semblance of legitimacy with the Arab masses, the ruling elites in Saudi Arabia have generously funded Islamic reactionaries — while producing homegrown radicals bent on the destruction of the United States and the West.

The war in Iraq was in part meant to change this dynamic. It would allow the United States to distance itself from Saudi Arabia — and convince the Arab world that it cared about democracy.

Yet, the occupation of Iraq has only compounded America's legitimacy problems.

To most people in the region, it has reinforced their perhaps stereotypical view that the United States is more interested in oil — and maintaining its dominant military position — than it is in the welfare of the Iraqi people.

Otherwise, they ask, why would Washington be so reluctant to turn its power and authority over to the United Nations — or to the Iraqi people?

Moreover, to most Arabs on the street, the true test of U.S. commitment to democracy is not in Iraq — but in a Palestinian state.

If the United States really cares about Arab self-determination — and democracy — why is it so slow to aid Palestinians?

Why does the U.S. government continually allow Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to undermine the Palestinian Authority, the only elected government in the Arab world?

Given this deep-seated bitterness toward the U.S. government — and absent a satisfactory settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — it is likely that any democratic impulse in most of the leading Arab states in the near term will take an anti-American direction.

This is amply illustrated by the recent elections in Kuwait, where Islamic fundamentalists hostile to the United States swept pro-American liberals.

It also becomes evident in the growing number of Saudi, Egyptian — and even Jordanian — young men who openly sympathize with Osama bin Laden.

The fear that democracy may produce Islamic governments in itself should not be a reason not to support democracy in the Arab world.

It does mean that, in the future, Washington may face a difficult dilemma.

It will either have to accept an Islamicist government — or turn its back on democracy.

That would only further damage America's legitimacy.

Finally, there is the question of whether the region is so important to American interests that it should command a disproportionate share of American foreign policy resources at the expense of other international goals.

An American effort to remake the Middle East may be a noble project, but if it has so little chance of doing good and so much likelihood of causing harm, is it really a moral — let alone wise — use of American power?

There are arguably more important international goals than the reordering of the Middle East.

For example, ensuring the peaceful evolution of great power relations among China, Japan and Korea — and completing the process of integrating Russia, China and India into a system of middle-class commerce and international law are both important.

It is also vital to extend the middle-class prosperity that underpins European and North American stability to the emerging economies of Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Closer to the United States, promoting economic development and democracy in its own neighborhood, reducing poverty and stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa — and enlisting Europe as a partner in these efforts — are all worthwile pursuits.

All these major projects warrant U.S. effort and attention — and are arguably more critical to world order and U.S. interests than an American imperial project in the Middle East.

Adapted from a longer essay entitled Revamping American Grand Strategy in the Fall 2003 issue of the World Policy Journal.

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