(Remarks by Ambassador Chas Freeman, delivered on January 16 at a conference of the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council, of which Chas is president emeritus. The remarks were circulated yesterday by the American Academy of Diplomacy, an élite organization of retired and serving American ambassadors.)
By Chas W. Freeman Jr.
Over the past half century or so the United States has pursued two main but disconnected objectives in West Asia and North Africa: on the one hand, Americans have sought strategic and economic advantage in the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, and Egypt; on the other, support for the consolidation of the Jewish settler state in Palestine. These two objectives of U.S. policy in the Middle East have consistently taken precedence over the frequently professed American preference for democracy.
These objectives are politically contradictory. They also draw their rationales from distinct moral universes. U.S. relations with the Arab countries and Iran have been grounded almost entirely in unsentimental calculations of interest. The American relationship with Israel, by contrast, has rested almost entirely on religious and emotional bonds. This disconnect has precluded any grand strategy.
Rather than seek an integrated policy framework, America has balanced the contradictions between the imperatives of its domestic politics and its interests. For many years, Washington succeeded in having its waffle in the Middle East and eating it too – avoiding having to choose between competing objectives. With wiser U.S. policies and more judicious responses to them by Arabs and Israelis, Arab-Israeli reconciliation might by now have obviated the ultimate necessity for America to prioritize its purposes in the region. But the situation has evolved to the point that choice is becoming almost impossible to avoid.
The Middle East matters. It is where Africa, Asia, and Europe converge. In addition to harboring the greater part of the world’s conventionally recoverable energy supplies, it is a key passageway between Asia and Europe. No nation can hope to project its power throughout the globe without access to and through the Middle East. Nor can any ignore the role of the Persian Gulf countries in fueling the world’s armed forces, powering its economies, and setting its energy prices. This is why the United States has acted consistently to maintain a position of preeminent influence in the Middle East and to deny to any strategically hostile nation or coalition of nations the opportunity to contest its politico-military dominance of the region.
The American pursuit of access, transit, and strategic denial has made the building of strategic partnerships with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt a major focus of U.S. policy. The partnership with Iran broke down over three decades ago. It has been succeeded by antagonism, low-intensity conflict, and the near constant threat of war. The U.S. relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are now evolving in uncertain directions. Arab governments have learned the hard way that they must defer to public opinion. This opinion is increasingly Islamist. Meanwhile, popular antipathies to the widening American war on Islamism are deepening. These factors alone make it unlikely that relations with the United States can retain their centrality for Cairo and Riyadh much longer.
The definitive failure of the decades-long American-sponsored “peace process” between Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs adds greatly to the uncertainty. Whether it yielded peace or not, the “peace process” made the United States the apparently indispensable partner for both Israel and the Arabs. It served dual political purposes. It enabled Arab governments to persuade their publics that maintaining good relations with the United States did not imply selling out Arab or Islamic interests in Palestine, and it supported the U.S. strategic objective of achieving acceptance for a Jewish state by the other states and peoples of the Middle East. Washington’s abandonment of this diplomacy was a boon to Israeli territorial expansion but a disaster for American influence in the region, including in Israel.
Over the years, America protected Israel from international rebuke and punishment. Its stated purpose was the preservation of prospects for a negotiated “two-state solution” that could bring security and peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike. A decade ago, every member of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation endorsed this objective and pledged normalization with Israel if Israeli-Palestinian negotiations succeeded. In response, Israel spun out its talks with the Palestinians while working hard to preclude their self-determination. It has now succeeded in doing so.
There has been no American-led peace process worthy of the name for nearly two decades. There is no prospect of such a process resuming. No one in the international community now accepts the pretense of a “peace process” as an excuse for American protection of Israel. Eleven years on, the Arab and Islamic peace offer has exceeded its shelf life. On the Israel-Palestine issue, American diplomacy has been running on fumes for some time. It is now totally out of gas and universally perceived to be going nowhere.
