In April, a U.S. soldier stands guard near Baghdad's Buratha Shiite mosque.

Charting a Sane Course in the Middle East

BY Lakshmi Chaudhry

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When the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, “everything changed.” Or so people said. This terrifying post-9/11 world required new strategies, new weapons and an entirely new war–on terror, itself. Progressive critics were immediately dismissed by the keepers of conventional wisdom as deluded fools with “a pre-9/11 world view.” But, as the past four-plus years have revealed, it is the Bush administration that has problem facing the reality of this new threat.

The so-called Bush doctrine is little more than old-fashioned Cold War strategy re-jiggered for a unipolar world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, where U.S. policy consists of arming “friendly” tyrants, deposing or undermining the unfriendly ones in the name of “regime change,” and aligning ourselves with Israel against much of the Arab world. Sound familiar? Indeed, the very idea of fighting terrorists over there so as to avoid fighting them at home is just warmed-over “containment” talk. The significant break from the past is our flagrant disregard for our European allies, but this has less to do with 9/11 than the fall of the Soviet Union, which made us the sole superpower.

The “war on terror” is not just wrong-headed and counterproductive, it’s also entirely passé. Whatever the debatable merits of our Cold War strategy, it is clearly unsuited to the task of taking on the complex phenomenon of Islamic extremism. No one nation is training or arming these militants. Of course, there is a global jihadist movement linking extremist groups and their adherents. Yet the reasons why such groups are appealing to Muslims in Britain are very different from those in Palestine or Kashmir or Indonesia. Terrorism, which is simultaneously transnational and local in nature, cannot be contained or deterred in the conventional sense. The fluid nature of the terrorist threat is equally challenging for progressives, since past peacemaking strategies– such as negotiating a détente–are impossible. In the end, political and military battles against terrorism have to be fought within local communities and, more importantly, by the people who live in them.

Given the complex realities of the post-9/11 world, what would an effective Middle East policy look like? Our roundtable discussion below tackles that very question with the help of four foreign policy experts from around the world. While such a discussion can’t be expected to produce a brand new vision, it does outline the primary challenges that would face any president determined to change course in the Middle East. Their verdict is a sobering one.

Any future U.S. administration will be limited by the disastrous legacy of the Bush policies, which may well include two failed states in Iraq and Palestine. It’s clear that there is no magic solution. For example, a good-faith effort in Palestine may help improve our image, but is unlikely to undo the fallout from Iraq. And as for that favorite solution of American progressives–turning to Europe–our allies show little will to do better than us. Where some of the roundtable participants suggest that a more pragmatic approach may simply be to do less, all agree that disengagement is not an option. Those of us secretly hoping that just staying out of the Middle East will make us and the world much safer will likely be disappointed.

But there are U.S. policies that can encourage Muslims around the world to become part of a truly global battle against terrorism, which–let’s not forget–threatens the daily life of civilians in the Middle East. A first step is to abandon overarching labels such as “Islamic fundamentalism.” We must learn to distinguish those who pose a real threat from those we merely disagree with; we may well need the support of the latter to defeat the first. A second step is to play a more constructive role in the Israel-Palestine peace process, preferably in close association with our European allies. Some also propose setting up regional organizations similar to the European Union, allowing the United States to cut back on its military presence, and offering transnational mobility to those who need it most, such as the Palestinians.

Most importantly, however, crafting a real alternative to the current Mideast policy requires accepting the grim reality that there are very few good options left. As Chris Toensing points out in his companion essay, “Why Exiting Iraq Won’t be Easy,” (to be published on this site later this week) we should not fool ourselves about the consequences of our departure for the Iraqi people.

The confrontation with Iran is equally difficult. The Bush administration’s policies–the occupation of Iraq, botched nuclear negotiations– have helped secure the power of Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who shares the conservative view of the world as a clash of civilizations. Ahmadinejad reminds the rest of us of the price of “staying the course” in our Middle East policy: the threat of an apocalyptic confrontation between religious extremists likely to engulf not just the region, but the world. However onerous, thankless, or grim the alternatives may be, we have no choice but to try to do better.

