Is the U.S. Chasing Its Tail in the Middle East?

For those who subscribe to the Atlantic Monthly, or who can otherwise get their hands on a copy of the June issue, we highly recommend reading the cover story, “Grand Illusions,” about Condoleezza Rice and U.S. diplomatic strategy in the Middle East.
Samuels’ article does more to describe the Bush administration’s “grand strategy” — to the extent it has one — for the post-Iraq Middle East than anything else I’ve read. The picture that emerges of that strategy is somewhatdiscouraging in a number of ways.

Perhaps the most significant cause for worry relates to whether the U.S. strategy for Palestinian-Israeli peace supports its greater Middle East strategy. If what Samuels writes about Rice’s thinking is correct, progress toward Palestinian-Israeli peace is the crux of the administration’s (Rice-led) strategy:

The key to Rice’s new Middle Eastern strategy, which some administration officials hope will end in a “grand bargain” that will stabilize Iraq, keep the Syrians out of Lebanon, and force Iran to give up its ambitions to build a nuclear bomb, lies in a renewed drive to create a Palestinian state. This is the price that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are demanding if they are to support the administration’s stance on Iraq and Iran. For this diplomatic gambit to succeed, Rice will need to make swift progress toward solving a conflict where the prospects for peace look dimmer than they have at any point in the last 20 years, and where administration policy has lurched from failure to failure since she began her tenure as secretary of state.

Unfortunately, however, the administration’s actions vis-a-vis Palestine have undermined the prospects for Palestinian piece. That began with an insistence on holding elections in Palestine, which were won by Hamas, an eventuality that David Welch, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, admits the State Department did not expect and was not prepared for:

“Did we adequately assess the probability of the outcomes here?” said David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a career foreign-service officer and former ambassador to Egypt whose sharp, birdlike appearance is at odds with his exceedingly calm demeanor. “Probably not, in retrospect.”

After administration policy unwittingly helped to create the Hamas problem in the territories, the administration decided on another risky strategy: arming Fatah in hopes it could crush Hamas and thus reverse the election results. Here’s Samuels describing the plan and its results:

The plan, which she developed after speaking to President Bush, was to put pressure on the Hamas government by providing the Palestinian security forces loyal to Abbas with training, intelligence, and large shipments of supplies and new weapons, paid for by the United States and by Saudi Arabia. The hope was that Hamas, faced with a well-armed, well-trained force of Fatah fighters, might be cowed into moderating its positions or relinquishing the power it had won through elections. Alternatively, Hamas might be pressured into an escalating series of gun battles, in which case Abbas, as head of the Palestinian security forces, would have an excuse to crush Hamas by force. This approach cast some doubt on the administration’s faith in democracy, and it, too, was a failure. Hamas won the clashes, which left more than 140 Palestinians dead, and the Hamas government remained in power.

Although it would be unfair to lay the current chaos in the Palestinian territories at the feet of the Bush administration, it’s impossible to call American policy vis-a-vis Palestine anything but a disaster given that the administration appears to have predicated the rest of its Middle East strategy on progress toward Palestinian-Israeli peace. Rice’s defense of American policy toward Palestine does not exactly inspire confidence:

When I ask Rice to explain the administration’s policy of putting money and guns on the streets of Gaza to destabilize the elected Hamas government, she demurs.

“No, it’s not putting money and equipment—it is the professionalization and the training and equipping of Palestinian forces,” she says.

“But it’s both, isn’t it?” I ask.

“No, because the state—well, they happen to go together,” she finally admits. “You don’t train and equip a force without …”

“Without putting guns on the street?” I suggest.

“But the fact is, it’s not just putting guns on the street,” she says. “There’s a very careful plan that General Dayton, but also Canadians, Brits, others who are working on this, for the professionalization of those forces, so that they’re actually able to defend the Palestinian people, so that they’re actually able to fight terrorism. That’s the goal.”

Why all the bumbling? Samuels article suggests one answer: Rice doesn’t know enough about the Middle East to assess how U.S. policy is going to play out on the ground, and perhaps she doesn’t think she needs to. Throughout Samuels’ piece, for example, Rice repeatedly compares the prospects for democracy in the Middle East to post-Soviet democratization in Eastern Europe — without ever allowing that there are massive cultural and historical differences between, say, Germany and Iraq.

Gamal Helal, the State Department’s Arabic-language senior diplomatic interpreter, as a coptic Christian raised in Egypt, understands that history and culture matter, even if the woman he interprets for does not:

Helal enjoys working with Rice. He appreciates her interest in hearing all points of view on a given subject and her understanding of the details. When I ask him what he makes of the words he often translates for her, like “freedom” and “democracy,” he is polite, but wary. “I cannot imagine that you can go anywhere in the world and ask people, ‘Do you want to be free?’ and they will say, ‘No, we really love to be prisoners,'” he says. The problem is not with freedom but with democracy, a concept that evolved in differing and idiosyncratic ways in the Western historical experience. “In the Middle East, they look at things and ask, Is it halal or haram,” he explains. “Is it approved by the religion or not? If you go to a Bedouin society and you tell them that the state will determine how you’re going to settle a conflict between you and your cousin, you must be out of your mind, because the most important and powerful tool to them will be tribal law, which is unwritten.”

Here’s what Efraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad, told Samuels:

Themain problem is that Condi Rice was never an expert on the Middle East.That’s not her area of expertise. And therefore, she has to rely onothers. And the others in this case is a lawyer who is anideologue”—meaning Elliott Abrams—”who believes that you can promote acertain ideology anywhere and everywhere around the world if you thinkit’s the right ideology. And you really don’t have to know very muchabout the basic facts in the region that you’re dealing with, becauseyou have to tailor the region to your ideology.

Similarly, here’s what Colin Powell’s former No. 2 at State, Richard Armitage, told Samuels about Rice:

“I didn’t know that she had any strong views,” says Richard Armitage, Powell’s deputy, who did not think highly of her performance. “I mean, she was an expert in one country that no longer exists.”

But surely Rice has boned up on her Middle East knowledge in preparation for her diplomatic push, right?

When I asked Rice to name a book that influenced her thinking about the Middle East, she hesitated. “I probably read dozens of books on the Middle East, but several of them I’d read before,” she said. “I’m actually, believe it or not, for an academic, an aural learner. So I tend to have people in and talk about places. And to engage people who know those regions very, very well.” She finally mentioned the UN Human Development Report, which she said had opened her eyes to the dearth of patents issued in Muslim countries.

Okay, so maybe that’s not unusual. People in her position don’t have much time to read — they rely on expert advisers and briefings to get what they need. Perhaps, but that provides little consolation given Rice’s take on the state of her department’s expertise regarding the most important country in the Middle East:

There was no Iran desk at the State Department when Rice got there, and she has been working hard to build the department’s expertise. “I get a little worried when I find out that we don’t have that many people around who have that kind of deep knowledge,” she told me. “I don’t understand the system very well, and I don’t think anybody really does,” she said, speaking of the leadership in Tehran. “You can sit five people down, and you’ll get different readings on what that system is like.”

We would recommend reading Samuels’ entire article. It’s very long, but very well reported. Samuels’ thorough discrediting of Yasir Arafat, “In a Ruined Country,” from the September 2005 Atlantic, is also worth the read.

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