The Region: Identifying America's top Mideast priority

First, President George W. Bush does not want to withdraw US forces from Iraq.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
US Middle East policy has been quietly transforming itself into the near-opposite of what it has been under the Bush administration. To understand why, we must define its top-priority issue. Most people respond, and understandably so, that the White House's number-one priority is Iraq: How can the United States handle the very difficult question of how to extricate itself from Iraq? But this is not true for two reasons. First, President George W. Bush does not want to withdraw US forces from Iraq. The wisdom of this can be debated - the image comes to mind of the obsessive Captain Ahab being dragged down to the sea bottom by the whale Moby Dick, which he has hunted beyond rational calculation - but the fact of it cannot. It is very likely that large numbers of US combat troops will remain in Iraq down to Bush's last day in office, in January 2009. Second, US policy has to take into account an increasingly confident, highly ambitious Iran trying to seize control in Iraq, coupled with the growing power of revolutionary Islamist groups, which includes Iraq's own insurgency. The number-one issue for US policy is thus a revised version of the War on Terror, which has now become the struggle with Middle East radicalism, especially in its radical Islamist form. AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, the United States committed itself to fight against terrorist forces. At that moment, this meant al-Qaida and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan. Yet battling al-Qaida directly and disrupting terrorist attacks was only a relatively narrow task, and certainly no comprehensive Middle East policy. So there was the additional idea of promoting democracy as a strategy in the Middle East. It is pretty funny that this idea of spreading human rights, higher living standards, and the rule of law to Middle Eastern societies was so easily transmuted by many in the West and most in the Middle East into ravenous imperialist aggression. But that's for another column. To summarize, US policy has focused on fighting in Iraq, battling terrorism, and trying to spread democracy. And what happened on all three fronts shifted the focus somewhat. Many people forget that Iraq is facing so much bloodshed not because of the United States, but due to the fact that terrorists are blowing people up, ready to wreck the country in order to rule it. So Iraq is not working out well due to the efforts of subversion by Iran and the Iraqi insurgents. As for the battle against terrorism, al-Qaida is certainly important in Iraq, but its efforts are only a portion of the terrorism problem, for much terrorism is also being sponsored by Iran and Syria, carried out by groups like Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. Once again, the focal point of the problem becomes the ambitions of Middle East radicals. And finally, democracy as a policy has been discredited by the successes of radical Islamists in Egypt, Lebanon and among the Palestinians, though one might add Iraq and Turkey to some extent. SO THIS brings us back to the new priority of US policy: the struggle between two groups, with Iran, Syria and a number of radical Islamist and terrorist groups on the other side. This is the defining issue of US policy and it is almost with an audible sigh of relief that all these strange and unfamiliar notions of democracy promotion, fighting terrorism, and regime change can be jettisoned for the familiar concept of a struggle between two blocs. It is thus like a conventional war, or the Cold War, or the usual formula of international affairs: Bloc A against Bloc B. Thanks for bearing with me through this explanation of how things look in 2007. Now, how to deal with it? In general, one sees two major strategies proposed. One of them, much promoted by a large element of the academic-intellectual-media class, the Left posing as liberals, is that this conflict is a mistake, a misunderstanding, which can be talked out of existence. The radicals must either have their own real interests explained to them or receive Western concessions in order to behave themselves. This camp's watchwords are: appease, explain and engage. They see the problem not only as Islamophobia but also Islamismphobia. For them blame always lies with the United States, Israel or the West in general. The reasons for this stance include: ignorance, a reaction against the Bush administration's many failures and a frothing hatred of it, fear of facing facts which require risk and conflict; hatred of their own society; and short-range partisanship against the incumbents. WHAT HAS happened in the last few months is that the administration has heeded the criticisms of its mainstream and, to a lesser extent, more extreme critics. In the latter case, it has reduced the policy of pressuring Syria and Iran through isolation. High-ranking US officials met with both. More emphasis, however, is put on helping "good guys," those not siding with Iran and Syria, against those "bad guys." Thus, US policy wants to align with the Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi and just about every other Arab regime. The democracy policy is downgraded or dead. And Fatah, despite its continued terrorism and radicalism, is seen mainly as a bulwark against radical Islamism. So now US aid is to be paid directly into a PLO bank account, along with arms and training for Fatah. In addition, US policy wants to keep European countries happy by not going further than they want on Iran while showing them that it is energetically pursuing Israel-Palestinian negotiations. The bottom line is that US policy has now become pretty much a historically mainstream one, a new Cold War with the names changed, a traditional alignment of more moderate against more radical Arabs and Muslims. The irony is that this, except for refusing to withdraw from Iraq, means it is close to the views of Bush's more mainstream domestic enemies.