Dec 07

Imagine: American Policy in the Mideast

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer,  am installed in the White House.  Following my speech on Korea, I deliver a foreign policy address on the Mideast.

America is in a deep hole in the Mideast.  We lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve landed on the losing side in Syria, we’re responsible for an awful disaster in Yemen, and we’re farther than ever from solving the Israel/Palestine conflict. Outside some very isolated opinion in a few countries, no one in the region thinks kindly of the American position, far from it, and this deep hostility has cost American lives and opened the door to regional advances by Russia.

One of the things I learned in my recovery from addiction to alcohol and drugs is that if you want to climb out of a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Toward that end, I would begin by inviting the head of state of Israel to Washington for a celebration of victory.  Seventy years ago, I would say, few gave the State of Israel much chance for survival.  Today, Israel is strong and prosperous.  Congratulations on your victory.  Accordingly, there is no longer a need for American aid. None will be forthcoming, except possibly humanitarian aid in the event of a natural disaster.  

But if the state of Israel wishes to apply for further American foreign aid, we will set up a trust fund for distressed Mideast states administered by the United Nations, and we invite Israel to make application to that body. Of course, the UN may require compliance with the world body’s resolutions regarding return of occupied territories, prohibition of settlements, and similar issues. That’s life. I would instruct our UN ambassador to urge an accommodating policy on settlements already built in occupied territories provided they are offered as homes to Palestinian families forcibly expelled in prior years and wishing to return.  

This initiative should stimulate some deep rethinking of policy in Israel. To help things along, I would offer an emergency economic aid package to Gaza, where the infrastructure is all but destroyed and people live in an ongoing humanitarian crisis. At the same time, companies doing business in Israeli-occupied territories would be barred from the U.S. market. Residents wishing to emigrate from Israel will receive favored immigration treatment under U.S. laws.  

We would also look favorably on a proposal to elevate Jerusalem to the status of an independent city-state jointly administered by authorities of the three major religions who revere its historic sites.  

Given these initiatives, within a relatively short period, people of good will on both sides will come together and find a way to achieve a historic compromise that leaves both sides slightly dissatisfied but deeply relieved that the conflict is over.  With peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the whole atmosphere in the Mideast and beyond will turn strongly positive for the United States, and the other problems in the area will become much more amenable.  

Moving to those issues, I would convene an international commission on Islamic terrorism, meaning terrorism committed in the name of the Islamic religion. Among the main topics would be Saudi Arabia, whose role in the 9/11 attacks has never been examined in depth. Saudi Arabia is the major funder of Islamic terrorist groups in the Mideast and finances an international network of mosques teaching a narrow jihadist version of Islam. The United States no longer relies on Saudi petroleum and has no need to kowtow to the Saudi princes to maintain energy security. It’s high time that the Saudi role in exporting terrorism is brought into daylight, along with that of other states; and we should not hesitate to label Saudi Arabia a terrorist state and impose appropriate sanctions.  

Even before that commission completes its work, we need to stop the ongoing devastation in Yemen.  As a first step, the United States will impose a no-fly zone over Yemen. Neither Saudi Arabia nor any other state will be permitted to attack Yemeni territory from the air.  The combatant parties will be restricted to their ground game. A naval embargo will permit passage of humanitarian aid and the entry of medical personnel but block weapons shipments and military units. These measures will not stop the hostilities, which have their local roots, but will limit the toll that foreign interference has imposed on the civilian population. The United States can develop good relations with whoever eventually wins the ground battle in Yemen.

The situation in Iraq is another instance where previous US administrations have dug a very deep hole. The invasion of Iraq was a war of choice founded on lies.  To have done it at all was criminal.  Then, the way it was done was stupid beyond belief. Because Saddam had his primary base of support among the Sunni population, the US treated the Sunni like it treated American Negroes during the Jim Crow era, and threw its weight blindly behind the Shia. Nobody in the US occupation authorities seemed to have realized until it was too late that oppressing the Sunnis, who had held state power and staffed a modern army, led inevitably to the birth of a powerful resistance, which took the form of the Islamic State. Furthermore, empowering the Shia handed over the country’s government for all practical purposes to neighboring Iran. Today, American air power has leveled the cities and towns where the Islamic State ruled. The civilian toll is inestimable. The Islamic State, as a state, is dead. But air power does not create stable governments. The United States is in a deeper hole than ever, having fostered a central government in Baghdad that is virtually a puppet of Tehran, and created an ungovernable region of devastation in the Sunni areas. As a result, American leverage in Iraq, to achieve aims other than leveling inhabited places to the ground, is very small.