Our roundtable discussion included Brian Katulis, director of democracy and public diplomacy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.; Rosemary Hollis, director of research at Chatham House in London; Yezid Sayigh, professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, who joined us from Lebanon; and Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East History at Stanford University.

Since the Second World War, the Middle East has been seen as important for two reasons: One is oil and, related to that, the region’s vital role in the strategy of containing the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and especially since 9/11, our view of the Middle East has been colored by Islamic fundamentalism. The region is now seen as the source of the number one threat to U.S. security.

These views of the Middle East have been criticized again and again by many on the left, but that begs the question: How should the United States view the Middle East, and what does that imply for the kind of role that we should play in this part of the world?

Brian, as someone who has been part of the policy-making establishment in Washington, what do you think?

BRIAN KATULIS: President Bush’s latest national security strategy says, “We’re a nation at war.” But characterizing it and framing it in this way–as he has for the last 4.5 years–has led us to use our military force improperly, to the detriment of using American political and diplomatic power. We need to move beyond this frame of the war on terror and start thinking about how to integrate the region more closely with the global economy and the rest of the world. How do you do this in a way that actually helps to affirm the desire for progress that you see in many countries like Egypt and Palestine?

What about you, Rosemary? Do things look different to you from across the pond? What role do you think Europeans might play in such an effort to reframe U.S. policy?

ROSEMARY HOLLIS: Europe’s history is intimately connected with that of the Middle East region. Were the Europeans to take a step back and see that reality, then they might understand that there has been cultural, historical, and economic interchange for centuries and that we’re just in another phase of it. In this particular phase–which is the era of globalization–you have communities in Europe with roots and connections in the Middle East and vice versa. A way forward would be to think more expansively about the overall relationship, rather than trying to see it as a kind of bilateral relationship between Europe as a bloc on the one hand and the Arabs on the other hand.

How would the United States play into that?

HOLLIS: Washington would have to acknowledge that their view is bound to be different from Europe. While the United States may be welcome in taking a lead on some issues, such as Israel, that that doesn’t mean that they are the best source of wisdom on everything or that Europe has no other part to play than trotting along behind the United States when called upon to put some cash in.

Yezid, I’m going to flip the question on its head for you. You’ve heard Brian and Rosemary. We all know that the United States is more unpopular than ever in the Middle East, but is there any desire for the United States to play a positive role in the region were it sincerely to attempt to do so? Or has there been too much loss of credibility?

YEZID SAYIGH: There’s such a loss of credibility that anything the United States does for a while will continue to be regarded with a great deal of suspicion. After all, the Bush administration has in its ranks senior officials who are committed to preventing Palestinian statehood, to colonizing and settling the rest of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, etc.

The United States needs to take a policy of least harm. In other words, it can act in ways that are less concerned with changing reality in a proactive way. Alternatively, it might try to say, “We want to avoid assisting authoritarian regimes. At the same time, it’s not our business to go setting up new people as new leaders.”

I as a liberal might welcome the support of the West or the United States on certain issues, but I also know that at the end of the day it’s only local people who are going to be able to make the real changes. The United States, however mighty it is, can’t actually engineer new political systems. We’ve seen that precisely in Iraq where the [Bush administration] went in with a certain image of what Iraq was, how it should be rebuilt, and has messed up the job on a tremendous and worrying scale.

Brian, please respond to that–you’re saying we can be a force of good and there are ways in which we can promote human rights and democracy, but Yezid is saying that maybe it’s more pragmatic to take a “first do no harm” policy.

KATULIS: I don’t think we disagree, essentially. We talk about promoting democracy and promoting institutions abroad on the one side, and on the other side we abuse detainees in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and other places. We work with some of the same characters in these regimes that we criticize to help them crack down on what is legitimate political dissent.

We need to fundamentally change our policies in the Middle East peace process, frankly. The Bush administration has unilaterally taken itself out of the ballgame and it hasn’t been a constructive force at all in helping the Israelis and Palestinians reach any agreement. We need a radical shift. That’s terribly important not only in the Israeli/Palestinian context, but in terms of how we’re viewed throughout the region. One way to do that is actually working with our allies in Europe, as Rosemary suggests.

