David Rothkopf has an interesting essay on Foreign Policy’s website arguing that Western, and especially American, involvement in and attention to the Middle East is out of proportion to the region’s importance. He gets a few things right–such as the discovery of oil and natural gas elsewhere in the world and the fact that both rising state powers and extremist threats are increasingly coming from Asia (and Africa). The “pivot,” he correctly notes, wasn’t so much a strategic calculation as an acceptance of reality.
He could also have mentioned our role in the competition between China and Russia in Central Asia, or President Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement, which was to identify Pakistan as the focal point of that region and plan accordingly. I think he underplays the threat of a nuclear Iran, but that may be (though he does not say this) because most of the world believes the U.S. or Israel will prevent that from happening anyway. But Rothkopf’s section on Israel gets a bit fuzzy, though in a roundabout way reinforces his underlying point. Here’s Rothkopf:
Barack Obama’s generation entered the workforce at the time Ariel Sharon was directing Israeli troops into the camps in Lebanon, a watershed that for many washed away much of the positive narrative about Israel the virtuous underdog. From then on, through the intifada and the construction of new settlements on contested land, Israel has systematically damaged its standing in the eyes of the world (which hasn’t been hard to do since so many around the world are predisposed for pretty awful reasons to dislike the idea of a Jewish state to begin with)….
But given the periodic flare-ups of unreasonable behavior at the top from the Israeli government, the embrace of Israel as an ally carries with it costs — and the new technologies of modern conflict offer many alternative ways to counterbalance these risks. That’s not to say America is better off without Israel as an ally. We are. Just not at any price.
The demographic and political tides in the region are turning against the Israelis in ways that rightfully have them nervous. Absent a deal with the Palestinians in the next several years, their situation is likely to grow more precarious — and, with the potential rise of Arab democracy, more difficult to defend for a country like the United States whose foreign policy is built (in theory at least) on ideas like the right to self-determination.
Much of this is necessarily vague. At what “price” should we ditch our relationship with Israel? Are we anywhere close to it? He doesn’t say. Ditto on the unexplained throwaway line about “flare-ups of unreasonable behavior” from the Israeli government. And what of the bizarrely random time stamp on when Barack Obama’s generation entered the work force? At that age, they are old enough to have known why Sharon went into Lebanon–though Rothkopf doesn’t mention it, as it was an undeniable act of self-defense.
Rothkopf says Israel fumbled away Western goodwill “through the intifada and the construction of new settlements,” a very strange thing to say considering that the intifada was a terror war conducted by the Palestinians against Israeli civilians. And a peace deal will not be reached in the next several years, but because it is the Palestinian leadership refusing to negotiate, it remains highly unlikely the U.S. will blame Israel, though the media most certainly will. And the “rise of Arab democracy” argues against supporting an authoritarian, corrupt, hateful regime on the West Bank of the Jordan, not in favor of empowering the Mubarakites.
So why does this still support Rothkopf’s thesis? Because Rothkopf is describing the kind of worldview that tends to dominate Foggy Bottom, and possibly even the current White House, as Rothkopf seems to suggest. The obsession with the Middle East really boils down to the Western obsession with the peace process, and that peace process can be destructive to everyone involved. It ruined Bill Clinton’s foreign policy by letting Yasser Arafat hijack Clinton’s attention (Clinton wanted peace with Syria and, by extension, Lebanon instead–a worthy goal).
George W. Bush’s Mideast policymaking was naturally consumed by Iraq and Afghanistan, but going forward that won’t be the case. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has decided it wanted peace in the Middle East and sent George Mitchell to lecture the Israelis and Palestinians about Northern Ireland. And that turned out to be only the warm-up act for nonsensical policy demands and aggressive and off-putting grandstanding.
The worst kept secret about the Middle East is that the peace process was healthiest before the United States took a public role, and American foreign policy was healthiest before presidents began wasting political capital (and time and energy) on an issue that wasn’t going anywhere. Bush understood this and was criticized for it. The answer is not to ignore the peace process completely (or the Middle East for that matter), but to not allow it to dominate the agenda. Rothkopf is right: Don’t ditch the Middle East, but don’t neglect more pressing matters for it, either.