Skip to comments.Appeasing Arab Dictators
Posted on 03/30/2002 7:39:16 AM PST by Pokey78
The road to peace in the Middle East runs through Baghdad, not the Arab League.
THE ARAB LEAGUE, like so much else in the Muslim Middle East, has an identity problem. Created in 1944 through British inspiration, the League was supposed to cement a hodgepodge of newly created Arab states into a postwar bulwark of British influence and power. That didn't happen. The organization quickly became a cacophonous expression of the anti-Western, anti-Zionist "Arab nation," its meetings and declarations rhetorical exercises in wishful, often disingenuous thinking. Even Egyptian diplomats, who have long dominated the machinery of the Arab League, and who give the institution an urbanity not present in many of its constituent states, can privately apologize for the juvenility of its proceedings and the enormous gap between the League's version of the Arab world and the way the Middle East really works.
Which of course provokes the question: Why did the Bush administration hitch its prestige to the deliberations of this body? There was no chance whatsoever that the League would produce, as the New York Times surreally put it, an "extraordinary appeal" for peace to the Israeli people. The most fundamental political and cultural mechanics of the Arab Middle East dictated that Saudi crown prince Abdullah's "peace initiative," warmly welcomed and frenetically advanced by the administration, would dead-end in a proposal more retrograde than the one Yasser Arafat demanded at Camp David in July 2000. A quick tour d'horizon of the region should have told the administration that any League declaration would, at best, be just a Saudi pronouncement, that Syria--the only other front-line Arab state besides Saudi Arabia and Iraq without a peace treaty with Israel--would never go along with anything remotely feasible.
Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak expended enormous capital and time in 1999 and 2000 trying to seduce Syria's dictator Hafez al-Assad into signing a peace treaty. (Please recall the optimistic Western reporting, newspaper editorials, op-eds, and State Department assessment of the Israeli approach and Syrian receptivity.) Deploying Israeli concessions as his epee--the same maneuver he tried later with Arafat at Camp David--Barak got nowhere. Indeed, Barak's precipitous unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon--Iran's clerical overlord, Ali Khamenei, more accurately described it as a "flight"--clearly signaled Damascus, and Arafat, that Israel no longer had the stomach for guerrilla fighting.
The Assad regime in Syria has one overriding concern--to maintain control of Lebanon, where perhaps as many as one million Syrians now live, sucking the life out of a country that many, maybe most, Syrians consider a runaway Syrian province. A Syrian peace treaty with Israel, which perforce would entail a Lebanese accord, would require the Assad regime to crack down on the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah, whose members consider themselves on the cutting edge of the Muslim world's holy war against the Jewish state. They are spiritually, financially, and militarily the children of Iran's clerical regime, and Hezbollah has become an important arms entrepot for the Palestinian war against Israel. The recently seized Karine A, the Palestinian Authority's freighter carrying 50 tons of Iranian weaponry, rendezvoused with Tehran's men in the Persian Gulf via a Hezbollah middleman. A Syrian accord with Israel would fracture Damascus's critical economic and political ties to the clerical regime, which sees Hezbollah's war against Israel as its war, proof that Iran's Islamic revolution in foreign affairs is not dead. Most important, a Syrian treaty with Israel would inevitably set in motion greater Lebanese agitation for a Syrian withdrawal. The West, which has largely ignored Syria's occupation of Lebanon, might possibly start to focus on the Assad regime's depredations in the Levant. Hezbollah, which now lives to export its holy-warrior cause beyond Lebanon's borders, would definitely and violently focus on Syrian efforts betraying its anti-Zionist ideals. One suspects that the "Lebanese" decision to deny Arafat a satellite-delivered television presence at the Arab summit in Beirut was in part the Assad regime's way of reminding Yasser Arafat, and everybody else, who calls the shots. (The Lebanese no doubt also enjoyed insulting Arafat, who did so much in the 1970s to radicalize and destroy Lebanon's delicate society.)
