The Region: Baker's stale ideas

Such reports have a lot more to do with Washington debates than with Middle East realities.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
Reading the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq reminds me of a weird experience I once had. I've never told anyone about it before, but I'm going to share it with you to show the underlying problem with that panel's conclusions. Many years ago I was participating in a blue-ribbon panel on future US foreign policy in the Middle East. This group's bipartisan members came up with a report that was a compromise, but with a strong strategic theme. Best of all, it recognized how the region's actual situation ensured that not much could be accomplished there. We were all staying at a country conference center, and the evening before the press conference announcing the conclusions I went to my little room. To my astonishment, the walls were paper-thin and I could hear everything happening next door. It just so happened that the room's occupant was a man hoping to be the next president of the United States. (Don't try guessing - it isn't who you think.) He was deep in conversation with another person, a senior consultant to the group who pretended to be knowledgeable about the Middle East. The basic point of the dialogue was that the consultant was urging him to spin the report's conclusions in a direction that would benefit him politically. And, sure enough, next day at the press conference the politician totally distorted all the thinking that had gone into the report. The other participants were startled, but nobody said anything. The politician never got to be president, but the adviser did get a very senior ambassadorship in the next administration. I'M NOT suggesting that secretary of state Jim Baker or former congressman Lee Hamilton distorted the Iraq Study Group Report. Far from it. But I am suggesting that Baker has learned nothing in the dozen years since he left office; and I am also pointing out that such reports are far more the result of maneuver than of either common sense or creative thinking. And they have a lot more to do with Washington debates than about Middle East realities. Let's focus on what the report says about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It ignores the experience of the last dozen years, and throws in just about every mistaken clich on the issue. One would think the conflict remained unresolved simply because the US had not tried hard enough. The section on this issue is just silly. The great minds, the senior statesmen, the best and brightest get together, and on this question at least - I'm leaving the issue of Iraq itself out of the discussion for the moment - the result is drivel. Not because it is politically bad, but because it is a bunch of slogans with limited links to reality. THE REPORT concludes that: 1. The Arab-Israeli conflict is inextricably linked to Iraq. Really? I can't think of a single issue in the region it is less linked to. Iraq is about an internal struggle for power. The radicals are not extremists because of the conflict. By regional standards, nobody in Iraq even talks much about the conflict. This is repeating a mantra, not looking at the facts. 2. The most important thing right now is for everyone to negotiate since it was the breakdown in talks that led to violence. Wrong again. It was the refusal to make an agreement that led to the breakdown in talks, and to violence. The extremists don't want serious talks because they want victory, not compromise; or, to put it another way, the kind of gains they want are not those achieved by bargaining (West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state, return of the Golan Heights) but by fighting (demagoguery, holding onto power, destroying Israel). In this context, negotiations lead to violence because the extremists want to ensure the talks don't succeed. Unfortunately, those radicals include both the Palestinian and Syrian leaderships. Like it or not, there can be no diplomatic progress until the radicals are defeated. 3. A negotiated peace would strengthen Mahmoud Abbas. Do these people pay any attention to the Middle East? To obtain peace, Abbas would have to make concessions. Making the needed concessions would destroy him. To make peace, Abbas would have to enforce law and order as well as stopping terrorism. He is incapable of doing that. To get a peace treaty, Abbas would need to suppress Hamas, which he can neither do nor even try to do. Is that so hard to understand? 4. It is good to have a Palestinian national unity government. Get it? Have Hamas in power, have Fatah and Hamas competing to show which can be the more militant and successful in terrorism, and on top of that have successful peace talks. No wonder this kind of policy recommendation gains a consensus. It promises everything, and leaves out all the problems. 5. The key to moderating Syrian policy in Lebanon is getting Syria the Golan Heights. If Syria had wanted the Golan Heights, it could have had them long ago. Syria wants Lebanon, which is far more valuable than the Golan. And since the Baker-Hamilton reporters are pushing for US niceness toward Syria, Damascus knows it does not have to fear American pressure if it continues its aggressive subversion in trying to take over Lebanon. ANY COLLEGE undergraduate who has taken a couple of courses on the Middle East should understand the points above. (They probably don't because of the way the region is taught in universities, but you get my point.) What is really needed is a policy that would effectively fight the radicals and help either real moderates or those states whose interests coincide with those of the United States and the West. Instead, the report suggests that what is most important is to get everybody talking. The only way this kind of thinking is going to damage the radical forces is if they fall down and hurt themselves from laughing so hard. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.