Especially if you consider that our relationship to Israel has been the lynchpin of U.S. foreign policy. Joel, how should we reconsider this relationship in terms of changing our strategy in the region?

JOEL BEININ: The United States has–since the end of World War II at least–supported the most regressive, backward regimes in the region because they have been its most important allies in the Cold War, because they have guaranteed the free flow of oil at desirable prices to the West, because they have reinvested their petro-dollars in the stock markets of New York and London. And the relationship with Israel doesn’t directly have very much to do with that.

It’s a pretty big task to revise that. But I would begin with Palestine and Israel. The United States needs to stop unreservedly supporting Israel. It needs to remove itself as the moderator of what is called the “peace process.” The moderating role needs to be turned over to international bodies that are much less tied to one party in the conflict.

There is an international consensus on what the resolution to this conflict should be. Two states: a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with its capital in East Jerusalem and some consideration for the right of Palestinian refugees to return; and the state of Israel inside its borders, as they were before June 1967. The only significant dissidents from that position are Israel and the United States, and Israel is only able to persist because the United States backs it.

What you’re saying is that we dramatically cut back on our commitment to Israel?

BEININ: No. I think that’s actually the wrong way to put it. The United States has not been committed to Israel’s security. The United States has been committed to maintaining Israel as the strongest military power in the region because Israel is the most unreserved ally of the United States. It’s not a question of reducing the American commitment to Israel. It’s a question of redefining what it means to have a commitment.

What we should really be concerned with is ensuring physically secure, economically productive lives for the Israeli and Palestinian people. Then we’d insist that a reasonable peace agreement has to be reached immediately, and that international peacekeeping forces be inserted if necessary to police that agreement.

This notion that Israel can simply unilaterally do what it chooses–withdraw from Gaza and launch military strikes on it anyway; say that it’s withdrawn from Gaza, but really keep the whole territory in a stranglehold–all of that now falls under a description of what Israel needs to do for its security that is very rarely questioned in this country. But, in fact, these things are directly undermining the possibility that there can ever be security for the Israeli people. The United States would do Israel a favor if it would call it up short and say, “No. You are in the Middle East. Sorry, but that’s where your country is located. Your neighbors are Arabs and Muslims, and you need to learn how to get along with them.”

Rosemary, what do you think about that?

HOLLIS: The issue is more than just one between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with or without their respective allies. The refugee issue tells you the geography of the conflict today. More Palestinians are living outside the West Bank and Gaza than living inside the West Bank and Gaza. The refugees have spread around Lebanon; they make up more than half the population of Jordan. They’re across the Gulf region, and they’re certainly across Europe.

Do you agree that it’s Europe that should be taking the lead?

HOLLIS: Yes, but I feel there is a latent hostility in Europe toward accepting that they had any role to play in the evolution of the conflict, any role to play in reconciliation with the Jews about the past that might open new ways for the future.

Brian, do you see room for a sort of radical revision of our commitment to Israel that Joel describes?

KATULIS: I don’t disagree with a lot of what Joel has to say, but his central proposal isn’t terribly practical. If you ask the Europeans and others to take the lead, I don’t think they will. Plus, there are imperatives that drive U.S. involvement in the Middle East peace process and in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, imperatives here at home that make it difficult to say: “That’s it. You Europeans are going to take over.” I don’t think that’s the best way to advance our own national security interest.

We need to do something that the Bush administration is not good at–working very closely with multilateral institutions, international institutions, and our European friends to figure out how we can advance certain ideas like the roadmap.

BEININ: I wasn’t calling for the United States to disengage, but to acknowledge the limits of what the American role can be. As Yezid said, the United States hasn’t got much credibility in the Arab world or even in the broader Muslim [community]. The United States can’t reconvene some version of a Camp David Summit and have people believe that an acceptable outcome can come of that.

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Lakshmi Chaudhry, a former In These Times senior editor and Nation contributing editor, is a senior editor at, India's first web-only news site. Since 1999 she has been a reporter and an editor for various independent publications, including Alternet, Mother Jones, Ms., Bitch and Salon.

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