And Syria's calculations aren't that different from Egypt's or Saudi Arabia's. Neither of America's Arab "allies" has much to gain--they actually have a good deal to lose--by making a real peace with Israel. In foreign affairs and domestically, Egypt's $2 billion-plus American aid package is premised on the assumption that Egypt is the Arab pillar of Middle East peace. If Egypt removes itself from the front line, then irrespective of the actions of other Arab states, war against Israel is unwinnable, if not unthinkable. Egypt is, as American diplomats are fond of saying, the great pro-American bulwark among Arab states, the intellectual and military anchor of "moderateness." Its peace treaty with Israel is thus sui generis.
However, with a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, one that banished war and evil thoughts against the Jewish state, Egypt's position--or to put it another way, President Hosni Mubarak's guaranteed cash flow--could be in serious jeopardy. The Mubarak regime's ability to politely blackmail the United States just wouldn't be the same, certainly not in the halls of Congress, if peace and tranquility broke out all over the region.
Domestically, a comprehensive peace for Egypt makes even less sense. Mubarak's war against homegrown Islamic fundamentalism--and the regime believes it decisively won its brutal campaign against Islamic militants in the 1990s--entailed an all-important compromise. The Egyptian president would allow increased Islamic sentiment throughout Egyptian society, particularly within the governing apparatus and schools, in exchange for internal peace and more explicit support for the regime from religious quarters. Also, Egypt's political class has been winking at its Arab-nationalist intellectuals, who find the idea of a permanent, normal peace with the Jewish state profoundly unsettling, if not morally repugnant. Cairo would thus have no more than a cold peace with Jerusalem. In its heart, Egypt would remain true to anti-Zionism.
Mubarak's strategy, which is the modus operandi for many Muslim regimes confronting fundamentalism, has been for America unquestionably a Faustian bargain--our biggest Arab "ally" has become the intellectual engine of anti-Americanism in the Arab world, a key factor in the rise of bin Ladenism. But for Mubarak it has worked. The Egyptian dictator, unlike Pakistan's ruler Pervez Musharraf, hasn't even made a pretense of reforming Egypt's dysfunctional educational system or the government-controlled press that spews forth some of the foulest stuff since Josef Goebbels.
A comprehensive Arab peace, enthusiastically and thoughtfully backed by Mubarak, would of course shred the social compact that has defined right and wrong in Egypt for twenty years. There is perhaps no surer way for Mubarak to spark domestic unrest in Egypt, certainly in the militant neighborhoods where Osama bin Laden was, and probably still is, viewed as a hero, than for the president to withdraw the government's seal of approval from anti-Zionism. If an individual's actions are a sign of cognizance, Mubarak certainly understands that Arab moderation in the cause of peace fuels the Islamic extremism that once seriously threatened the Egyptian regime. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the organization that gunned down Anwar Sadat and is now one with bin Laden's al Qaeda, savagely attacked the Egyptian state because it had made unforgivable compromises with Israel and the West. Mubarak waged a truly draconian campaign against them. He is unlikely to be so deluded by his success as to tempt fate again and reignite kamikaze holy warriors in his midst.
In other words, for the Egyptians, the Saudi peace initiative is nearly the opposite of what the Bush administration so desperately envisioned: Because it is not moderate, it is actually a means for Mubarak to demonstrate his anti-Israeli credentials to his citizenry and the larger Arab world. Mubarak, who appears to have no particular fondness for Arafat, stood by the chairman in July 2000 when the Palestinians scuttled the Camp David talks. He stood by the chairman in September 2000 when Arafat decided again to augment his negotiation tactics with terrorism. He actually leapfrogged Arafat by canceling his appearance at last week's Arab summit in Beirut. In so doing, he also preempted and trumped the annoying Saudis, who are once again trying hard to be the preeminent Arab players in the Middle East. In Beirut, the Saudis actually laid down their new yardstick for justifying Arab intransigence against Israel (again, the opposite of what the Bush administration was hoping they were going to do; the opposite of what the elite American press reported from the summit). Mubarak, by not showing up, tried to make himself appear above the League's always distressing theatrics. He wanted to be one with the Palestinian people in their resistance to Israeli oppression. He wanted to be for both "peace" and war. Given his desire for U.S. money and domestic tranquility, he took an eminently reasonable approach.