Sadly, barring fundamental changes in Israeli politics, policies, and behavior, the longstanding American strategic objective of achieving acceptance for the state of Israel to stabilize the region where British colonialism and Jewish nationalism implanted it is now infeasible. In practice, the United States has abandoned the effort. U.S. policy currently consists of ad hoc actions to fortify Israel against Palestinian resistance and military threats from its neighbors, while shielding it from increasingly adverse international reaction to its worsening deportment. In essence, the United States now has no objective with respect to Israel beyond sheltering it from the need to deal with the unpalatable realities its own choices have created.
The key to regional acknowledgment of Israel as a legitimate part of the Middle East was the “two-state solution.” The Camp David accords laid out a program for Palestinian self-determination and Israeli withdrawal from the territories it had seized and occupied in 1967. Israel has had more than forty-five years to trade land for peace, implementing its Camp David commitments and complying with international law. It has consistently demonstrated that it craves land more than peace, international reputation, good will, or legitimacy. As a result, Israel remains isolated from its neighbors, with no prospect of reversing this. It is now rapidly forfeiting international acceptability. There is nothing the United States can do to cure either situation despite the adverse consequences of both for American standing in the region and the world.
In the seventeenth century, English settlers in America found inspiration for a theology of ethnic cleansing and racism in the Old Testament. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Jewish settlers in Palestine have invoked the same scripture to craft a parallel theology. The increasingly blatant racism and Islamophobia of Israeli politics, the kafkaesque tyranny of Israel’s checkpoint army in the occupied territories, and Israel’s cruel and unusual collective punishment of Gaza have bred hateful resentment of the Jewish state in its region and throughout the Muslim world. One has to look to north Korea to find another polity so detested and distrusted by its neighbors and with so few supporters among the world’s great powers.
The United States has affirmed that, regardless of how Israel behaves, it will allow no political distance between itself and the Jewish state. In the eyes of the world there is none. Israel’s ill repute corrodes U.S. prestige and credibility not just in the Middle East but in the world at large.
Israel does not seem to care what its neighbors or the world think of it. Despite its geographical location, it prefers to see itself as its neighbors do: as a Hebrew-speaking politico-economic extension of Europe rather than part of the Middle East. Nor does Israel appear concerned about the extent to which its policies have undermined America’s ability to protect it from concerted international punishment for its actions. The United States and Israel’s handful of other international supporters continue to have strong domestic political reasons to stand by it. Yet they are far less likely to be able to hold back the global movement to ostracize Israel than in the case of apartheid South Africa. America may “have Israel’s back,” but – on this – no one now has America’s back.
For a considerable time to come, Israel can rely on its US-provided “qualitative edge” to sustain its military hegemony over others in its region. But, as the “crusader states” established and sustained by previous Western interventions in the region illustrate, such supremacy – especially when dependent on external support – is inevitably ephemeral – and those who live exclusively by the sword are more likely than others to perish by it. Meanwhile, as the struggle for Palestinian Arab rights becomes a struggle for human and civil rights within the single sovereignty that Israel has de facto imposed on Palestine, Israel’s internal evolution is rapidly alienating Jews of conscience both there and abroad. Israelis do not have to live in Palestine; they can and do increasingly withdraw from it to live in diaspora. Jews outside contemporary Israel are coming to see it less as a sanctuary or guarantor of Jewish security and well-being than as a menace to both.
The United States has made an enormous commitment to the success of the Jewish state. Yet it has no strategy to cope with the tragic existential challenges Zionist hubris and overweening territorial ambition have now forged for Israel. The hammerlock the Israeli right has on American discourse about the Middle East assures that, despite the huge U.S. political and economic investment in Israel, Washington will not discuss or develop effective policy options for sustaining the Jewish state over the long term. The outlook is therefore for continuing deterioration in Israel’s international moral standing and the concomitant isolation of the United States in the region and around the globe.
This brings me back to the other main objective of U.S. policy in the Middle East: the nurturing of strategic partnerships with the largest and most influential Muslim states in the region. Iran and Syria have proven to be lost causes in this regard. Iraq is now more aligned with them than with America. Turkey is still an important U.S. ally on many matters but, with the exception of some aspects of relations with Syria, Ankara is following policies toward the Middle East that are almost entirely uncoordinated with those of the United States. The two pillars of the U.S. position in the Middle East beyond Israel are Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Neither can now be taken for granted.