What to do?  As a first and symbolic step, the American politicians and military leaders who created this mess should be locked up in a special section of Guantanamo where they are made to wear dunce caps. Then we need to launch a Marshall Plan to jumpstart the reconstruction of the cities and towns we destroyed.  Along with that, we need to use whatever leverage we have left in Baghdad to start a process of national amnesty and reconciliation. That underway, there needs to be a serious effort at national elections, with care to achieve roughly proportional representation for all religious and tribal communities. Just maybe, Iraq can be restored to life as a viable nation state.

Joining the architects of the Iraq mission in Guantanamo with dunce caps will be the makers of the Afghanistan mess. Here too we have deliberately wrecked a country and now find ourselves relying on a government of political whores and parasites who would not last three weeks in our absence. Americans are dying to sustain this charade. No previous administration has had the political courage to state the obvious and do what’s required, namely get out, completely, and immediately. Not one more life, not one more dollar. True, Afghanistan will end up governed by the Taliban, but they’ve emerged recently as a relatively moderate force compared to the branch of the Islamic State that’s begun to penetrate their country. The Taliban are the lesser evil. We must not forget the lesson of Vietnam. The ones who took over after we left, we painted them worse than Satan incarnate, but twenty years later we’re wearing shirts and shoes made in Vietnam, going to international conferences in Ho Chi MInh City, and seeing a brisk tourist business. It will be the same with an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, and at a minimum the world will be rid of the curse of the Afghan opium crop.  

Let me say a concluding word about the Middle East. Almost everyone among the tens of millions of people who live in this region adheres to Islam. Almost everything the United States has done under past administrations in this region has looked like hostility to the Islamic religion. This is another dunce cap mistake. The United States is not ever going to get rid of Islam.  Islam is one of the world’s major religions, and it will easily survive any attacks we might launch against it, either with bombs or with sermons. Forget about ridding the world of Islam; that will never happen.   

The most important thing we need to do about Islam is to relax about it.  When we get paranoid about Islam and label all Muslims as terrorists, we push peaceable Muslims closer to the terrorists and we drive a few more individuals into the terrorists’ fatal embrace. That is what the terrorists want. When we attack Muslims in general, it also becomes harder for us to win the cooperation of Muslims in tracking and exposing the terrorist fringe. So, we need to accept that Islam is here to stay, and deal with it.  Ninety-nine per cent of Muslims present no threat and are valuable contributors to society. We just need to get used to the different looks of some people’s garments and hair styles, and we can very well do this just as we got used to the severe habits of Catholic nuns and the hairstyles and hats of Orthodox Jews. Who really cares that much about clothes and hairstyles?

We also urgently need to stop the evil practice of promoting Islamic sectarianism. In Iraq before the invasion, Sunni and Shia had frictions, but largely lived as neighbors in peace, and many families intermarried.  American policy deliberately instigated violence by Sunni v. Shia and Shia v. Sunni so as to divide and weaken the country. The region is still reaping the evil consequences of this manipulation. Within Christianity, we had the Thirty Years’ War where Protestant slew Catholic and vice versa, with eight million dead. Previous American administrations have been trying to recreate such a family slaughter by encouraging Sunni Saudi Arabia to make war on Shia Iran, and by aggravating sectarian divisions in other countries. This must stop. Sunni and Shia have their differences over the succession from the Prophet in the seventh century, but absent outside interference they have been able for centuries to agree to disagree and to live peaceably as neighbors, just as Catholics and Lutherans manage to do in our time.  

In the long term, once we relax about Islam, Islam will mellow out internally. Jihadist voices will find no echo, and the younger generation will gradually become more secular, just as has happened with Christianity and Judaism in the West.  This will upset the elders, as it always does, but such is life.

Foreign policy debate in the US has traditionally gravitated around the poles of interventionism vs isolationism. Favoring the end of military intervention in Mideast affairs, as I do, my administration will be accused of isolationism. There is some truth to that charge. Previous administrations have spent almost uncountable treasure on military interventions in the Mideast, pouring it all down a black hole and leaving America’s standing in the world in tatters. While we have been laying waste to other countries, our own quality of life has deteriorated dangerously. We need to bring those billions of dollars back home. We need to retrain our combatants as carpenters, ironworkers, electricians, and all the other useful trades, and rebuild our homeland.  I’ll talk about that in more detail another time.

As far as our relations with other countries go, we need to be actively engaged with all of them.  We need to engage not generally as an invading, bombing, and annihilating force, but as friends and partners in their prosperity and development. This will require a State Department filled with bright young minds with facility in many languages, cultures, and skill sets. It will take some time to remold the image of America in the world. We have been the Ugly American.  We can and will become the Good and Beautiful American. We have it within us. We just need to let it out.  

 

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