No Choice but a Bad Choice: Israel’s Quandary in Gaza, Unachievable Strategic Objectives
January 3, 2009, 1:40 am
Filed under: Al-Wahsh: The monster of commentary | Tags: , ,

Haven’t posted in a while, here are some thoughts on the situation unfolding between Israel and Hamas.

Israel is conducting its current military campaign against Gaza in order to protect and defend some half million citizens in the western Negev, who are under persistent rocket barrage from Hamas. No doubt this is a motivating factor for the current military action, especially in light of upcoming elections in Israel. However, if the goal were to truly ensure Israel’s security, then why would the government choose to escalate the situation, in turn, making the security situation in Israel more perilous, something Israeli officials expected? More rockets have been launched by Hamas, more Israeli civilian casualties have been taken, and the increased possibility of large-scale intifada-type violence has spiked since military strikes have commenced, with the possibility of further escalation.

Seemingly, Israel is, at most, attempting to topple the Hamas government in Gaza and, at the very least, punishing them severely for not going away, even while Israel is certainly not interested in a long-term presence in the strip. In regards to the former objective, this is certainly achievable, but to what end? Renewing a tahdi‘a (Arabic: calming) that both Hamas and Israel felt was disadvantageous? Israeli action to punish Hamas amounts to taking a sledgehammer to a walnut. Punishment as such, however severe, is not a long-term strategy; but, obviously, some in the Israeli government felt it was the best immediate option among a short list of other less preferable ones.

In regards to the latter objective, the jury is still out as to the capability of Israel to achieve regime change, or elimination, with large-scale military force. After all, Hamas is a movement with a large constituency, not merely one leader or even a group of leaders. In other words, if you cut off the beasts head, it may simply grow two more that are uglier and nastier than the first. Furthermore, who would replace Hamas rule in Gaza? Surely not the Israelis or the Egyptians, both of whom want to wash their hands of the troublesome little territory. Then, Abbas? Some in the Fatah are sitting back in Ramallah relishing that Hamas is now paying dearly for their takeover of the strip in mid-2007 and for their refusal to reconcile with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah since that time. However, Abu Mazen’s legitimacy has been severely eroded by Israeli military action due to his prior diplomatic engagement with the Israelis and his obdurate, if not at times hostile, stance toward Hamas in Gaza. Indeed, since the initiation of Israeli strikes on Gaza, Abbas has remained mute. Though, in a step that should be viewed as a protective political measure, the PLO has announced the suspension of peace negotiations with Israel. This is an odd, perhaps unintended, consequence of Israel’s military action, considering Israel has spent the last year and a half trying to bolster Abbas vis-à-vis Hamas.

Israel has no good options for dealing with the Hamas government in Gaza. Since Hamas came to power in Gaza in mid-2007 and the tahdi‘a, agreed upon with Hamas through Egyptian intermediaries in mid-June of this year, Israel has attempted to starve Gaza by severely limiting the amount of goods into the strip. The Israelis implemented this policy, not because they are inhumane barbarians, but rather, with the intent of demonstrating to the Gazan people that the Hamas leadership was, irresponsible, inept, and incapable of improving the lives and opportunities of Gazans. There were many problems with pursuing such a strategy, foremost among them that it did not work; Hamas’s power did not falter. Gaza’s suffering has created a humanitarian crisis that has attracted the watchful eye of media outlets worldwide. Literally, an underground economy proliferated, and Hamas had little incentive to adhere to a calming, from which they were not benefiting in any way. How long did Israel expect Hamas to lie and bleed before they attempted to improve their condition?

Israel, of course, could not blockade Gaza by itself; Gaza shares a border with Egypt. Egypt also participated in the siege, for reasons relating to its own national security, by closing its own border crossing with Gaza, the Rafah crossing. Cairo also intended to use the crossing as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Hamas. In the past year, Egypt has acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas and Hamas and the PLO. However, Egyptian mediation proposals, which Hamas officials continually claimed favored Abbas, proved ineffective as Hamas remained unwilling to cede its control over Gaza to Abbas in the name of Palestinian reconciliation. Egyptian mediation can now be said to have bottomed out entirely with Israel’s recent military action—a move Cairo is seen to have tacitly condoned, and perhaps, privately cheered after the Egyptians were publicly enraged by what they considered to be Hamas’s snubbing of Palestinian Reconciliation talks, spearheaded by Cairo. Protests and violence directed at Egypt’s embassies across the Arab world need to be viewed in light of Arab sentiments that Cairo acted as an accomplice to the Israeli bombings of Gaza. Furthermore, President Mubarak did not cover his political bases too well when he met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni less than twenty-four hours before Israel launched its first strikes.

In sum, from an Israeli perspective and those of Hamas’s other regional adversaries, military action does little to solve the overall crux of the matter, which is Hamas’s existence and empowerment in Gaza, especially if Israel does not intend to make a long-term military commitment, as Israeli officials have suggested. However, a return to the status quo ante is not exactly desirable either. Hence, all things considered, Israel is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Hamas in Gaza. If anything, perhaps Israel simply hoped to delay or prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, a contingency that may not be unlikely when Abu Mazen’s mandate as President expires in early January.

