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The great debate of the last century was over the essence of the Cold War. As Joshua Muravchik writes in a seminal essay in the current World Affairs, Americans were divided over whether the nuclear standoff originated from Soviet belligerence or mutual distrust. America was either fighting a defensive war or the two superpowers were like "scorpions in a bottle," as Paul Warnke, Jimmy Carter's chief arms negotiator, put it.
Mikhail Gorbachev, Muravchik argues, dramatically ended that debate. "Virtually the moment Gorbachev ended Soviet global ambitions and hostility to the West, the Cold War ended. The Kremlin was able to call it off because the conflict had all along been its own doing."
In retrospect, it is obvious that it was the Soviet system that needed conflict with the West to distract from tyranny and economic failure at home. Not only was the conflict useful to the Soviet regime as a cover for crushing dissent, but foreign conquests could be used to exploit other countries and intimidate the West into providing trade benefits and other payoffs. The Soviets were the last colonialists.
NOW THE Obama team is faced with what seems to be a messier picture. There is an amorphous network of jihadi terrorists, epitomized by al-Qaida, working to attack and defeat America and its allies. There are countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, led by unpopular and rickety governments loosely allied with the US, and yet which are also breeding grounds for the jihadi network. There is the Arab-Israeli conflict, which the US seems determined to resolve, both for idealistic and strategic reasons. Finally and above all, there is the potential of a nuclear Iran, creating the first nuclearized terrorist regime.
The White House seems to be torn about how to address all this. On the one hand, President Barack Obama is all about "engagement" in order to transform the world from "multipolar" to "multipartner." On the other, as Roger Cohen summarized the new approach in The New York Times, "A sobered America is back in the realpolitik game. A favored phrase in the Iran team goes, 'It is what it is.'"
The seeming opposition between the idealist and realist schools, however, amounts to two sides of the same coin. In practical terms, both schools subscribe to a Warnke-style view of the conflict - that is, that both sides are more or less equally to blame.
Pushing for engagement is another way of saying that the the conflict with radical Islamists is a misunderstanding. The idealists may be more optimistic than the realists about the power of diplomacy, but the realists also do not see the conflict as having a source that can be addressed, but as an array of competing interests to be managed.
At the same time, the different parts of the conflict form a spectrum of engageability. On one end is al-Qaida, which all agree must be fought and cannot be engaged. Next comes Iran, which the Obama team claims is worth engaging, but even the White House seems to assume will not budge without the imposition of further sanctions. Finally comes the Arab-Israeli conflict, which in the Obama team's eyes is a full-blown misunderstanding of the scorpions-in-a-bottle variety.
To be fair, it is not just Obama who sees the Arab-Israeli conflict in symmetrical terms. Perhaps to different degrees, but Republican and Democratic administrations have seen the job of peacemaking as dragging the parties into a room and pressing them to do what they both understand to be in their interest. Alternatively, they believed that the parties were not ready for a deal, so all that could be done was wait for a more propitious moment for the eventual head-banging session.
The problem is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not based on a misunderstanding. Arabs and Israelis are not interchangeable "scorpions in a bottle." The conflict has a source, and it is the refusal to acknowledge that source - rather than any failure to "engage" - that is the main reason for the failure of decades of peacemaking.
Under the conflict-as-misunderstanding model, the more one side takes "confidence-building measures," the more the other side will reciprocate. Israel has been going along with this idea for years, most dramatically by unilaterally withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005. Yet instead of reciprocating, the Arab side became more belligerent, filling the respective vacuums with Hizbullah and Hamas.
This pattern has been especially evident over the past few weeks. In short order, Obama started a fight with Israel over settlements, gave a conciliatory speech to the Arab world in Cairo and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu endorsed the two-state solution for the first time. All this should have produced a marked softening on the Arab side, according to the engagement theory.
Instead, even "moderates" like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas have come out swinging, the former saying that Arabs will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state and the latter claiming all of Jerusalem and talking about reviving terrorism.
There should be no mystery here. The pattern is clear: The more Israel is blamed or acts as if it is responsible for the conflict, the more radicalized the Arab side becomes.
The engagement school sometimes notices that Israeli concessions do not bring Arab reciprocation, but they think that they just need to push harder. The idea that pressing both sides is how you make peace has become so ingrained that no alternative is ever considered. Indeed, many seem to think that Israel needs to be pressed harder because it is the "occupier" and therefore the obstacle to a two-state solution.
There is, however, an alternative paradigm that has never been tried, either by Democrats or Republicans. The alternative is to recognize, intellectually and publicly, that the engine of the conflict is the Arab refusal to accept Jewish history, peoplehood or sovereignty anywhere in the Land of Israel.
The reason this is important is not as part of a childish blame game. It is important because the Arabs will not end the conflict that they started so long as they still have hopes that Israel will become delegitimized and will weaken and disappear. When these hopes are dashed by unmasking the true nature of the conflict, then eventually the Arab world will see that there is no alternative to making real peace with Israel.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As late as a year before that inspiring day, it was unimaginable, let alone the evaporation of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, Ronald Reagan's breaking out of the engagement paradigm and instead calling on the "evil empire" to "tear down this wall" was not just telling the truth, but contributed directly to the Soviet downfall.
The Arab-Israeli conflict desperately needs such truth-telling. Someday, the United States and Europe will, for the first time without equivocation, call on the Arab states to lead the way toward ending their conflict with Israel. When that happens clearly and consistently enough, and provided that radical Islam's bid for an Iranian nuclear umbrella has been defeated, real peace could come more quickly than anyone now imagines.
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