Sitting on the Sidelines Isn't Good Enough


Mar 11, 2002

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Time on March 11, 2002.

In the late 1940s, the United States concluded that two world wars spawned in Europe were enough. It abandoned two centuries of avoiding "entangling alliances" and took responsibility for the Continent's future.

What followed was the Marshall Plan, NATO, the European Economic Community, and—after 40 years—the collapse of the Soviet Union and history's first chance to create what President George H.W. Bush called a "Europe whole and free."

Along with its European allies, the United States now faces a similar responsibility: to say "enough is enough" in the Middle East and Southwest Asia and begin a decades-long commitment to help fashion a region that is democratic, prosperous and at peace. The region stretching from the Mediterranean through at least Afghanistan is a source of unending trouble and could be moving toward catastrophe. The U.S. has been attacked by Middle East terrorists who, if they can, will strike again. Israelis and Arabs are killing one another at an unprecedented pace. An Iraqi dictator who has used poison gas against his own and the Iranian people is racing to gain even more awful weapons of mass destruction. Iran also could be developing nuclear weapons. U.S. forces are still battling Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, democracy is in short supply in the region, and disparities of income and economic development mock the stupendous level of oil revenues. Different societies seem almost to be living in different centuries.

Enough is enough.

Western indifference or episodic engagement is no longer an option. The West cannot escape vital dependence on Middle East oil and would be reckless to continue allowing the flow to be periodically jeopardized. It cannot sit by while mass-destruction weapons become the region's coin of the realm. Neither morally nor politically can it continue to tolerate what Palestinians and Israelis do to one another. At the same time, globalization is easing the passage of various Middle East ills to Western shores; the reach of weapons now extends beyond regional limits; and terrorism is being tested as a counter to U.S. power and presence.

It seems trite to prescribe a Marshall Plan for the Middle East and Southwest Asia; certainly Western Europe and Western Asia are vastly different. But America's European vocation went far beyond economic reconstruction and development. It also entailed the long-term commitment of outside strategic weight and presence; diplomatic and military intervention to prevent, contain and stop conflict; and the understanding that democracy is symbiotic with economic prosperity, modern education, governments that earn popular support and emerging hope in people's lives.

The U.S. and its European allies should reach a compact of commitment to sort out the Middle East and Southwest Asia, however long it takes.

To the West, the U.S. must pursue an all-out effort to stop the fighting in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and a full-court press for peace diplomacy that starts now and keeps up until successful, with all the power and influence at U.S. command.

To the East, the U.S. and its allies must adopt Afghanistan as a project and make it succeed, although that country may present the hardest task in the region.

This spring, Britain is scheduled to turn over leadership of a limited peacekeeping force to Turkey and Germany. Instead, it should hand off to a major force that is NATO-led and includes Russia—a test for the full alliance to play an instrumental role in the war on terrorism and for NATO-Russia to prove cooperation in practice. The force's writ should extend far beyond Kabul. It should remain in place until an Afghan government can provide stability. And it should be buttressed by continuing aid for health, education and development.

Along with Russia, the West must also stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Iraq is the first priority. But the U.S. should disabuse itself that it can solve this problem alone. Neither can we expect Americans to give unstinting support to a military campaign with serious risk of casualties but without allies or a clear sense of what comes after war.

Military action may become unavoidable. But that must be the end-point of a comprehensive non-proliferation strategy. There must be shared assessments and decisions with European allies that could lead to shared risks and responsibilities. And there must be realistic plans to deal with the consequences of regime change in Baghdad or Iraq's breakup.

Elsewhere in the region, the U.S. and its allies should try to forestall Iranian weapons programs by seeking to draw that country back into the international community. And they should encourage Iranian efforts to end mullah dominance and to stay on course toward the first-ever religious reformation of a Muslim society.

The West should also commit to the region's economic progress and its democratization—understanding that democratic change in secular states like Syria and Egypt and religious states like Saudi Arabia will not be overnight wonders.

This vision for the Middle East and Southwest Asia—sizable, costly and long-lasting in terms of commitment—is no guarantee that sufficient reform is possible, that sources of conflict can be abated or that something akin to the last half-century's European miracle can be translated to this region.

But we do know that episodic engagement has not worked and that the dark side of globalization is getting steadily worse. We know that prospects for peace are dwindling.

Enough is enough.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at RAND, was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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