Lost in all these events is the fate of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier taken captive in the summer of 2006. If Israel had truly hoped to secure his return, it seems that now his fate is sealed. Though, in Israel’s calculation, Hamas demands in exchange for his release were outrageous, even during the tahdi‘a, which offered the best window of opportunity to ensure his release.


Two Years in Zion
August 2, 2008, 4:27 pm
Filed under: Al-Wahsh: The monster of commentary | Tags: , , ,

August 1 marked my two year anniversary of living in Israel and so I’d like to dedicate this post to some random musings about the place and my time here. Tel Aviv is where I’ve spent the brunt of my time and over the years and the city has offered me some real life knowledge from her streets, it has cradled me in her bosom and I have sought to suckle nourishment from her tit. My first lesson was the most important and has guided me throughout my stay here. It came from an excessively exuberant falafel man who yelled at me with a rough Israeli accent in English “You want onions man?! Onions are good for your dick!” What salesmanship, I thought to myself, “pile ‘em on buddy,” I replied while wondering if this wise man of Israel had any other natural male enhancement products splayed out in the serving bar of his falafel stand. Luckily, I had learned this lesson in my initial weeks here so I was off to a grand beginning.

Next, the streets taught me about Israeli stoicism, grit and determination in the face of danger. I watched a lone man hold his ground in the face of tens of halted, honking and ferocious Israeli motorists in the middle of a crosswalk that was red. He wasn’t supposed to be walking on a red, but then again many believed the Jews weren’t even supposed to have founded a state and built Tel Aviv to begin with. As the man gestured his hand to his ear, the sound of the horns swelled, he wanted more, more baby, more. Inspiring. He stood there for about two minutes, the motorists laying on their horns the entire time. For the grand finale, this man of men finished with a big middle finger and went on his way, a hero in my eyes. “That was one bad-ass dude,” I thought out loud. “He was a bad-ass,” a smoking cab driver with his window down said in agreement.

While Western in many ways Tel Aviv and Israel in general still doesn’t fit the bill entirely. When gauging the ‘Westerness’ of a country, one can typically tell a lot by the smoking culture and the laws in place to curb the barbaric practice. 14 year olds in Israel still have adequate access to obscurely placed cigarette machines and while a smoking ban has ‘officially’ taken affect, the notices typically garner the same response that they would receive in a college dorm room. Keep blowing smoke in ‘the man’s’ face Israel, it gives me Obama-like hope.

One often hears of the schism in Israeli society between the religious and the secular. I experienced this first hand while volunteering at Kibbutz Yotvata in the Negev. I was relegated to ‘dish wash bitch’ in the maznon, the Israeli version of a gas and go mini market fully equipped with a crappy restaurant. The Rabbi explained to me that I had to wash the dishes in a kosher manner. He then explained to me the time consuming process in which I was to carry out this religious duty. Then, like a T.V. sitcom, the secular kibbutznik maznon manager came in ten seconds after the Rabbi left room and told me to disregard what the Rabbi had said and to do things as quickly as possible, which amounted to a non-kosher method. So when the Rabbi entered one day and saw me making some un-kosher dishes he gave it to me. I just nodded my head, put down my dishes and left the wash room. “I’m not even Jewish man,” I told him on the way out, “don’t involve me in your inter-faith disputes. It doesn’t bother me one way or another. I just want some finality on the issue.” That job was lame anyway I was happy to walk away. My friend, who was Polish, had a better gig than me, and for a good self-respecting American that’s just degrading no matter the humility imbued in me.

So, I’m almost two years as an expatriate in Israel. For me, Israel was a new place. I had never visited before I came, never had exposure to the Hebrew language, or Jews for that matter, and my travel experience was limited to ‘Western countries.’ Two years as an expatriate. In terms of experiences, I suppose that equals about five years as a non-émigré. Living abroad you get wise a little quicker, live a little faster and learn some hard knocks about life a little more often. I’ve started to accumulate the sort of memories that one is reminded of when rummaging through an old attic, somewhat hazy, but stimulating, as if capable of providing a window to glance back at another part of your life when you would have hardly recognized yourself. I knew I was a seasoned ex-pat when I began despising tourists because they simply annoyed me, because they read the travel page in the New York Times before they came and think they know all the hot-spots in Tel Aviv. As if some columnist with a whole weeks-worth of experience in the city and an Israeli friend could really know anything about the place. Then, I began despising Israelis who took me for a tourist. I understand Israelis encounter Americans quite often but just because I speak shitty Hebrew with an American mivta (accent) does not mean I went to Jew school for eight years in New York and am now here for a visit with birthright. Maybe it’s a personal issue but Eich Omrim Traveler Beivrit (How do you say traveler in Hebrew) because that’s what I am and there is a huge unbridgeable gap between a tourist and a traveler. But, I must say, an interesting phenomenon exists in Israel. Whereas typically one would assume that if you make an effort to learn the language in another country you would be treated with more respect by the locals, in Israel this logic is flawed. Sometimes, I prefer English, my blessed mother tongue, so that I receive prompt and pleasant service with a smile. Furthermore, it seems that Israelis are often more precise in English than they are in Hebrew when providing assistance. I’m sorry but yashar, yashar, yamina, az smolah (straight, straight, right then left) tells me nothing about finding my target destination, maybe its slang. I also prefer to use English when speaking with police officers, “I’m sorry I didn’t understand the sign,” it said ‘Don’t walk on red, crosswalk being monitored, violators will be fined,’” as long as you keep on with English they give up and move on.

