U.S. Mideast Setbacks


Sep 2, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on September 2, 2006.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (UPI)—The United States has suffered its second major setback in the Middle East—both at least partly self-inflicted and party due to faulty intelligence. The first was the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. The second was failing to judge the course of the war in Lebanon and, once it was clear that the most advanced technology could be offset by the some of the most primitive—asymmetrical, guerrilla warfare - failing to stop the war before death and destruction rained down on Lebanon and Israel for weeks.

It is time for new analysis, a new attitude, new policies, and a new way of reaching consensus on Middle East policy in U.S. politics.

U.S. strategy in the Gulf has been dominated since Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait by the goal of frustrating any hegemonic ambitions by either Iraq or Iran, two countries with regimes profoundly at odds with the United States. The Clinton administration adopted "dual containment;" the Bush administration took that policy a step further by toppling Saddam Hussein, further isolating Iran, and building a case for possible military action against it.

The continuing diplomatic impasse with Iran over its nuclear development programs—potentially leading to the bomb—reflects, as in the case of Iraq, a broader competition for power and place in the region. Thus the United States has consistently refused, despite prodding by European allies, to consider a "grand bargain" with Iran, in which the latter would be accorded security guarantees in exchange for "good behavior" on nuclear issues and ending support for terrorist groups, prominently Hezbollah.

Israel's recent military actions need to be seen at least partly in this context. One of its soldiers was kidnapped by Palestinian radicals; two by Hezbollah. It chose to respond more forcefully to the latter for obvious reasons: Hezbollah potentially poses a greater threat to Israel. But Hezbollah is also "unloved" by all regional states except Iran and Syria, and is a Shiite organization shunned or opposed by Sunni states; whereas the plight of mostly-Sunni Palestinians is a symbol of Western neglect and oppression throughout the Islamic world.

A secondary Israeli goal in confronting Hezbollah was to solidify opposition in the United States to what seemed to be flagging U.S. will to take on Iran, to the point of perhaps using military force, over the nuclear issue and Iran's role, real or perceived, in Iraq. This suited those in Washington who want to complete the work of taking dual containment to a logical conclusion of either bombing Iran or, if that is ruled out because of the horrendous costs in blood and treasure, at least to guarantee that Iran remains a pariah state for the indefinite future. (At the same time, in what could prove to be the worst strategic mistake in Iran's long history, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has placed his country in the bulls-eye by calling for the elimination of Israel).

Furthermore, by crippling Hezbollah, Israel would not only reduce risks to its security and potentially strengthen the hand of the new Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to take "risks for peace," but also eliminate an Iranian deterrent against U.S. or even Israeli military action—the threat of the very rain of rockets on Israel that took place over the last month. This Israeli objective was also consistent the U.S. views.

It all went terribly wrong. Israeli intelligence failed to foresee how capable Hezbollah would prove to be—the first Arab fighters since Israel's War of Independence to weather its military prowess. U.S. intelligence also failed to warn Israel of what could happen. Within a week after the war started, a clear reading of both U.S. and Israeli interests should have led the United States to play its traditional role in the Arab-Israeli conflict by stopping the fighting and taking charge of diplomacy. It did not do so, and as the war continued and Hezbollah continued to defy Israel, both Israel and the U.S. suffered a major strategic reverse.

U.S. interests are further at risk. By giving license to continuing conflict, well past the point in which everyone in the Middle East—even many in Israel—expected it to intervene for a cease-fire, U.S. moral authority in the region has taken a further drubbing, even in Sunni countries that had initially cried crocodile tears at the prospect that Shiite Hezbollah would be pummeled.

Buttressed by its apparent tilt in Iraq toward the Sunnis, the U.S. risks more casualties there; its standing with almost all European states has again been weakened; and the Lebanon war has surely played into the hands of al-Qaida recruiters. America and Americans are less safe than before the war began.

A serious reassessment of U.S. interests and policies in and toward the entire Middle East and the war on terrorism is now imperative. A new policy should be based on several cardinal points:

  • Give the war on terror—still the top requirement to protect America—at least equal place with winning in Iraq, by increasing forces in Afghanistan and accelerating the critical business of winning "hearts and minds" through economic and social development: a high cost but high payoff effort;
  • Press Pakistan to end its support for the Taliban and to help seriously with the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
  • Accelerate the pace of training Iraqi security personnel, studiously resist taking sides in the sectarian conflict, and renew efforts to forge a political compact among legitimate contending parties.
  • Take the lead in putting together the peace force for Lebanon and providing massive rebuilding aid to that country.
  • Talk directly with all parties—Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas—on the principle validated in the Cold War of dealing with the powerful, whether friend or foe;
  • Propose a "grand bargain" to Iran, as noted above, and leave until later a change in regime, which is more likely to happen if the U.S. stops providing political glue for Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs;
  • Recognize that, following the Lebanon War, U.S. standing, reputation, influence, leverage, and capacity to act effectively anywhere Middle East now demand that it drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to closure. This can most productively be done on the basis of the so-called Clinton Parameters that are endorsed by the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians, as well as by virtually everyone who has been a negotiator in this conflict. Indeed, if the U.S. does not do this—devoting itself finally to getting peace and security both for Israel and an independent Palestinian state—it and Israel would risk the first separation of their strategic interests since the 1956 Suez War;
  • Promote a free and open debate in the United States about all aspects of its interests and policies in the Middle East, with the U.S. media following the world media by again providing full coverage of events there; and
  • Create a basis for bipartisan policy and support for it by engaging a wide range of Congressional leaders, possibly also including one or more senior Democrats in the administration, as FDR wisely did with Republicans before World War II.

This set of proposals may not be sufficient to reverse the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East and set it again on a positive course, at a time when U.S. interests are under direct threat from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush. But it is the necessary starting point.

© 2006 United Press International

Robert E. Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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