Iraq Equals Israel?

President Bush’s Naval War College graduation speech on June 28 demonstrated, yet again, the true disarray of America’s public diplomacy effort. In comparing Iraq with Israel, the president managed to do even more damage to reform efforts in the Middle East.

“In places like Israel, terrorists have taken innocent human lives for years in similar attacks,” the president declared. “The difference is that Israel is a functioning democracy that is not prevented from carrying out its responsibilities. And that’s a good indicator of success that we’re looking for in Iraq: The rise of a government that can protect its people, deliver basic services for all its citizens and function as a democracy even amid violence.”

The reference to Israel was just passing comment, but a passing comment that will reverberate negatively throughout the Arab world.

Rhetorical Misstep

To step back a moment, do most Arabs want accountable governance that will set the conditions for free, peaceful, and productive lives? Yes, polls show they do.

Then, why did the president link those legitimate aspirations to Israel? Arabs view Israel as a colonial power, an unjust occupier of Palestinian land, and a suppressor of the Palestinians’ legitimate national aspirations. They criticize Israel’s systematic use of ruthless and brutal tactics against Arabs without regard to combatant status. In addition, Arabs also dread Israeli power. They fear Israel’s military strength, economic vitality, and technological achievements. This apprehension fuels fears that Israel seeks to dominate and humiliate the Arab world not treat it as a partner. And that, by the way, is a moderate Arab perspective.

More importantly, the reference to Israel simply validates the propaganda that Islamist insurgents have been spouting for the past few years. All Sunni insurgents (al-Qaeda, Iraqi Islamists, and Iraqi nationalists) regularly use anti-Israeli rhetoric to rally supporters and expand their base. Not surprisingly, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is at the forefront of Israel-bashing. AQI, for example, consistently denounces the war in Iraq as an “American-Zionist” plot to subjugate Iraq and plunder its resources. AQI further justifies killing Christians and Jews because they “have chosen to ‘occupy’ Muslim lands.”

Other, more nationalist groups (the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), the 1920 Revolution Brigades (RB), and the Al-Fatiheen Army (AFA)) have also used fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric. The IAI has declared Iraq a victim of an American/Iranian/Israeli conspiracy. The RB has declared Israel the common enemy of Shiites and Sunnis. The IAI and AFA regularly frame Israeli operations in Gaza and the West Bank as “horrible crimes” and call for attacking Americans in Iraq as revenge for stains on Palestinian honor. The IAI also regularly claims attacks on Mossad agents in Iraq, thus fueling the idea that Israel is actively plotting against Iraq.

Ammunition for Conspiracy Theorists

The reference to Israel in that context is a political blunder. Openly referencing Israel as a model for Arab countries to emulate is more likely to turn off Arab audiences than endear them to the administration’s reform goals. The reference validates Sunni insurgents’ propagandistic claims that the war in Iraq is part of a “Crusader-Zionist” plan to dominate Iraq and control Arabs. Their supporters and sympathizers will interpret the President’s Israel reference as proof that the conspiracy is real.

Why the president’s speechwriters would choose the write the reference into the speech in the first place is puzzling. Surely, they are aware of the way such arguments sound in the Middle East. If not, a proper vetting process involving the State Department should have raised a red flag. Surely, they also realize that their argument for reform is in no way bolstered by the reference to Israeli politics.

Maybe the White House wanted to express the United States’ enduring solidarity with Israel. Maybe, it was simply pandering to the Jewish vote in the United States. However, none of these domestic reasons can offset the damage done in the Middle East.

There is a legitimate case for democracy, accountability, and freedom in the Middle East. This case, however, is not made any stronger with reference to Tel Aviv. This case can and should be made without indulging the Iraqi insurgents in their delusions.

FPIF contributor Pascale Combelles Siegel