But nothing draws my ire like moral self-righteous Westerners who come here thinking they even have an opinion about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. My anger springs from the fact that they remind me of myself when I first got here. They have a little bit of knowledge and a strong opinion, the worst of combinations. They feel like the conflict genuinely concerns them, like it’s a burden on the world’s conscience and they are the frontline warriors for truth and justice. I have studied the conflict and have experienced it in some ways just by living and traveling here and the more knowledge I have the more I see the conflict as intractable, as a battle that isn’t really mine to fight. But maybe my apathy stems from the fact that I lack the kind of faith that requires me to give a shit about who controls any of Jerusalem’s holy sites. There is no use making it rocket science, at the core of the conflict is a struggle between two national movements over the same territory, a struggle that is infused with a strong religious dimension that only adds to the intractability. I realized some time ago that both sides are right—morally, intellectually and actually—in their own minds and that no 1000 page study will ever change or clarify that ‘fact’ for either side. Polemics in the guise of scholarship on the issue are merely intended to lend another level of legitimacy to one or the other political cause (That’s not to say that there isn’t good scholarship on the conflict out there, it is just to say that a good portion of it is political trash).

Sorry for that tirade but if living in this place for two years has taught me anything it’s that sometimes you just have to let it out. 

For the Sake of Israel?: U.S. policy in the Middle East
July 18, 2008, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Al-Wahsh: The monster of commentary | Tags: , ,

The following is in response to an article penned by Justin Raimondo on While I don’t oppose the position the author advocates (defeating legislation that amounts to a declaration of war with Iran), I find the manner in which he frames the discussion to be problematic. While the article is peppered with disclaimers and justifiers, bluntly, it suggests that Jews control U.S. foreign policy and Israel is threatening to drag the U.S. into war by initiating a strike on Iran. It appears that the author has very little knowledge of the policy debates going on in Israel and the United States. Moreover, for one who apparently identifies with a group of policy advocates that claims to be solely guided by realist thinking it’s strange that his interpretation smacks of the extraordinary.

If the administration and the Israeli lobby can be accused of war-mongering then it is only fair to accuse Mr. Raimondo of anti-war mongering. I’m not an advocate of striking Iran; I am in agreement with Mr. Raimondo that it would be potentially disastrous for a variety of regional and international actors. My biggest concern is that the manner in which the author portrays the potential for conflict is overly alarmist. Furthermore, throughout the author perpetuates some pretty conspiratorial views about U.S. decision making in the Middle East with regards to U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran and Israel’s role in shaping that policy. I take particular issue with the following statement, “Yet it cannot be denied – as I wrote before a single shot had been fired – that the Iraq war was launched, as Klein notes, to make the Middle East safer for Israel, just as the current push for “regime change” in Iran is energized by the same motive.”

The U.S. invasion of Iraq involved many considerations, some ideological, some geo-strategic, most ill-conceived. However, to state so directly that the over-riding goal of invading Iraq was to ensure Israeli security suggests naivety. Very briefly, the U.S. hoped that by invading Iraq they could:

• Establish a pro-American Iraq to act as a substitute for a U.S.-Saudi relationship that got all the more problematic in the wake of September 11.

• Further contain and confront Iran with the additional leverage of military bases in Iraq.

• Ensure energy interests and the American position in the Gulf.

• Boost liberal political forces in the region in the hope creating a new regional order predicated on good-governance and democracy (whatever the definition of that was).

As I said, these goals, and there were others, were largely ill-conceived and only plausible to those sitting around a conference table in Washington D.C. Regardless it would appear that the U.S. entered Iraq to perpetuate what policy makers perceived were U.S. strategic interests, not Israeli. If there happens to be a confluence of interests between the U.S. and Israel in some respects this need not be construed as a grand Israeli/AIPAC plot to dupe the dumb and dopey U.S. government into doing the regional bidding of the sly and cunning Israelis.

The current U.S.-Iran dispute and possible avenues of dealing with Iran is being approached from the same U.S.-centric perspective, meaning U.S. interests are paramount in the minds of policy makers. Certainly perspectives in Washington differ greatly on this issue especially in light of U.S. tribulations in Iraq. General Petraeus for one has recently discounted the notion that there will be a strike on Iran. Regardless, rest assured that the U.S. will not commit itself to a potentially disastrous military engagement with Iran for the sake of Israel alone. While Israel will act in its own security interests, it’s not likely that Israel would be so brazen so as to gamble its fate on initiating a conflict that has the potential to embroil the U.S. in a situation it might not support.

Iran’s goals since the revolution have been made clear. From the get-go Khomeini established that Iran’s primary strategic objective is to rid the United States from the ‘Persian’ Gulf in order to restore the Iranian lake to its natural hegemon. This is at the heart of the ‘Iranian challenge.’ Clearly, such an objective places America and primarily her Arab Gulf allies on a collision course with the Islamic Republic, whether that trajectory will result in war is unpredictable. While the standard canard of the ‘Jews run the world’ is often an easy explanation for U.S. policy in the Middle East, it lacks plausibility, suggests a huge overestimation of pro-Israeli Jewish influence in the U.S. and ultimately amounts to naught.