FOR THE Saudis and Egyptians, Beirut must be considered a success. No one in Washington is now talking about September 11. No one is talking about the instrumental Saudi and Egyptian roles in poisoning the minds of two generations in the Arab world. No one is talking about the key aid Saudi Arabia has given to Palestinian fundamentalist groups, preeminently Hamas, which sent the kamikaze holy warrior into the Israeli seaside hotel in Netanya during Passover. No one in the administration--the president excepted, of course--has stood up to issue a scathing philosophical denunciation of this death-wish phenomenon, to state in irreversible words that anyone who labels a suicide bomber a "martyr" in a "war of resistance" is beyond the pale of civilization. With the exception of the president, the Bush administration seems to want to hold itself captive to the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation--by default or by choice, to define that conflict in terms inoffensive to the Saudis and the Egyptians and, beyond them, the "Arab street," supposedly represented by the Arab League. The Bush administration's panic to have Arab and Muslim cover for future action against Iraq has left it rhetorically defenseless.
The administration is now in an unpleasant spot. Saudi Arabia and Egypt--its two heavyweight Arab "allies"--have no intention whatsoever of forcing Yasser Arafat, or any of his minions who may succeed him, to accept a settlement along the lines that Arafat rejected at Camp David. A clear-cut, maximalist position has been laid out in Beirut, a stand that allows the Arab nations to claim the cause of peace yet endorse suicide bombers. The entire Arab world saw how Vice President Cheney's journey through the Middle East predictably became a public roadshow for belittling America's support of Israel and the president's decision to do something about Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration's decision to veto a meeting between Arafat and Cheney because the chairman had failed to demonstrate his commitment to curtail Palestinian terrorism, and simultaneously to encourage the Israelis to allow Arafat to go to Beirut to advance the cause of "peace," reveals extraordinary confusion, both strategic and moral, within the State Department and the National Security Council. The Arabs are not blind. Washington was asking to be publicly kicked, and the Arab League, particularly the Saudis, obliged. The Saudi delegation went out of its way to make nice-nice to the Iraqis present, adding in its own eyes a little extra public humiliation for the United States.
Saudi Arabia, like Egypt, is a society tied in knots, both fearful and proud of its Arab and Muslim credentials. It is congenitally incapable of being a bold country, domestically or internationally, a prerequisite for being on the cutting edge of the Arab world and seeking peace with Israel.
No matter. Unless the Bush administration continues to indulge its pretentious side, the Saudi royal family really doesn't believe that it can long contradict or sidetrack the United States. If Washington pushes against Iraq or against Arafat, the Saudis, like the Egyptians, will give ground. The Bush administration should calm down. Even if it persists in the belief that it needs political cover for its actions in the Middle East, it ought to understand that our Muslim friends will be more numerous and steadfast the more forceful and determined we appear. One of the great blessings that America enjoys, and Israel does not, is that we can mess things up repeatedly and still win. The superpower advantage will become crystal clear the moment the Bush administration decides to change the debate in the Middle East, from Israel and the Palestinians to the far more important issue of Baathi Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction.
However, the administration must first understand that it can change the debate overnight, that it is in no way held hostage by "the Arab street" or the convictions of an Arabian prince and an Egyptian dictator. With one hand tied behind its back, America can turn the tables on the Arab League and Yasser Arafat, who has repeatedly tried to get Washington to obtain for him what terrorism so far has not. When American soldiers are in Baghdad, and the Al Jazeera satellite television channel is reluctantly broadcasting footage of jubilation in the streets throughout Iraq, the embarrassing episode of Prince Abdullah's "peace initiative" at the Beirut summit will prove to have been but a brief entry in the State Department's annals.
In the meantime, the Bush administration should tell the Israelis that they ought to do whatever it takes to defend themselves from suicide bombers. Saddam Hussein, if not the Near East Bureau of the State Department, will then understand that America intends to be unrelenting in its war on those who convert nail bombs, jet airliners, or toxin-laden warheads into expressions of love of God or country. If we persevere, we will also do far more for the Palestinians than Yasser Arafat and the Arab League have ever done.
That's the way I see it, too.