Interesting Times: Rogues' game

There is a simple way for the US to defuse demands hampering the formation of an anti-Iran coalition.

October 5, 2006 12:25
saul singer 88

saul singer 88. (photo credit: )

Why did Condoleezza Rice visit the region this week? No secretary of state likes to shuttle around with no obvious result. But she could not help herself. The pull was too great. Welcome to Coalition Buildup III. The simple rule is this: Every time the White House decides to confront a rogue regime, the State Department decides it's time to build a coalition. Coalition Buildup I began immediately after 9/11. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had to go. Though the US did not feel a need for explicit UN authorization, it needed neighboring states to host US forces, and others to join in the operation. A funny thing happens, however, when the US starts building coalitions: relations with Israel tend to sour. This was particularly jarring right after 9/11, when Israelis assumed there would finally be more understanding for our position in the face of the already year-old Palestinian suicide bombing campaign. Speaking at the State Department on October 4, 2001, President George Bush said the US would show "no compassion for [terrorists or] any state that sponsors [terrorism]." But when it came to the almost daily terror attacks against Israel Bush went mushy, saying only that "in order for there to be peace, we must reduce the level of violence." This "cycle of violence" formulation equated Israel's attempts to fight back with the terrorism itself, essentially putting the blame on Israel for being attacked. The US was saying to Israel, in so many words: "You quiet things down so we can get Arab and European support for our coalition." It took Ariel Sharon's blowing a gasket a day later for the US to eventually change tack. "Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938, when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a 'convenient temporary solution,'" Sharon warned Bush. "Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense. Israel will not be Czechoslovakia. Israel will fight terrorism." DURING COALITION Buildup II, the pattern was repeated. In early 2002, as the US was again courting Europe and the moderate Arab states for a coalition, this time to confront Saddam Hussein, the pressure was on even from allies such as Tony Blair to "deliver" Israel. It soon became clear that Yasser Arafat had the US over a barrel. Israel had to restrain itself because "violence in the region" was hampering a coalition on Iraq. So Arafat was winning doubly: The more he attacked Israel, the more US action in Iraq was jeopardized, and the more Israeli impotence was demonstrated. It was then that Bush, either without the State Department's knowledge or over its objections, devised a brilliant way out. Rather than repackaging another failed American peace plan, Bush put the blame for the Palestinian terrorist offensive squarely where it belonged, on Arafat. "Peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership, so that a Palestinian state can be born. I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," Bush said on June 24, 2002. Bush's call for Arafat's ouster was light years away from what Europe was advocating, and therefore might have seemed to be the exact opposite of what the US needed to build its anti-Saddam coalition. But it worked like a charm. Flabbergasted, the Europeans did not join the US diplomatic boycott of Arafat, nor did they withdraw their financial support for the PA. But they did start speaking of Arafat as part of the problem, not the solution. Eventually, Europe started pressing for the transfer of power away from Arafat to a Palestinian prime minister, and for the formulation of the "road map," which clearly required terror to stop before final status talks began. Most significantly from Washington's perspective, Arafat's ability to derail the budding anti-Saddam coalition had been defused, since turning up the violence against Israel only made his situation worse, and no one could accuse the US of not "doing something" about the Arab-Israeli conflict. THIS BRINGS us to our day, Coalition Buildup III. Once again, Washington is faced with the need to confront a rogue state, this time Iran. And, again, voices are growing that "moderate Arabs" hold the key. Henry Kissinger hinted as much in a much-discussed Washington Post op-ed, as did State Department Counselor Philip Zelikow in a recent speech. Officially, the White House is denying the "we need Arabs to build a coalition on Iran" line. But why else is Condoleezza Rice in the region? Why is it so important to "show movement" now? The spoiler role played by Arafat during CB II was just reprised by Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah in the midst of CB III. It is no coincidence that Hizbullah attacked Israel just before the G-8 was about to decide what to do about Iran. The rogues' game is to use the conflict with Israel to distract the West from confronting them. Once again, Arabs and Europeans are demanding Mideast "progress" in exchange for their support for Washington's latest coalition. Bush's potential way out is the same as it was in June 2002: by turning the tables on those making demands of him. Bush should say, in another major address, that the best way for the Arab states to help the Palestinians is to lead the way toward making peace with Israel. Asking those who started and maintain the war against Israel to end it may seem an obvious way to pursue peace, but it has never been tried. The Palestinians are clearly too weak, too divided, and too radicalized to do so themselves. It is Arab states that have the power, through dramatic actions showing they want the conflict to end, to tip the intra-Palestinian balance in favor of peace. In June 2002, Bush showed that the way to deflate distracting demands is not to pretend to fulfill them, but to counter them with your own. If Bush made "radical" but undeniably sensible demands of Arab states, he would be paving the right path to peace. And in addition, those pesky coalition-blocking demands against him would melt away. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11

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