Déjà vu

Let it be clearly understood—there is no authority to wage war without Congress passing a declaration of war. A UN or similarly alternative resolution authorizing the use of force, even if it were to come, cannot replace the legal process for the United States going to war as precisely defined in the Constitution. Only tyrants can take a nation to war without the consent of the people. Undeclared war is also unwise because of the many unforeseen consequences that are likely to result. Victory under such circumstances is always elusive and unintended consequences are inevitable.

In Article I Section 8 of the United States Constitution the Framers made it explicitly clear regarding the specific enumerated powers given to the legislature: “The Congress shall have power to… declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water.”

The Framers of the Constitution intended that the President not engage in war without an act of Congress thus effectively giving the President little power with regard to conducting war—the only exception being imminent attack on US territory. In fact the Framers chose the final wording with the intent of “leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks” without the explicit approval of Congress. Beyond this limited war-making authority the President is beholden to the legislature in matters of war and peace.

Since World War II, from Korea to Iraq, consecutive Congresses have abdicated their responsibility to the President. Essentially, Congress has abrogated Constitutional law and proved their monumental capacity for both blind ignorance and political cowardice.

It should come as no surprise then that, despite Congressional folly with respect to the Iraq war, potential war looms ominously on the horizon with Iran.

Which brings us to H.J. Resolution 362. Introduced in the House of May 22, 2008 by Congressman Marty Ackerman (NY) this resolution expresses “the sense of Congress regarding the threat posed to international peace, stability in the Middle East, and the vital national security interests of the United States by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and regional hegemony, and for other purposes.” In addition to its Senate counterpart, Senate Resolution 580, H.J. Res. 362 was referred to the House Committee on Foreign Relations. While awaiting Congress to resume from its July 4th break the bill currently has 220 cosponsors and is expected to easily pass under suspension.

What’s alarming about this proposed piece of legislation is that is virtually a declaration of war—in all but name only. In H.J. Res. 362 Congress “demands that the President initiate an international effort to immediately and dramatically increase the economic, political, and diplomatic pressure on Iran to verifiably suspend its nuclear enrichment activities by, inter alia, prohibiting the export to Iran of all refined petroleum products; imposing stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains, and cargo entering or departing Iran; and prohibiting the international movement of all Iranian officials not involved in negotiating the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program.”

This is an American attempt to virtually shut down all of Iran. No where in the text of the proposed resolution, however, does it explain from where the Constitutional, moral or international legality is derived. Moreover Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation treaty and the enrichment of uranium for energy purposes is well within their legal rights. As such, prima facie, such a deliberately provocative and aggressive posture from one country towards another and cannot be any clearer sign than as casus belli.

Since President Bush first defined in 2002 the “Axis of Evil” fears over a potential US strike against Iran have steadily risen. For the last several weeks if not for months we have heard a lot more talk about either Israel and/or the United States attacking Iran. Despite last year’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which declared that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that there was no evidence that they were then enriching uranium for weapons purposes, both the US and Israel continue to aggressively discuss a preventative war with Iran without negotiations or talks.

Of course Congress will point to a clause buried within the text of the legislation which stipulates that “whereas nothing in this resolution shall be construed as an authorization of the use of force against Iran.” So there it is: saber-rattling. While the US may talk tough, the legislation prohibits the use of force against Iran.

Sound familiar? It should. In 1998 Congress passed a similar resolution with similar language. This time, however, it was directed to Iran’s neighbor to the west. House Resolution 4655 which was subsequently signed by then President Bill Clinton into US Public Law 105-338 was known as the “Iraq Liberation Act.”

The law, yes, US Public law, stated that “it should be the policy of the United States to seek to remove the Saddam Hussein regime from power in Iraq and to replace it with a democratic government.” In addition to the removal of Saddam Hussein from power it provides additional provisions, among many, for “grant assistance for radio and television broadcasting to Iraq”; that “no assistance under this section shall be provided to any group within an organization designated in accordance with section 5 which group is, at the time the assistance is to be provided, engaged in military cooperation with the Saddam Hussein regime”; and “urges the President to call upon the United Nations to establish an international criminal tribunal for the purpose of indicting, prosecuting, and imprisoning Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi officials who are responsible for crimes against humanity, genocide, and other criminal violations of international law.”

At the end of this particular bill it states that “Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces (except as provided in section 4(a)(2)) in carrying out this Act .” Section 4 (a)(2) deals with weapons transfers from US stocks to help aid and train anti-Saddam groups.

Of course we all went on and listened for years to the rhetoric and the propaganda inundating us about the dangers of Iraq, the threat it posed to US national security and its WMD programs. But the 1998 resolution wasn’t good enough. And yet once again, without a clear declaration of war, despite its Constitutional mandate, Congress gleefully signed away its responsibility—believing that it could support the war but remain unaccountable. In 2002 Congress passed H.J. Resolution 114 and President Bush signed Public Law No. 107-243 more affectionately known as “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.”

Congress went from prohibiting any use of force in 1998 to declaring in 2002 that “the President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to…(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq.”

