Sunday, January 13, 2008

The US and the Muslim World

The election campaign has generally knocked President Bush off the front pages, which is undoubtedly just as well from his point of view, but he is now back in the headlines with a well-publicized trip through the Middle East, desperately trying to salvage something from his major foreign policy effort. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing to be happy about and very little prospect of any real good news before the end of his term.

The President, to begin with, stopped in Israel and Palestine to try to encourage the peace initiative he began in Annapolis in December. Ironically, he is now finishing his two terms just where Bill Clinton finished his--in a desperate attempt to conclude an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Thanks to his own policies, however, he can offer much less to the Palestinians than Clinton could, and they are much less able to accept it. The President reiterated the major change that he made in our policy towards that conflict in 2004--that we agree that Israel will keep any land that it has been able to settle, that changes in "the 1949 armistice lines" will have to reflect "facts on the ground." He has opened the door to financial compensation for Palestinians (and, it would seem, their descendants) who left their homes in 1948, although it is not clear who would pay it. He has also said that the new Palestinian state must be contiguous and truly independent, but it is not clear whether that means Israel really has to dismantle its networks of roads barred to Palestinians, checkpoints, and military outposts scattered through the West Bank.

The whole initiative is characteristic of the Administration's style, its tendency to lay down the law about anything that is happening in the world without the slightest regard for the impact of its pronouncements upon foreign leaders--even those thought to be its friends. Israeli Premier Olmert, who seems to be doing his best to go along with the President, leads a very shaky coalition, and today's Israeli papers report that he is falling out with Defense Minister Barak over the contentious issue of settlement outposts which Israel promised to remove four years ago. Another minister may soon resign over the talks. The situation is little better in Palestine, where the President in 2002 called upon the people to "elect new leadership." President Bush's chosen instrument in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, is in a much weaker position than Yassir Arafat was eight years ago, partly because he never had the same stature and partly because of the election that we insisted upon having and then in effect repudiated in early 2007. Hamas, which won the election, now controls the Gaza strip. It seems very unlikely that anything will come of these talks--except, perhaps, further radicalization on both sides.

Another interesting tidbit has leaked from the Israel trip: as Fred Kaplan has called to our attention in Slate, the President told Prime Minister Olmert that he rejects our own intelligence community's views about the moribund Iranian nuclear program and thinks we are being tricked. His faith in his own judgment--which as I argued a week ago seems to be closely allied to neoconservatives' faith in themselves as Platonic philosopher-kings--remains unshaken. His remarks to Netanyahu, apparently, were no aberration.

The President seemed rather quiet and very tired in Iraq, where he met, of course, with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, and was asked about possible further troop withdrawals. This is what he said.

"General Petraeus made it clear to me that, from his perspective, that conditions on the ground will be that which guides his recommendations. And I made it clear that's what I want. In other words, our General has got to understand that success in Iraq is critical. In other words, that ought to be the primary concern when it comes to determining troop levels, and no better person to ask as -- on how to achieve success in Iraq than the General in charge of Iraq.

"So that's what we discussed about -- he didn't talk about specific levels; he talked about continually assessing the situation on the ground, and will report to Congress in March. I wanted to assure him that any decision he recommends needs to be based upon success. That's what happened the last time around -- when we were failing, I said, what's it take to -- what do you need to win, not lose? What is it we need to -- what troop levels do we need to make sure that we can achieve this objective?

"And a lot of people thought that I was going to recommend pulling out, or pulling back. Quite the contrary; I recommended increasing the number of forces so they could get more in the fight, because I believe all along if people are given a chance to live in a free society, they'll do the hard work necessary to live in a free society."

On the one hand, the person one needs to ask how many troops we need is General Petraeus; on the other hand, the President didn't ask him that. He also seems confused; he is now the recommender, not the decider, to judge from the last paragraph. But the bottom line seems to be that troop strength on January 19, 2009 will probably be just what it was on January 1, 2007, if not a bit higher. And meanwhile, what have we accomplished?

