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(photo credit: GPO [file])
American foreign policy expert Dr. Joel Migdal recently sat down with The Jerusalem Post in Cairo to discuss Condoleezza Rice's visit to the region, the Iranian threat, and the failure of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The following are some of his observations.
You have spoken about your belief that American unilateral intervention in the Middle East is naive. Do you attribute this to a fundamental flaw in the interventionist neo-conservative ideology or is it a policy that could have worked but has been let down by poor implementation?
I also said that [Ariel] Sharon and [Binyamin] Netanyahu said it was naive, so it was not only me who held this opinion, but also influential politicians from the region. No, I don't think it ever could have worked. The basic flaw was that even a hegemonic power such as the US couldn't have the impact that the neo-cons thought it could.
If you look at imperial powers throughout history, they all suffered from the same thing in the end: their decline was because of overreach. They couldn't maintain the kind of military and political involvement that they had built in the world around themselves.
Although the US is only militarily involved in two countries, it has military bases all over the world. If you look at the US's monthly balance of trade and payment statistics, it's living on the debt of others. I think even though it's a young power, it's already starting to show signs of overreach. Past empires have never acted unilaterally. We know with the British that they always bargained with the local powers.
They also didn't have a theoretical understanding of how the reverse domino theory would work. That is, how you would change a regime in one place that would lead to regime change throughout the region. I don't want to say that it was a total failure. We saw Gaddafi make changes in Libya and Hafez Assad get scared and start to make changes in Syria, but for the most part I don't think there was a theory, nor do I think it's true that if you showcase democracy in one country the rest will become raving democrats. I think that's what Sharon and Netanyahu pointed out. The idea that democracy will spring up overnight, it just isn't going to happen.
Where do you think the influences on this ideology can be found?
Their thinking was that as with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, after the invasion cracks would appear in the facade; once the statues of Saddam started falling, there would be a mass mobilization of people and the democratic spirit that exists within people would be unleashed and this would be a creative force for building democracy and it would be a bottom-up job.
What differences between Iraq and the Eastern Bloc led to such divergent results?
The difference is that on the one hand there was a ground invasion, and on the other, in Europe there was a spontaneous revolution that took place against the communists. In Iraq, you had an occupying army after the so-called "liberation," and in Europe, no occupying army existed. Also, in Europe the state was never dismantled. As soon as an occupying force arrived in Iraq, it had to act as the police and the army. The old element of day to day control was completely abolished. What the Americans should have done was tell the police and army chiefs through third parties that if they sat the invasion out, they would be rewarded in turn, but they didn't do that. They disbanded these elements.
You mention that the choice of Iraq as the country to invade was a mistake, but do you think that it was possible that Iraq along with Afghanistan was intended to sandwich Iran in this domino effect?
The problem is that it had just the opposite effect. It was an obliterating influence on Iran's borders. I don't know if they saw this as a sandwich effect. There is no available public evidence to suggest that they did, but the effect was the opposite: It took away two hostile regimes on Iran's borders and did not put regimes in place that were any threat to Iran, thereby putting them in a very good diplomatic and military position.
Is it possible that the American government just overlooked this consequence?
Yes they did. We know that they had very few Middle East experts involved in their planning. We know that they had almost no post-war scenarios on hand. Perhaps you have more faith in government than I do. Do you think Israel has properly thought through the consequences of attacking Iran? I spoke to one high official in Washington who went to the White House the day after "mission accomplished" and said: "Let's pull out the various plans for occupation," and they said: "We have none." Maybe future historians will tell it differently, but this is what we know now.
There was also a debate that was suppressed in the US prior to the invasion over how many troops would be needed for the war and how many troops would be needed for occupation. Rumsfeld had a very low number and some of the commanders questioned that, saying that it was a population that had to be controlled. Right after, they had the fiasco of the looting of the historical museum, pipelines were being attacked, then they realized that they had miscalculated.
What would you propose to be a more expedient form of foreign policy in this region?
My opinion is that the US's role in the world has to be a global one, but it must come through working closely with regional powers. The policy of unilateralism and burning old coalitions was a mistake. You need coalitions and you must negotiate with local powers. Even with countries such as Syria, Iran and North Korea you have to engage them, but engage them as adversaries, not as friends. But engaging them means negotiation, and negotiation means compromise. The United States has already begun to learn that lesson and move away from neo-conservative ideology. Look at the North Korean case. They have been convinced to give up their nuclear capabilities.
Did compensation in exchange for abandoning alliances play a role in Iraq, and can it play a role in future negotiations in the Middle East?