This is unbelievable. Despite everything that has happened in Iraq, record energy costs, increasing violence in the Middle East and the laughable threat that Iranians pose to the United States it is unfathomable that the US is on the verge of attacking Iran. More worrisome is that American politicians from both the right and the left have refused to remove all options from the table—up to and including a nuclear first strike on Iran.

If the severity of the “threat” of Iraq wasn’t true then it’s hard to believe now that Iran—who fought Iraq to a STANDSTILL over the course of 8 years—poses a similarly over-hyped threat today. The United States must look at this carefully and realize it cannot go to war under false, overblown or frivolous conditions. More importantly members of the United States Congress should fulfill their most sacred duty: to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

One Thing Leads to Another: Conflict and Linkage in the Middle East

While in Jordan about a month ago some friends and I were sitting around chatting politics when one Jordanian put it to me. Come on man, he asked, is not the resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict the ultimate fix for the region? His question suggested that he ascribed to a commonly held belief in linkage. That is that conflicts in the Middle East are intertwined and the resolution of one can lead to the resolution of them all and that the Israeli-Arab conflict represents the keystone crisis which needs to be resolved if others are to be remedied, a sort of domino theory in reverse. Far from just a common sentiment on the street, linkage has been adopted as a widely perpetuated mantra for policy makers, academics, and interested observers alike when thinking about conflict resolution in the Middle East.

So how credible is this belief in linkage? Well, it’s much like religion in that the theory’s credibility is largely a matter of faith. When thinking of the issue I always recall a terse quip I heard from a professor at TAU a while back, “What? You think if the Arab-Israeli conflict is finished tomorrow, even if Israel never existed or ceases to exist today, that all the Arabs will pick up their guitars and start singing ‘let’s all get along.’ Not gonna happen.”

An interesting dialogue concerning the linkage theory has recently taken place on MESHnet. Martin Kramer drove the point home that linkage theory is, in a very rigid sense, mythical. He also argues rather convincingly that an overzealous belief in linkage is perpetuated by those who simplify the region by thinking about it in terms of the European system and its successful reordering since World War II. He created a list of nine contemporary “clusters of conflict” existing in the region that he largely considers to exist independent of one another (see article for details). Kramer makes a valid point. Crises in the Middle East are not always connected along a linear path and certainly don’t all lead to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obviously, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was not caused by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a sectarian Sunni-Shia rivalry or the regional Islamist challenge to state governments, fair enough. However, conflicts in the region suggest a higher degree of permeability in the region than Kramer lets on.

If we are to use the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as an example again we can say it very generally occurred as a result of an inter-Arab crisis that involved irredentist Iraqi claims harbored since the formation of the Arab state order in the wake of World War I. But Iraq’s nearly decade-long conflict with Iran certainly impacted Sadaam’s decision to move on Kuwait. Sadaam felt slighted by the unenthusiastic support he received from the Arab Gulf states in return for his sacrifice. Iraq had just fought an excruciating war, was bankrupted and had nothing to show in return, the port at Umm Qasr remained the country’s only access to the precious waters of the Gulf. So while the Persian-Arab conflict was not a primary cause for Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait, the two seemingly separate conflicts proved permeable. Another example of the permeability of conflicts is the link between Iran’s regional rise and the revival of intensified Shia-Sunni antagonisms in the Arab world. The Arab-Persian conflict is intimately bound up in the Shia-Sunni conflict across the region. A primary contemporary example of this connection is Iraq. Arab Sunni states refuse to support the Shia government in Baghdad due to their conviction that it is subservient to Tehran. So not only would the Sunni Arabs be losing a principal bulwark to the Shia (Iraq being the first Arab state with a Shia government) but it is assumed that Iran would be granted unprecedented influence in the Arab East as well. Any gain for the Shia is perceived as a gain for Iran, hence for Sunni Arabs Iraq amounts to a zero sum game on both the Shia-Sunni and the Arab-Persian fronts. So, the relationship between regional conflicts, it would seem, far from being directly linked, are also by no means disconnected. Rather, they more closely mirror relations among cousins—some are closer to others while yet some remain distant relatives.

Toward an American Foreign Policy in the Middle East
June 24, 2008, 2:26 pm
Filed under: Publius | Tags:

The American Foreign Policy

In determining the role foreign policy plays with respect to the United States and the Middle East one must first briefly define the proper role of the American government in conducting foreign policy. One should also note that any cursory glance of the foreign policy emanating from the United States—past or present—should always be measured against the origins and narrowly defined goals of foreign affairs explicitly created by America’s Revolutionary generation.

Government, in a free society and as envisioned under the American conception, is instituted among men to ensure their liberty. A national government (read: American government) essentially serves two functions: equal protection under the law and to provide national defense in order to protect state sovereignty. Beyond these two very specific and reasonable goals government serves no function other than to undermine liberty.

While often overlooked, it is essential that the proper role of government always be squarely in mind when debating American foreign policy. To ignore or omit the functional limitations of foreign policy with respect to the charge entrusted the Federal government is to do grave harm to the American system. Based on this understanding of the function of American government in foreign policy international affairs based on American liberty can be thus established.

