Bush’s Middle East Train Wrecks
Someone once observed that watching the Bush/Cheney regime conduct its global war on terror is like witnessing multiple, simultaneous trainwrecks in slow motion. Despite all the warnings that this misleading framework distorts reality and could lead to disaster, Team Bush just blows by the stop signs and continues until it crashes into reality, causing one catastrophe after another. The destruction caused by this flawed policy framework is strewn all over the Middle East — Lebanon, where Bush and Condi Rice foolishly encouraged Israel’s ill conceived war against Hezbolla but managed only to weaken the Lebanese government, Iraq, and now Palestine.
For months, we’ve been watching the endless trainwreck in Iraq, where instead of applying the brakes, reversing or even switching tracks, the President forced his generals to add more locomotives and passenger cars for a “surge” that was supposed to make everyone safer and provide a context for reconciliation. Story after story this past week suggested the surge is not working, that we’re planning an endless occupation, that the Iraqis are making no progress on benchmarks and that violence has not declined but merely shifted, while US casualties continue to mount. On PBS’ Newshour last night, New York Times reporter Edward Wong explained that the warring factions are now just waiting for the US to leave so that they can have the final battles for total victory each believes is now within its grasp. Blowing up mosques on both sides will only make each side more determined.
Now another predictable trainwreck has occurred in Palestine, where the militant Hamas forces in Gaza overwhelmed forces loyal to the Palestinian President’s Fatah party, effectively splitting control of Palestine and threatening a wider civil war. It’s not clear whether either Israel or the US sought this outcome, but it does seem the inevitable result of a flawed policy that viewed Palestinian factions as either “moderates” (Fatah) who can be talked to or “terrorists” (Hamas) who can only be suppressed or killed. From Glenn Kessler’s WaPo article:
. . . analysts said yesterday that this strategy of dividing the moderates from the extremists — which was the core of Bush’s 2002 speech — proved ineffective and may have led to the dilemma facing the administration.
“The less we try to intervene and shape Palestinian politics, the better off we will be,” said Robert Malley, an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the International Crisis Group. “Almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged.”
Starting from its flawed “moderates vs terrorists” framework, the Bush Administration seized upon the absurd notion that the way to handle the proud but historically repressed and now well armed, well trained and very angry Palestinians was to isolate, humiliate and strangle them into submission. It did this by organizing financial boycotts and encouraging the Israelis to withhold Palestinian tax revenues as a way to punish the Palestinian President’s willingness to work with Hamas. In Bush/Cheney’s delusional world a “starve and humiliate” policy would convince Palestinians to reject the terrorist faction. But the most predictable outcome of humiliating people is that the most militant of them will rebel and overrun the weaker “moderates,” especially if those moderates are viewed as collaborating with their enemies who are humiliating them. Could anything have been more predictable?
Any rational person could have predicted that such a policy would simply unite the population against the US and Israel, weakening Israeli security and destroying what little remaining influence the US might have had as an honest broker. As we’ve learned in Iraq, when you treat people like terrorists, some of them start to believe you and act accordingly. But there is no one left in the Administration who can hear these counter arguments, and none of the Presidential front runners in either party gets it either, so the Bush/Cheney regime continued full speed down this deadend track.
We will never know what Hamas might have done if treated differently, because US policy has done everything it could to isolate Hamas and punish anyone who worked with them. Because Fatah agreed to work with Hamas, the US supported Israel’s refusal to turn over Palestinian tax revenues, now totaling over $500 million, effectively preventing the government from providing essential public services. It did nothing to discourage the Israelis from intruding into Gaza, undermining civil authorities. It dissed Saudi efforts to create a unity government, and did nothing to support Egyptian efforts to bring about ceasefires, even when it became clear that the Palestinians were sliding towards the civil war that Jordan’s King Abdullah had warned about last winter.
But the critical step was the first one: refusing to recognize Hamas as legitimate, even though Hamas won the January 2006 elections that the US urged them to hold, and then insisting that Hamas meet conditions that should have been the subject of negotiations rather than preconditions for starting talks. The US and Israel argued that the Israelis should not have to negotiate with Hamas until Hamas renounced violence and acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Hamas refused to do so explicitly but agreed at one point to be part of a Palestinian government that would uphold previous agreements between the PLO and Israel, an implicit but ambiguous recognition.
Such semantics can be important face saving mechanisms between distrustful opponents, and wiser heads in another era might have seen this as an opportunity to begin discussions that might eventually bring Hamas to a better understanding of the benefits of talking. We will never know. Israel was not willing to save the face of those raining rockets on its settlements, and Hamas was not willing to forego whatever leverage and self pride the rockets provided, and so a possible opportunity to avoid the far worse violence to come was missed. Missed opportunities look pretty good in hindsight.
US policy has always honored Israeli insistence on recognition, but one can also understand the Palestinian view that Israeli governments can be just as stubborn in refusing to renounce violence against them or to recognize the Palestinians’ right to an honorable existence. Those who are irrevocably committed to violence and eliminating the other are not confined to one side. But for everyone else, wiser heads — in a less reckless US administration — would have seen that these are precisely the matters both sides should be discussing and not fighting about.