Egypt is in the midst of a transition from American-aligned autocracy to self-determination under Islamist populism. It is not clear what sort of domestic political order this populism will shape but it seems certain that future Egyptian governments will listen less to the United States and demand more of Israel. The diversion to Egypt of a portion of the U.S. government’s generous annual subsidies to Israel long sufficed to secure Cairo’s acquiescence in the Camp David framework. This enabled Israel to pretend that it had achieved a measure of acceptance among its Arab neighbors despite its default on its obligations to the Palestinians and its escalating mistreatment of them. More importantly, it gave Israel the strategic security from Egyptian attack it had been unable to obtain by force of arms.
Populist Egypt’s passivity is very unlikely to be procurable on similar terms. Enough has changed to put the Camp David framework at severe risk. (This is true for Jordan as well. Jordan made peace with Israel in response to the Oslo accords, which the ruling right-wing in Israel systematically undermined and finally undid.)
Since 1979, the U.S. relationship with Israel has been both a raison d’être and essential underpinning for U.S.-Egyptian cooperation. It is now reemerging as a point of division, irritation, and contention between Americans and Egyptians. Egypt is once again an independent Arab actor in the affairs of its region, including Israel and Iran. It is no longer a reliable agent of American influence. It reacts to Israeli actions and policies calculatedly, with much less deference to U.S. views than in the past.
Islamist parties now dominate Egyptian politics as they do politics in Tunisia and among Palestinians. It is very unlikely that post-Assad Syria will be democratic but it is virtually certain that it will be Salafist. The so-called Arab awakening has turned out really to be a Salafist awakening. There is a struggle for the soul of Islam underway between Takfiri Salafists and conservative modernizers. In the traditionally Islamist states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, this struggle is being won by the forces of tolerance, reform, and opening up. Elsewhere, as in Egypt, the outcome remains in doubt, but nowhere are Muslim conservatives, still less Salafists, at ease with expansionist Zionism or the sort of aggressive anti-Islamism that the United States has institutionalized in its “drone wars.”
In the wake of Washington’s abandonment of the effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the impact of 9//11, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the transformation of a punitive raid in Afghanistan into a long-term attempt to preclude an Islamist regime there, the U.S. – Saudi relationship, once an example of broad-based strategic partnership, has markedly weakened. American Islamophobia has erased much of the previous mutual regard between the two countries. The United States continues to be the ultimate guarantor of the Saudi state against intervention from foreign enemies other than Israel. There is no alternative to America in this role. Nor, even when it regains energy self-sufficiency, will the United States be able to ignore Saudi Arabia’s decisive influence on global energy supplies and prices. But U.S. – Saudi cooperation is no longer instinctual and automatic. It has become cynically transactional, with cooperation taking place on a case-by-case basis as specific interests dictate.
Policy convergence between Washington and Riyadh continues but sometimes conceals major differences. This is clearly the case with Iran, where Washington’s interest in non-proliferation and desire to preserve Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East overlap but do not coincide with Riyadh’s concerns. If Tehran does go nuclear, Saudi-American disharmony will be glaringly apparent in very short order . Similarly, in Syria, the common desire of Americans and Saudis to see Syrians overthrow the Assad government masks very different visions about what sort of regime should succeed it and what the stance of that regime should be toward Israel, Lebanon, or Iraq.
The bottom line is this. U.S. policies of unconditional support for Israel, opposition to Islamism, and the use of drones to slaughter suspected Islamist militants and their families and friends have created an atmosphere that precludes broad strategic partnerships with major Arab and Muslim countries, though it does not yet preclude limited cooperation for limited purposes. The acceptance of Israel as a legitimate presence in the Middle East cannot now be achieved without basic changes in Israeli attitudes and behavior that are not in the offing.
U.S. policies designed, respectively, to pursue strategic partnerships with Arab and Muslim powers and to secure the state of Israel have each separately failed. The Middle East itself is in flux. America’s interests in the region now demand fundamental rethinking, not just of U.S. policies, but of the strategic objectives those policies should be designed to achieve.