In order to gather a clear picture of the original intent and conduct of US foreign affairs one need only turn to the American Founding Fathers and first few presidents. The Founders’ words were clear. The American Revolutionary generation, having been subjected to colonial rule and acutely aware of the disastrous wars which routinely consumed Europe, were steadfastly against involvement in the affairs of other countries—especially their internal politics. The architects of the American Revolution, happy to be free of the endless European wars, made peace and neutrality a hallmark of the newly minted government.

In April 1793 US President George Washington issued the most forceful statement of the posture the fledgling Republic he wished it forever take with regard to its foreign affairs. As war was raging in Europe, Washington issued his famous Proclamation of Neutrality. In it he declared that it was the “duty and interest of the United States require, that they should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers.” The President went on declare that any US citizen acting on behalf of any of the European powers would be subject to criminal prosecution.

Chief among dangers to neutrality, in their minds, was that of political alliances. Who are America’s permanent friends and enemies? Should America have permanent friends or enemies? Approaches to these foreign policy questions were and are at the heart of any serious debate over what the United States should be.

In 1796, in his farewell address, President Washington made explicitly clear his position on the matter, “The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. . . . ‘Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent Alliances, with any portion of the foreign World,” and continued by warning his countrymen that wisdom lies in “constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and of yet being reproached for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.”

In his 1801 inaugural speech, President Thomas Jefferson further elaborated the US position with respect to foreign affairs: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”

In a speech delivered to the United States House of Representatives in 1821, former President and then Secretary of State John Q. Adams gave a moving, powerful speech that should have laid any doubts to rest as to how the Framers viewed the practice and conduct of US foreign policy.

In his speech Adams said that, “America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights. She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit. America’s glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.”

America, Washington argued, should set an example for the rest of the world by pursuing peace, commerce, paying its debts and resisting frequent pressures to go to war. As human beings are almost instinctively hardwired for war, he knew this would be a difficult standard to abide by, but urge his fellow countrymen to try, “observe good faith and justice towards all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct, and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?”

Washington’s address came at a pivotal time in US history as the country was deeply divided over participation in European war. Its relevance should not be lost on Americans today as the US remains at another pivotal point in which American citizens are again divided over the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and one on the horizon with Iran. Since the Middle East is currently the flashpoint of contemporary US foreign policy it is to the same region we can look to the past in order to understand how far the United States has strayed from its original foreign policy.

American Foreign Policy and the Middle East

America’s involvement with the Middle East is nothing new; in fact the sultan of Morocco, Sidi Muhammad bin ‘Abdallah, is claimed to have been the first head of state to recognize American independence in December 1777. From its infancy, however, the fragile, young American Republic faced many challenges and perils but going back to 1776 the United States faced both the world and the Middle East alone.

Prior to July 4th, American ships sailed the seas comfortable in the knowledge that its merchant vessels were protected by then history’s greatest naval power: Great Britain. When British protection evaporated America faced a serious threat and it came from the Middle East. It came, specifically, from the North African region of Maghreb. The area embraced four states: the independent empire of Morocco and the three semi-autonomous Ottoman provinces or regencies of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli (present day Libya). All four were pirate kingdoms, known to the US as the Barbary States.

For about 600 years, from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Barbary pirates attacked European merchant ships, taking thousands of prisoners, and selling them as slaves. In fact, the Barbary nations considered themselves to be at war with any nation that had not negotiated a “peace treaty” with them for a sum of money—the United States being one such country. Early colonial Americans also fell victim to pirate attacks, the first being recorded in 1628, only eight years after the Plymouth landing, with recurrences throughout the century. Of the 390 English captives ransomed from Algiers in 1680, eleven were residents of New England and New York.

Much like today, the Middle East played to both American fantasies and fears; it had long been known to Americans as hostile area. Anti-Islamic tracts with names like “The Nature of the Impostor Mohamat” were widely circulated throughout the colonies. While faith and fantasy has characterized a great deal of the American-Middle Eastern relationship, the Barbary issue was not about faith, however, or fantasy, but simply about power. The pirate attacks drove up insurance rates and deterred foreign merchants from shipping on American boats. In turn, the country’s economy, already fragile, reeled.

What differed, however, is that the threat coming from the Middle East was real, it was serious and it was an occasion in which American intervention in the region could be justified. America was on her own, facing a fundamental threat not only to her economy and international standing, but to her very existence as a state. While many American politicians, John Adams included, felt that bribing the Barbary States would bring closure to the situation; they, however, grossly underestimated the price which would be required to pay and were unable to pay off the pashas.

The United States, at the time, was just then beginning to coalesce into a new nation and the powers of the Federal government were very much debated. The Continental Army and Navy, having been depleted by the Revolutionary War, were in no position to confront the Barbary States.

It was not until the presidency of Thomas Jefferson that the US had a navy that could effectively confront the Barbary threat. Prior to Jefferson’s tenure, under the Adams’ administration, the United States had signed and ratified in the Senate the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796.

While the US and the Barbary States continued to fight on and off until 1815 when the Barbary States finally acquiesced to American insistence that Barbary pirate no longer threaten their commercial interests, under threat of all-out war, the principles enshrined in the treaty, particularly Article XI, clearly support the original intent of the Founder’s view of foreign policy as it applied to the Middle East, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

While current stereotypes and trends prevailed as much then as they do now, what is different is that American leaders understood that the dispute between the US and the Barbary states was clearly a United States national security threat and dealt with appropriately. It was not as an ideological crusade, not a pretext for a war with no clear goals nor did the US intend to occupy a foreign country. America simply honored its stated foreign policy aims.

