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Arguing the obsolete approach

By Steven C. Den Beste
web posted April 15, 2002

I sometimes wonder whether some political positions owe as much to nostalgia as anything, to an unwillingness to recognize that there have been permanent changes in the international situation and that old approaches are now obsolete.

A recent article by Trudy Rubin tries to present the reaction of Saudis to the Israeli attack on the West Bank. Like many, she still thinks that some sort of negotiated peace is possible between Israel and the Palestinians, and she thinks that the Saudi peace proposal (such as it was) is the answer but only if the US hammers on Israel hard and forces Israel to "be reasonable".

The biggest problem with this article is that it betrays her wish that there could somehow be a way to turn back the clock. I can hear her screaming inside her head, "Why can't we all just get along??"

But it seems to me as if she's being blinded by her misconceptions, and is completely misunderstanding what is going on. In particular, she is interpreting posturing as genuine efforts. She declares them failures; what she misses is that they were never expected to succeed.

Let's rewind the clock to September for a moment, shall we? In the last three weeks of September, U.S. President George W. Bush made certain demands on the Taliban government. In exchange for compliance with those demands, he promised that we would not attack. But the demands were couched in terms such that it was not possible for the Taliban to comply with them. As we now know, bin Laden effectively was the government of the Taliban, in the shadows. He had purchased Mullah Omar, and Omar never did anything important without consulting bin Laden. I think our government knew this, and so Bush's demand that the Taliban turn bin Laden over to us for trial without conditions was a demand that Bush knew the Taliban would never agree to.

By so doing, he was not truly making an attempt to negotiate; what he was doing was to try to lay the political groundwork for the eventual attack.

By the same token, American diplomacy in the Middle East now is not intended to find a peaceful solution in Israel. That isn't possible without making unacceptable concessions (both by Israel and by the US). But the act of diplomacy even though futile helps to lay the groundwork for the war against Iraq and other Arab nations which is coming.

She laments:

The Bush administration wants moderate Arab allies to pressure Yasir Arafat to crush militants. It would even like Arab leaders to negotiate in Arafat's stead. But spend a few days in the Saudi capital, and talk to educated, pro-American Saudi businessmen and professionals, and you'll see how badly the Bush approach is failing.

If indeed that were really the goal of the mission, then it's true it would be a failure. But the goal of the mission is for it to fail. The goal of the mission is to make it look as if the US did everything it could to find a peaceful solution, so that when we "give up" and go to war in that area we will have defused as much of the international condemnation as possible.

It's true that the Bush administration would like that kind of pressure on Arafat. But the top officials in the Bush administration are not fools and they know full well it isn't going to happen. But simply by asking and being turned down, we win a victory.

George W. has become anathema to Saudis - and other Arabs - of all political stripes. The level of rage at American policy outdoes anything I've ever seen - for reasons Powell had better grasp or quit schlepping through the region.

That rage isn't just, as many claim, the transference to the United States of Arabs' anger at their own corrupt, undemocratic regimes. Arabs are furious at America's failure to halt the Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank - which they can watch nonstop on satellite TV.

You bet. They're watching the Israeli operation in the West Bank, and they'll also watch the defeat of Iraq. And they are angry because of their impotence, and they will come to realize that they have no temporal power. Then the US will come and talk to the Saudi government and hand it an ultimatum and when the war comes to their doorstep the Saudi businessmen and professionals will know that we mean business.

It's becoming apparent that Saudi Arabia is one of the nations which is ultimately our enemy. Before this can be settled, there will have to be radical changes there. And for that to happen, there must be a cooling of relations between them and us, so that it will be politically possible for us to do in Saudi Arabia what is required.

She doesn't seem to understand that the Bush administration is deliberately angering the Saudis, in hopes of getting them to do something stupid.

Yet the last best hope to prevent endless guerrilla war in Israel lies not with Sharon's futile invasion but with the fading chance that the United States and moderate Arabs could work together to force both Israel and the Palestinians back to rationality.

That chance revolves largely around the proposal made by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, ratified by the Arab League, that Arab states establish "normal relations" with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal to 1967 borders. Critics of this idea say that such a withdrawal would only be followed by further terrorism aimed at the destruction of Israel. I asked the former longtime head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the son and grandson of Saudi kings, to respond.

That is no chance. The Saudi proposal was a nonstarter; it was never genuine. Just as with Bush's demands to the Taliban in September, the Saudis framed that proposal in such a way that they knew Israel would never accept it. The Saudis didn't want it accepted; what they wanted was to make political capital from the Israeli refusal.

"Today you cannot hold Yasir Arafat liable, but if he was truly president of a viable state we could all hold him responsible," says Prince Turki. "This is what Crown Prince Abdullah is telling the Israeli people - only through peace can both of us live in harmony. We Arabs give you recognition for safety, security and sovereignty, and you have to give Palestinians the same."

Occupation, said the prince, was just as evil as terrorism. Whether you believe this or not, the violence on the West Bank and in Israel won't end unless the administration addresses both.

And that is the reason the proposal is empty: the promises made to Israel in it are a joke. Security for Israel lies in letting Arafat have a nation, and then if he uses it to keep attacking Israel (as he would) then the Arabs promise to frown at him.

"Lies" is definitely the proper word for that.

The problem in Israel cannot be solved in Israel. It is part of a much larger problem and a much larger solution will be needed. The best that can be hoped for in Israel right now is to stabilize the situation so that Israel can mark time waiting for the bigger solution. The purpose of the current offensive in the West Bank is to defang the terrorist organizations which have been attacking Israel. I don't believe that the Israelis ever expected to stay there indefinitely; the goal of this operation is to do as much damage to the terrorist groups as possible and then to withdraw.

If the only thing it accomplishes is to decrease the rate and severity of the bombing campaign against Israel, it will be a tactical victory.

However, it probably will accomplish more. Another goal of the operation is to capture intelligence material which may aid in further operations of a lesser degree later, and which may aid in the larger war to come. If, for instance, there is data which links Arafat to certain Arab capitals and also to terrorist groups, then that will be immensely valuable politically.

It won't end the war between Israel and the Palestinians, but I don't believe it was ever expected to do so. It will make Israel's situation better over the short run, and that is good enough.

And it will anger the Arabs, and in the long run that too will be valuable, especially in Saudi Arabia. The lines in this war are obvious to those who look at it with clear vision, and Saudi Arabia is ultimately the chief enemy. Through their export of extreme Wahhabism and their financial support for extremist Muslim organizations around the world, they are the key piece which has to be removed in order to truly achieve peace in the Middle East. If making the Arab Street angry forces the house of Saud to definitively come out against us, which is already happening, it will make it politically much easier to bring about a "regime change" there.

We're well beyond the point where it's possible for us to just get along. We have long since gone past the point of no return; there's a war on and the only thing to do now is to fight it.

Steven C. Den Beste is the force behind the blog U.S.S. Clueless. This article appeared as a blog entry on his site and is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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