The Mess in the Middle East

(Below is the text of a speech delivered Thursday, October 27 by Ambassador Chas Freeman at the annual conference of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations in Washington. Freeman is a former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington. He was President Barack Obama’s early nominee to head the National Intelligence Council. However, a decisive attack on Freeman by the pro-Israel Lobby ended that attempt. Freeman, however, continues to speak out, prescribing what many consider a sensible alternative to US foreign policy in the Middle East.)

The Mess in the Middle East

Remarks to the 20th Annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
27 October 2011, Washington, D.C.

When John Duke Anthony asked me to kick off this two-day meeting by talking about recent events and what they might mean for US-Arab relations and U.S. policy, I was greatly honored.  I was also reminded of the words of a famous expert on the Middle East who, many years ago, was asked to describe U.S. policy there.  He replied, “We don’t have a policy in the Middle East; but that’s just as well because, if we did, it would be the wrong one.” 

Recent events suggest that this was a major and memorable insight.  The more that “change we can believe in” unfolds in the Middle East, the more things stay the same or retrogress.  The more policy we have, the more perverse the results it seems to produce for our country.

Over the year since we last met here in this hall, there have been momentous events in West Asia and North Africa.  Some Arab regimes have fallen to popular uprisings.  Others appear to be at risk of doing so.  Throughout the broad expanse of the Arab world incumbent governments of all kinds must now be much more deferential than before to the will of their people on both domestic and foreign affairs.  This is good news for those who favor more accountable government, as I’m sure everyone here does – at least for foreigners.  Americans concerned with the capacity of the United States to shape events in the Middle East should, however, hold the elation.  Self-determination is, by definition, a rejection of subservience.  This means, among other things, that Arab rulers are considerably less inclined to do America’s bidding than in the past.  They are starting to do things they see as in their interests even when these things are not in ours. 

This is especially the case with regard to the Israel-Palestine issue, which remains central to our relations with the region.  Given our unbreakable bonds with Israel, it is not at all helpful that that country has now – as some of us feared it might – alienated those few of its neighbors with which it once enjoyed normal ties.  American policies have long put sustaining Israel’s military dominance of the region ahead of encouraging it to make peace with Palestinians and other Arabs.  Shielded militarily from the need to deal respectfully with its neighbors and those over whom it rules, the Zionist state has progressively segregated itself both morally and politically from the region and most of the international community, including a growing number of Jews here and elsewhere in the West.

Israel has nonetheless also demonstrated that its hold on domestic U.S. politics remains unbroken.  This past year, it was able to compel our president to swear allegiance to expansive Zionism and to repudiate policies endorsed by his own and previous administrations as well as the international community.  By contemptuously overriding the views and interests of the United States in this way, Israel and its American claque debased and discredited American international prestige and regional credibility.  As a consequence, the world has come together in a series of ever firmer votes of no-confidence in U.S. leadership and diplomacy on the Israel-Palestine dispute.  American military might remains unchallengeable, but the power of the United States to protect Israel from the political and legal consequences of its policies, statements, and actions has been gravely impaired.  This is a perverse result for an Israeli government and its supporters to have engineered.

For their part, after decades of bitter frustration with a feckless, fraudulent, and ultimately fruitless American-led “peace process,” the Palestinians have concluded that they cannot count on the United States.  They have ended their deference to what they (and most of the world) now see as America’s meretricious manipulation of their affairs to their occupier’s advantage.  They have taken the initiative to rally regional and global support for their self-determination and independence from Israel.  They hope in this way to transform the struggle for Palestinian independence into a more equal contest.  Theirs will no longer be a bilateral struggle between a strong, US-backed Israel and a Palestine with no leverage.  It will, they hope, become a contest between Israel and the world’s conscience.

Ironically, political reactions here to these developments promise not only to isolate the United States in international organizations but to deprive us of our residual influence with the Palestinians.  The end of U.S. subsidies to the Palestinian Authority will force Israel to assume responsibility for security and other services in the Occupied Territories that it had successfully unloaded on Palestinian collaborators funded by American and other foreign taxpayers.  Instead of facilitating the occupation by paying Palestinians to police it, Americans and Europeans are now likely to face demands to pay Israel directly to conduct it.  Europeans, at least, are unlikely to take up this burden.

The perceived need to counter Israeli and American policies is already throwing together some strange diplomatic bedfellows.  It is also marginalizing American influence on other issues of concern in West Asia and North Africa.  The regional clout of non-Western powers like China, India, and Russia will surely grow concomitantly.

If this sounds grim, I apologize.  I cannot promise that, as is the case on Saudi Channel One, amusing cartoons will follow the sermon.  I must leave it to those who follow me to provide comic relief.  I’m happy to do that.  Years ago, Ronald Reagan told me: “you know, they say that hard work never killed anybody.  But why take a chance?”  He delegated as much as he could to experts who were smarter than he was.  He set a good example I plan to follow.