The Future of American Foreign Policy in the Region

Following the Barbary Wars up until the end of the 19th century America followed the advice of the Founders. But beginning with the Spanish-American war in 1898 right up through the Cold War into present day the US has since positioned itself as a global hegemonic power, despite clear warnings from the Founders that such a position is untenable and would lead the American Republic to ruin. So if over 70 years of activism specifically in the Middle East has not produced a better American foreign policy, how should America proceed? The United States should do less; it should return to its original foreign policy of nonintervention. It should practice a “grand strategy of restraint,” as MIT’s Barry Posen has suggested or some variation on such a theme.

Despite claims to the contrary current threats to the United States are not existential; threats to US sovereignty are nonexistent—not even from China, Iran or North Korea; American continental sovereignty is and will remain secure. Given that the Soviet Union does not exist and the Cold War is over American troops abroad should begin returning home and US military bases deconstructed. There is no position that could justify their continued presence in over 130 bases around the world which, in many cases, incites more hatred against the United States than anything else. Moreover, the Founders were deathly afraid of maintaining standing American armies as they become cause for increased taxation and larger, more centralized national government.

In addition the threat from Islamic radicals is not a geopolitical threat. Islamic radicals, Al Qaeda in particular, cannot destroy the United States and it would be wise to stop suggesting that they can. But if understanding how much US policy plays in fueling the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, one can assume there are deeper forces feeding Islamists than interpretation of religious texts and it would be wise to acknowledge as much. Essentially, Posen argues, Al Qaeda is not the problem, but an example stemming from global disorder and disaffection. The condition is the problem in which “American power and actions over the years have done a good deal, albeit inadvertently, to cause, but cannot now easily or by themselves redress.”

As many scholars, media analysts and both current and former US policy makers who have not forgotten what America stands for have indicated—from Chalmers Johnson, Robert Pape, Ron Paul, Paul Craig Roberts and Michael Scheuer—it is high time US policymakers, the media and the US public abandon the tired assertion that the United States was attacked because it is rich and free and instead try to understand the specific motivations of those who attacked the US. They attacked the US because of policies America has and is continuing to pursue in the Middle East. And, they say, to ignore this immutable fact is to do so at their own peril.

The solution, therefore, is aligning US foreign policy with its values and interests.

Instead of focusing on exporting democracy, which the US lacks sufficient knowledge to accomplish in any event America should allow the right of self-determination and stay out of the internal affairs of other nations as the Founders proposed more than two centuries ago. As Scheuer eloquently notes, “America’s democracy is not an exportable commodity; it is unique to the United States and the product of 800 years of heroes and villains, war and civil war, racial strife and racial reconciliation, and foolishness and common sense… it is grounded in Britain’s political experience, Scottish commonsense philosophy, British common law, Calvinist Protestant Christianity, and the absolute requirement of an educated populace to evaluate—and when necessary check—the policies, ambitions, and greed of elected officials.”

The US should lead its own country and avoid international leadership wherever possible. It must also shrug off the legacy of the Cold War and the policies which continue to live well beyond their expiration dates—from unqualified US financial and military support for Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to demonization and sanctioning of Iran. America must develop a sensible foreign policy. A policy based on reality, traditions and common sense.

In 2007, taking his cues from Washington, Jefferson and Adams, Congressman Ron Paul (TX) advocated before the US House of Representatives a clear return to the policies of the true American heritage particularly in the Middle East, “A coherent foreign policy is based on the understanding that America is best served by not interfering in the deadly conflicts that define the Middle East. Yes, we need Middle Eastern oil, but we can reduce our need by exploring domestic sources. We should rid ourselves of the notion that we are at the mercy of the oil-producing countries—as the world’s largest oil consumer, their wealth depends on our business.  We should stop the endless game of playing faction against faction, and recognize that buying allies doesn’t work. We should curtail the heavy militarization of the area by ending our disastrous foreign aid payments. We should stop propping up dictators and putting band-aids on festering problems. We should understand that our political and military involvement in the region creates far more problems than it solves. All Americans will benefit, both in terms of their safety and their pocketbooks, if we pursue a coherent, neutral foreign policy of non-interventionism, free trade, and self-determination in the Middle East.”

The Cold War is over. Interventionism, both globally and in the Middle East, has failed and it is high time to remember the advice of the Founding Fathers. If the United States took heed of those who brought her into this world, they would remember Adam’s maxim that “America’s glory is not dominion, but liberty” and that while “freedom, independence and peace” are etched on her shield it is also her declaration to the world and the policy which she was intended to pursue with it.

The Founders of the American Republic had laid bare an explicitly clear idea of what US foreign policy is all about and the unique relationship it plays for the Republic. As the brilliant historian Walter MacDougall put it, “Foreign policy defines what America is at home and is the instrument for preserving and expanding American freedom at home. Foreign policy conducted in the form of crusades for democracy or other ideologies abroad belie America’s ideals, violate its true interests, and sully its freedom. The Founders never intended foreign policy to impose their values beyond America’s own land and waters. None of the Founders perceived a mortal conflict between morality and the national interest; indeed, foreign policy is moral when it is in the national interest.” The United States would be well-served to return to its original noninterventionist foreign policy.

