America’s main strategic goal in the Middle East is to secure the supply of oil. In this light, what is the place of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The Clinton administration thought that solving it was the chief precondition for stability in the Gulf. President George W. Bush, in contrast, at first gave top priority to bringing down Saddam Hussein. This would convince the Arab world, he thought, that it had no options left but to stick with America.
The U.S. regime has begun to understand, however, that it faces a new Middle East, different from the one that George Bush the Elder bequeathed to America in the early nineties. Bush the Younger inherits a region that is bitter and rebellious; Arab public opinion has turned largely anti-American. Both axes of U.S. policy here, the front against Iraq and the Oslo process, are falling apart. On June 19, Edward S. Walker, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel–now president of the Middle East Institute–addressed the second Annual Middle East Oil and Gas Conference in Houston, Texas. (The speech is published in MEES, The Middle East Economic Survey, Vol. XLIV, No. 26, June 25, 2001.) Walker’s address presents an assessment of the hard realities America confronts today. We shall consider three of the reasons he cites for the erosion of Washington’s position in the region: 1) the new role of Arab public opinion; 2) Arab perception of the sanctions against Iraq; and 3) Arab perception of America’s bias toward Israel.
The representative of the “free world” registers a certain pique at the effect of free information among dictatorial allies abroad: “There is a new phenomenon in the region called public accountability, which we have seldom had to factor into our projections of Arab behavior in the past. The information revolution, and particularly the daily dose of uncensored television coming out of local TV stations like al-Jazira and international coverage by CNN and others, is shaping public opinion, which, in turn, is pushing Arab governments to respond.”
This new phenomenon affects the two other main factors eroding America’s position: When Bush took office, says Walker, “the sanctions regime was disintegrating in front of our eyes.” On the other hand, the Arabs placed high hopes in the new president. (“They had prayed for his victory over Gore, whom they saw as being in the pocket of the Israelis.”) And in fact, Bush did attempt a change of approach that should have found favor. “He wanted to treat the region as a whole, keeping in mind that our interests went well beyond Israel alone.” He assembled a knowledgeable and experienced team (Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld). In particular, he developed a new concept of sanctions against Iraq, “based on targeted arms control.” Yet the modification of sanctions policy has not brought Bush the expected credit:
“I just finished a trip to the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait and if there was any one consistent theme, it was criticism of the Bush administration. One reason for this was that the administration has never enunciated a clear and firm public position on sanctions relief. The message was purposefully nuanced because the President did not want to give false signals of weakness or concession to Saddam Husain. … As a result, the ‘Arab street’ has not noticed any change in U.S. policy, and it is still responding to Iraqi propaganda about the plight of the Iraqi people. This means that Arab governments remain under pressure over their relations with the U.S. because of an Iraq policy that no longer exists.”
Walker sees the Clinton approach as a second reason for the erosion of American prestige: “Clinton was too intimately engaged; he gave Arafat too easy and quick access to the White House and he picked up the phone on the first ring whenever Barak or Arafat called. Clinton did not consult with those in the Arab world whose support he would have to depend on if there was to be a deal on Jerusalem and refugees. [We assume the reference is to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. -Ed.] He didn’t fully take into account the sensitivity of Jerusalem to Islam. He put too much stock in Arafat’s ability to make decisions for the refugees, the Arab world, and Islam. It was these mistakes that the new administration wanted to avoid. This was the genesis of the quiet and calibrated engagement policy of the new administration toward the Palestinian problem.”
Walker supported this change. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the approach did not work.” Violence escalated. Snubbed by the White House, Arafat cultivated relations with Europe. He took his demand for international observers to the UN Security Council, forcing the U.S. to cast a veto–and thus further alienate the Arab world. “To put it mildly, we were all grievously irritated with Arafat. For the President, this was his first exposure to Arafat tactics and it was not a pleasant experience. Because of Sharon’s diplomatic skill and Arafat sticking his finger in the President’s eye, the operative premise in the Bush administration has been to give Sharon a chance. He was not prejudged nor treated as a known quantity. … By contrast Sharon is taken in the Arab world as a given in the worst sense.”
Let us set Walker’s speech aside for a bit and consider the sequel: The hands-off policy proved short-lived. As Bush seemed to side with Israel, shunning Arafat, the situation heated up to the point of the suicide bombing on June 1 in Tel Aviv. Israel prepared a massive retaliation. It was clear that if America did not intervene at once, the area would burst into flames. The Mitchell Report, hardly more than aspirin, was abruptly upgraded to the status of a “political program.” Bush dispatched CIA Director George Tenet to the area, followed by Secretary of State Colin Powell. Thus he began to feel the pull toward the kind of “intimate engagement” that had proved such a trap for Clinton. These latest interventions will not suffice to stabilize the region. Arab public opinion refuses to accept the American view of Saddam Hussein as villain and warmonger. The Arabs agreed to dance to Washington’s tune once, in 1991, expecting to get a piece of the global economy. When this didn’t happen, and Israel alone reaped wealth from the Oslo Accords, they discovered that Saddam Hussein, even under sanctions, had more to offer than the White House. Iraq supplies Jordan with most of the oil it needs at half the market price, taking goods–not money–in exchange (Al Hayat, June 24). Syria runs an Iraqi pipeline in its territory, earning much thereby. Iraq also supplies it with 100,000 barrels daily at a discount price. Turkey too, though a NATO member, enjoys smuggled Iraqi oil. (Ibid.) In short, the surrounding nations have begun to grasp the benefits of regional cooperation.
The Arab world views Sharon as the basic obstacle to peace. It sees America’s reluctance to pressure Israel as the cause of violence. The U.S., however, cannot so easily change its stripes. To retain its control of the oil wells, it has to keep the Arab world both undemocratic and backward. That means, on the one hand, clipping the wings of Saddam Hussein (no longer an easy task, given the opposition of Russia and France), and, on the other, maintaining a military force in Saudi Arabia, in case the Gulf regimes collapse from within. In relation to Israel, the U.S. position is mixed. Says Walker: “(F)or many Arabs in the region, the problem of the ceasefire is not the real test for U.S. policy. Even if the ceasefire holds, the question is what the U.S. will do when Sharon refuses to negotiate on any premise that could conceivably be acceptable in the Arab world.”
“More than any other single issue,” Walker continues, Bush’s public attitude toward Sharon and his “ability to stare him down in a confrontation will define how the Arab world sees us.” Indeed, America will work to prevent Israel from upsetting the region. Yet it cannot apply much pressure. That would mean to strengthen the Arab world. This it does not want, for again: it needs an Arab world that will follow its dictates concerning the supply of oil. Between these poles American policy will continue to waver, while the crises of the Middle East grow more severe.