This conference has been convened to weigh the implications of the trends and developments I’ve outlined.  As I look at the agenda, I see that it will also consider other legacies of past and present US policies in the region, like Iran’s resentful anti-Americanism and assertive search for regional hegemony, the cancerous growth of sectarianism in the Arab world, the deepening Iraqi strategic alignment with Iran, the proliferation of vengeful anti-American radicalism, and the likely fallout from the failing US-led pacification effort in Afghanistan.  In the past, denial that these are urgent problems may have sufficed to evade uncomfortable but necessary dialogue.  Neither silence nor inaction is now a viable option for Americans, Arabs, Iranians, Israelis, or others with a stake in the future of the Middle East. 

Three decades after Iran’s revolution, some or all of the world’s 340 million Arabs are following Persians into a repudiation of foreign tutelage.  The Iranian upheaval of 1979 marked the end of any notion of Iran as the political or cultural ward of Britain, Russia, or the United States.  Country by country, whether under new or existing governments, Arabs too are now asserting the right to their own self-determined national identities and policies.  Arabs are not Persians; Sunni political culture is not that of Shi`ism; and the histories of the diverse parts of the Arab world differ significantly from those of Iran.  It’s unlikely that any Arab country will follow Iran into uncompromisingly theocratic forms of governance that derive their legitimacy from broad confrontation with the West and its values.  Still, the Arab uprisings of 2011 have made it politically impossible for rulers to put the agendas of Western patrons ahead of the views, interests, and religious traditions of their own publics.

This shift in mind set and popular expectations has huge strategic implications.  It foretells Arab governments and policies that seek the authenticity that only the consent of the governed and respect for their values and views can provide.  The colonial era was over elsewhere five or six decades ago.  As the Arabs insist on independence under popular sovereignty, whether exercised through one ruler or many, the last vestiges of neo-colonialism are vanishing in West Asia and North Africa as well.  In the new era, relations between Middle Eastern states will be determined by local judgments about what is right, proper, and to the national advantage, not what is ordained,  championed, or paid for by an outside power, patron, or overlord.  That has been the case for Israel.  It will now be the case for Israel’s Arab neighbors as well.

Arab rulers have just had it driven home to them that they cannot rely on Americans to protect them from domestic backlash to unpopular policies.  They’ve also learned that they cannot look to America to constrain Israel.  The strategic utility of the United States to Arab governments has been correspondingly devalued.  As a result, Israel can no longer count on U.S. alliances, aid programs, or patron-client allegiances to exempt it from the consequences of its dysfunctional relationships with its neighbors.

Israelis played a major role in creating the adverse circumstances in which they now find themselves.  They must now make their own peace with Turkey, sustain their own relations with Egypt and Jordan, and find their own basis for coexistence with Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, among others.  They must craft their own modus vivendi and achieve their own reconciliation with Palestinians and Lebanese, whom they have heretofore treated with contemptuous cruelty and disrespect. 

The spectacle of members of Congress bouncing up and down like so many obsequious yo-yos as Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to them last May is irrefutable evidence of Israel’s hammerlock on U.S. policy.   But U.S. policy no longer decides what happens politically or economically in the Middle East.  This has created a new and less certain political environment in West Asia and North Africa.  For the first time in decades, Israel must manage its regional and international relationships on its own.  Judging from Israel’s recent handling of incidents with the UAE, Turkey, and Egypt, neither its current government nor its political elite understands the new environment or is mentally prepared to cope with it.

Israel would be in difficulty even if American prestige in the Middle East had not imploded.  But it has.  Our previous reputation was so strong that Americans had to work really hard to do it in.  With a little help from our friends, we proved we were up to the task. 

The factors that went into destroying our appeal and authority are many.  They begin with the disingenuous diplomacy of the now defunct “peace process.”  The major result of three decades of American mediation has been to discredit American diplomacy.  In effect, the United States facilitated the ongoing seizure of territory by Israel at the expense of a just settlement of differences between Israelis and Palestinians and Palestinian self-determination. 

The reputation of the United States for wisdom, truthfulness, and competence was also gravely damaged by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  The course of events in both countries convincingly demonstrated the limitations of U.S. military power.  The strategic fallout continues to spread.  In Iraq, the U.S. ravaged a proud Arab society.  The resulting anarchy set off a widening firestorm of sectarian violence in the Arab world.  It also catalyzed a major – and so far uncountered – extension of Iranian influence in the region.

Washington’s eager connivance in the maiming of Lebanon in 2006 and of Gaza just before the Obama administration took office added to the perception of the United States as indifferent, if not sadistically happy about the suffering of Arab or Muslim populations.  By conservative estimate, U.S. policies and military actions in the post Cold War period have directly or indirectly caused the deaths of between 250,000 and a million Muslims and displaced at least ten million from their homes. One does not need an advanced degree to understand the origins of  Muslim rage against America

America’s ideological appeal has also faded.  The abuses at Kandahar, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guant

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