The U.S.-Israeli Relationship: Is it Strategic? Part II
June 9, 2008, 8:10 am
Filed under: Al-Wahsh: The monster of commentary | Tags:

My last post on this issue proved somewhat controversial, unsubstantiated for some and downright ludicrous for others. The topic is difficult due to the fact that it is an emotive issue and many approach the subject with strong pre-conceived notions about the appropriateness of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and Israel’s overall contribution to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. Here, I argue that Israel’s strategic importance to the U.S. and the majority of Arab states lies in the fact that Israel acts as a regional support for the Arab state order, something the U.S. and regional allies have a vested interest in ensuring. Should Arab states begin to unravel, the consequences for Arab governments would be their removal and U.S. interests in the region may be damaged beyond repair.

While proving resilient, Arab states face continuing challenges to state cohesion due to many factors—the Arab state system was created out of territories ruled by various Muslim empires for about 1300 years. The borders that were imposed according to colonial interests and the states formed as a result were in many ways anathema to the pre-existing regional order. Furthermore, strong sub-state and supra-state identities have proven durable and act as obstacles to state solidarity. Until 1967, Arab nationalism served as a supra-state identity that was harnessed by Arab leaders to threaten the sovereignty of individual Arab states. More recently, political Islam has emerged as a supra-state ideology presenting challenges to Arab regimes and the boundaries of their states. Moreover, sub-state identities and loyalties to them are now being evinced in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion threatening fragmentation and restructuring of the Arab order. After almost a century of existence, the challenges to the Arab state emanating from the aforementioned factors have not been completely resolved.

So how does Israel help maintain the current Arab order? An historical example that comes to mind would be Israel’s safeguarding of Jordan against a Syrian invasion in 1970-71 when King Hussein was struggling to expel the PLO from Jordan. Had Israel not threatened an attack on Syria, the Syrians may have felt unhindered to move into Jordan. In the name of the Palestinian struggle, Syria also sought the removal of the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy in order to establish their hegemony in what was viewed as a natural sphere of Syrian influence. In this case Israel was the only regional deterrent capable of staving off Syrian intervention. Israel’s unique strategic position in this case was realized by Nixon and Kissinger and raised Israeli strategic prestige for many in Washington.

More recently, Israel and the anti-Shi’i and anti-Iranian Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have common ground in the struggle to stem the rising tide of regional challengers: Iran and its proxies in the region seeking to destabilize and possibly overturn the regional order. Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006 serves as a prime example. The status quo Arab states tacitly condoned Israel’s attempt to destroy Hezbollah and were perhaps frustrated that they didn’t do a better job. Why? Israel’s war against Hezbollah was virtually a war against Iran and its influence in Arab Lebanon. While the Arabs protested the excessive tactics used by the Israelis, Nasrallah was blamed for inciting the conflict and bringing war to Lebanon. Most urgently, Hezbollah threatens to ensconce Lebanon, a founding member of the Arab League, in the Iranian orbit. Such a prospect is unacceptable to the status quo Arabs and potentially devastating for regional order. Hence, Israel, the U.S. and the status quo Arabs all have a vested interest in buttressing the pro-Western coalition in Lebanon.

Israel is also trying to contain Hamas, an actor whose aspirations far exceed those of the Palestinian national struggle, by supporting Fatah and applying harsh measures against Gaza in an attempt to discredit Hamas (one can certainly contest the effectiveness of this strategy). While Fatah still holds sway in the West Bank, the strength of their military forces is semi-ambiguous. What, for example, would happen to Fatah if Israel evacuated completely from the West Bank? Would they fall to Hamas as quickly as they did in Gaza? The presence of the IDF in the West Bank makes a Hamas takeover there more difficult as Israel and the PA continue to work towards an agreement. The U.S. has a strong stake in playing a role in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli crisis and one could surmise that a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian national project in all of the Palestinian territories would mean a degeneration of the conflict back into a zero-sum game.

In sum, Israel is a strategic ally for the U.S. and status quo Arab states in that it seeks to maintain the legitimacy of the current Arab order in the face of regional forces seeking to destabilize it, albeit for its own selfish reasons of being. In a time when the fate of Arab Iraq is indiscernible and Iranian influence in the region is at a level like no time in centuries, Arab states looking to maintain their rule, and the Arab order in place since the early 1920s, are not looking to Israel as their greatest threat. On an emotional and ideological level, Arab states and their populations are hostile to the existence of Israel and always will be. Hence, U.S. favoritism towards Israel damages America’s reputation in the Arab world but this doesn’t necessarily translate into irreparably harming America’s strategic interests. If anything, all the governments of the region are firmly embedded in the U.S. orbit with the exception of Syria and Iran and their sub-state clients. Radical forces that have arisen in the Arab world to oppose U.S. interests cannot simply be blamed on American support of Israel, though it is certainly a factor. Keep in mind that among Bin Laden’s many grievances foremost among them was the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, troops that were deployed there at the request of the Saudi ruling family to correct the disruption in the Arab state order brought about by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In terms of obstacles facing U.S.-Arab relations, the close U.S.-Israeli relationship is but one of many.