During the past two decades, the American military presence in the Middle East has dramatically increased, yet American interests—as well as individual Americans—are more at risk than ever. The new administration must look critically at how we define security. We cannot advance our real interests in this vital region through bombing raids, punitive sanctions targeted at innocent civilians, the arming of dictatorial regimes, the denial of the right of self-determination, and the undermining of basic principles of international law. The new Bush administration, however, appears to be unwilling to seriously reevaluate the failed policies of the Clinton administration.
Like the outgoing administration, President Bush has defended the ongoing Israeli repression in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and has rejected demands that Israel abide by UN Security Council resolutions requiring evacuation of their illegal settlements and withdrawal of occupation forces from territories captured in the 1967 war. Also, like the previous administration, President Bush opposes Palestinian independence outside of Israeli strictures. During the campaign, Bush criticized the outgoing administration for pushing for a peace agreement too quickly and too openly supporting the centrist Israeli Labor Party against the rightist Likud Bloc.
What neither Clinton recognized nor Bush recognizes is that Israeli security and Palestinian rights are not mutually exclusive but mutually dependent upon the other. Our commitment to Israel’s survival should be unconditional. But our ongoing military and economic aid to the Israeli government—as with any government—should be made conditional on its respect for human rights and international law. We need to apply some “tough love” with Israel, pushing that government to make the necessary compromises for peace and to live up to its international obligations under UN Security Council resolution 242, long recognized as the basis for peace. The Jews did not give up on their dream of a national homeland for 2,000 years. The Palestinians are not going to give up after just 50. The Bush administration must recognize that Israel will be far more secure with a clearly delineated, internationally recognized border than trying to defend scattered settlements and military outposts on confiscated land amid a hostile indigenous population.
Bush supports the ongoing sanctions and bombing of Iraq, and he criticized the Clinton administration for allowing the coalition that supported the Gulf War to fall apart. He failed to recognize that it is the growing moral and legal concerns about the Iraqi policy itself that has led to the growing rift. U.S. policy has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi children from malnutrition and preventable diseases. Iraq is unquestionably defying the UN, but the U.S. has no mandate to enforce UN Security Council resolutions against Iraq through bombing. If the U.S. can take such unilateral action, what is stopping Russia from bombing Israel, France from bombing Turkey, or Britain from bombing Morocco? Israel, Morocco, and Turkey are currently in violation of UN Security Council resolutions for their illegal occupation of neighboring countries—a far greater breach of international law than Iraq’s current transgressions—yet the U.S. sends these governments arms and aid. Such policies simply increase the resentment in the region against the United States for its double standards.
One area where the Bush administration carries the potential for positive leadership is in supporting a resolution to the conflict over Western Sahara, the former Spanish colony illegally occupied by Morocco for more than a quarter century. The Clinton administration largely acquiesced to Morocco’s refusal to go through with the UN-supervised referendum it had agreed to back in 1991 on the fate of the territory. Former Secretary of State James Baker has served as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special representative to the territory in working toward a peaceful resolution. Baker, who is close to the Bush family and to the new administration’s foreign policy team, is sincerely committed to seeing a fair process in the voting in Western Sahara (unlike he was in Florida….). One hopes he can move the Bush administration to support moving the referendum process forward.
The new Bush administration will do little to enhance its reputation for being insensitive to women’s rights by its commitment to continue to support sending billions of dollars worth of taxpayer-subsidized arms and technical support to the misogynist regime in Saudi Arabia. There is nothing inherent in Islam or their culture to justify Saudi policy. Most Arabs and Muslims know this and resent our propping up the Saudi regime and other family dictatorships for the sake of oil.
It appears that the new Bush administration has no interest in curbing massive U.S. arms exports to the Middle East. This is very unfortunate. The problem is not that there are not enough arms in the Middle East, but that there are too many arms. Real security does not come from sending still more weaponry to that already overly militarized region. Instead it comes through supporting democracy, the right of national self-determination, sustainable development, and a just resolution to the region’s ongoing conflicts in conformity with international law.
Even those critical of positions taken by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice recognize that these officials are highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Indeed, they are likely to be somewhat less ideological and rigid in their policy recommendations than were Madeleine Albright and Martin Indyk, who shaped U.S. Middle East policy under the Clinton administration. For example, Bush’s support of Israel appears to be based more on pragmatic concerns about Israel’s support for American interests. He may, therefore, be more willing to push Israel to compromise its hard-line refusal to allow for the return of Palestinian refugees, to more equitably share Jerusalem, and to withdraw its illegal settlements—especially if continued failure to advance the peace process threatens overall regional stability. Similarly, there may be a greater willingness by the Bush team to recognize that current U.S. policy toward Iraq merely strengthens Saddam Hussein’s regime and threatens the survival of the very allies we claim to be defending.
Although there is little question that the new Bush administration will show no more respect for human rights and international law than did the Clinton administration in shaping its foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Africa, the Bush team may be quicker at recognizing the risks of continuing the current policy—a policy that could bring a dangerous backlash against U.S. interests throughout the region.
This assessment may be overly optimistic. Yet the reality remains that for all the fancy weapons systems, all the brilliant military strategists, and all the brave and well-trained soldiers the U.S commands, Washington will be unable to successfully defend American interests in the Middle East if it continues pursuing policies that lead to increasing anger and hostility against the U.S. by tens of millions of the region’s inhabitants. Demagogues from Saddam Hussein to Muammar Qadaffi to Osama Bin Laden are powerful only as long as they can exploit the deeply held anger and suspicion ordinary Arabs and other Middle Easterners harbor toward the United States for its policies in their part of the world. President Clinton was wrong when he said Middle East terrorists target us because of our dedication to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. We become targets when we stray from those values. Preliminary indications are that the new Bush administration will likely continue down that same dangerous path.