What we have done, as far as I can make out, is to substantially increase the effectiveness of our occupied rule by co-opting some Sunni tribes, including some which were formerly part of the insurgency, and making them at least temporary allies. This is classic imperialist technique, the same one used by the British and French in various parts of the Muslim world for centuries. It has always been very hard to tell how large Al Queda in Iraq was, and it is very difficult for me to believe that it could have shrunk by over 50% in just a couple of months. I suspect that instead we have used weapons and money to bring some of our enemies over to our side. The good news is that this has reduced violence, especially against Americans (it is a lot harder to tell how much it has reduced it among Iraqis.) The bad news is that it's hard to see where this could lead, unless we really are going to occupy Iraq for decades. The Sunnis still dislike the government (as does nearly everyone else by now, since it is totally ineffective, as General McCaffrey, retired, just reported after returning from Baghdad.) Nothing has been done to resolve internecine conflict, except the forced movement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, which has made areas more religiously homogeneous. If the United States does substantially pull back its presence then sectarian conflict will presumably resume. Meanwhile, there is plenty of trouble between rival militias in Shi'ite areas, too--but General Petraeus has never regarded that as part of his problem.

Meanwhile, it is time to take up the assassination of Benazir Bhutto which, sadly, is yet another unintended consequence of American foreign policy.

Partly because of its desire to find a client in every trouble spot and partly because of its naive obsession with democracy, the Bush Administration in numerous areas--Palestine, Pakistan, and Iraq--has begun searching for the elusive miracle man, just as we did in the Philippines and South Vietnam half a century ago. Such a person would be strong, effective, pro-American, and democratic, but it seems hard to find leaders who pass more than one of those tests. Pervez Musharraf has not been effective against Al Queda in Pakistan--indeed, it is not clear to me that he wants to be--and he is only continuing his rule in defiance of his country's own laws. The United States evidently decided that we could improve matters by securing Bhutto's return and creating some kind of national unity government (a step which the President has determinedly avoided here at home, I might add.) Bhutto, to put it mildly, was never the champion of western values that some people wanted her to be. Her clan functioned like others in that region, corruption charges against her and her family had plenty of foundation, and she was bound to further inflame Islamic militants, if only because of her sex. But the United States government, apparently, insisted upon her return. She immediately survived a first assassination attempt but not a second. No wonder the President looked genuinely shaken when he came out to comment on her death.

Afghanistan, too, is having serious problems, and I frankly cannot see anywhere in the Muslim world where the Administration has had any success building up pro-western or democratic factions--the policy the President has just enunciated once again in Qatar. The effects of our policies have sometimes been slow to mature but they have been uniformly negative. This will severely challenge the next President, whoever it is. I have been continuing my modest researches into the work of Leo Strauss, the patron saint of neoconservatism, and they do a lot to explain how we got here. Strauss had an intense dislike for empiricism or positivism--the attempt to determine how things really are--because he saw it as a distraction from the contemplation of the eternal, absolute good, which President Bush has now identified with democracy. I shall have more to say about this in future posts.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has put herself back into the race. I wish that she could have done so thanks to definite positions on issues, rather than by showing some unexpected emotion, and I share the view of Marianne Pernold Young, the 64-year old New Hampshire woman who asked her the critical question, that the attention it aroused is "shocking." The cable networks gleefully seized upon it as a new way to debase discussion of the election. There is much more I could say, but I would like to comment on a historical misstatement (as I see it) that Senator Clinton made, when she said that LBJ, rather than Martin Luther King, had to take credit for the civil rights act of 1964. Both deserve some credit, but she did not give enough to John F. Kennedy, who of all Presidents deserved the most. King and the rest of the civil rights movement, as Robert Kennedy explained in 1964-5 oral history interviews, had brilliantly forced the Kennedy Administration to face the issue--and particularly the issue of public accomodations--by their campaign of civil disobedience. Lacking the resources to protect demonstrators, RFK explained, the Administration had no choice but to try to meet their demands--and it was JFK, not LBJ, who introduced the act in the extraordinary month of June 1963. LBJ could hardly turn back when he became President, although he brilliantly capitalized on Kennedy's death to get the bill through the Senate with the help of clever legislative management. It was Kennedy, as Jackie Robinson (a Nixon supporter in 1960) recognized, who became the first President to take on the whole complex of civil rights issues head on. Both Clinton and Obama should be asking themselves if they will be able to provide that kind of leadership on issues like taxes, immigration, and Iraq. I hope so.

P.S. There is some doubt as to whether Netanyahu actually made the statement attributed to him above. The Israeli press confirms that Bush, after originally leaving Netanyahu off his schedule, did meet with him. But no authoritative source confirms the nuclear remarks, which are all over the blogosphere. I'll give it a couple of more days to see if anything turns up.

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