This is certainly an option with Syria. There are three things to offer Syria. The question is now whether the Syrians want to take them or not. Any changes for a fragile, authoritarian regime such as theirs could be destabilizing. One thing that could be offered is participation in global processes and receiving aid. The second is the Golan Heights. Lastly, trading favors could take them off the rogue list in the State Department.
Does the United States believe that they can convince Israel to give up the Golan Heights to the Syrians?
I don't think the US can make Israel give away the Golan Heights at all, partly because right now they don't think that Israel should negotiate with Syria. But theoretically, I think if there were a government in the US that thought Israel should, they would see a process where there would be a pacification of Israel's northern border in return for the Golan Heights. That assumption would mean that Hizbullah would be cut off. That has always been the same rub between Israel and Syria. Syria doesn't say anything really, but uses Hizbullah to put pressure on the Israelis, and Israel says as soon as we see you doing something nice we will engage in a dialogue. But as Olmert has said, in recent months we haven't seen anything from Syria that indicated they are interested in negotiations. It's always about who goes first.
Speaking of fragile negotiations, do you believe that the Saudi initiative and the right of return embedded inside it can be seriously negotiated by Israel and the Arab world?
I was very encouraged by [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni and [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert saying that there is something to the Saudi initiative. Israel understands that the right of return issue was put in very attenuated terms, not in black and white terms as the Arabs usually put it. It was put as an area for negotiation. All sides understand they are not going to get everything they want from the negotiations; the Arabs have to understand that Israel is not going to agree to the '67 borders before it sits down, nor are the Arabs going to give away their cards. So the question is how you get to a process where both sides are prepared to sit down and right now we don't have one, which is a shame.
So why is Condoleezza Rice coming to the region?
I don't know. It is not an efficient time for negotiations. We have a very weak PA, a very fragile Syrian government, and a weak Israeli government which has very little room for a bold initiative. Does she really believe with a lame duck presidency that she can start a process with these leaders?
Do you think that her strategy is going to be one of bypassing Olmert and concentrating her efforts on prospects like Netanyahu?
Netanyahu is a tough negotiator, but he believes in negotiations. I think there is still a struggle going on within the Bush administration with the neo-cons who are still quite strong, and are placed very strategically, and believe that Netanyahu will not compromise, and believe negotiations are bad for Israel. And then you have those like Rice who understand that Israel needs to negotiate. But because Netanyahu is such a tough negotiator, I don't see much progress being made.
You have stated in your work that you believe that Israel can play a greater than purely militaristic role in the region. How do you envisage this happening with the weakness of the current government?
It is true that with weak governments come weak institutions. But what I was thinking of is that the Egyptians and the Saudis are crying out for a way to get past the Palestinian issue. They are looking for a coalition against the common enemy, which is Iran. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, Machiavelli said. Israel can be that friend to the Sunnis, and it seems to me that they are very well positioned to take advantage of this divide in the Muslim world.
Are you suggesting the possibility of an Israeli-Sunni coalition against the Shi'ites?
Yes. I think that it would be a coalition between Israel, Egypt and Jordan against Iran. Israel now has peace with these countries and although it's not a warm peace it has been of great military benefit to Israel and now they can build on that. If they don't come together and negotiations fail, then we might have to face the reality of a nuclear Iran.
Due to the threats issued by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that he will wipe Israel off the map, should Israel reserve the right to attack Iran?
It would be the worst military disaster in Israel's history if it were to bomb Iran. Iran has extraordinary military capability. It definitely has missiles capable of striking back at Israel. We can expect a barrage of attacks on Israeli cities reminiscent of the first Gulf War which had a momentous effect on Israeli society. The second thing to expect would be a reopening of the northern frontier with renewed Katyusha attacks, and a stepping up of military support for Hizbullah and Hamas. This would also shatter any kind of relations with the Sunni countries because they are not eager for an attack on Iran. Furthermore an attack on a Muslim state would increase insecurity for Jews worldwide.
The bigger question is could Israel live with a nuclear Iran vowing their destruction? And the answer is yes. The US learned to live with a nuclear USSR, much to its chagrin. Israel has second strike capability that can wipe out Iran if Iran attacks, and that is an effective deterrent. The Iranians are not prepared to sacrifice their whole population to attack Israel .
Is the military build up in the Persian Gulf there to facilitate a swift exit from Iraq or an entry into Iran?
I have heard that the military build up is there to help with the withdrawal fro Iraq. So that you have front line bases but you're not actually the occupying power.