Dizzying and Exhilarating US Middle East Policies
NEW YORK - Following American policy in the Middle East is a dizzying endeavor, as I was reminded this week while monitoring President Barack Obama’s visit to the region, the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Anglo-American invasion and war in Iraq, and the continuing dynamics around Iran’s nuclear industry.
This is a dizzying exercise because one is constantly thrown back and forth between two contradictory extremes that capture the best and worst of that arena where American values and policy cohabit uneasily. The fundamental tension is between, on the one hand, the ringing, repeated assertion of the democratic spirit that defines the United States and its self-appointed role as the purveyor of democracy and the rule of law for others around the world; and, on the other hand, the United States’ refusal to apply those values to many of its own foreign policy decisions.
President Obama’s visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan has been a low-key affair, with perfunctory speeches that repeat established positions and do not break any new policy ground. I thought the most noteworthy aspect of Obama’s visit was the new emotional zing in his articulation of the need to end Israel’s occupation and settlements, and instead promote justice and statehood for the Palestinians, which he expressed in a speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem. He correctly noted that Israel can only enjoy solid peace and security when the Palestinians enjoy freedom, sovereignty and democracy.
Obama should be praised for clearly taking this message to the Israeli public, but one wonders also how much we should value rhetoric when the actions of the speaker fall short of the message in his words. Obama and the United States represent the single greatest accumulation of power in the hands of a single country and leadership in the history of the world. That power includes moral, economic, military, diplomatic and cultural dimensions, comprising numerous instruments that Obama could use to make it clear that the United States sees justice and sovereign statehood for the Palestinians as real strategic assets for the U.S. and Israel, as well as for everyone else in the region.
Obama could easily initiate various measures -- substantive or symbolic, unilateral or multilateral – to put his policy where his mouth is, and to use Washington’s substantial leadership abilities to bring the many other regional actors on board to work together for a lasting and fair peace. The United States’ acquiescing in the unstable status quo and relying on laudatory and deeply principled rhetoric as a primary policy tool for asserting Israeli and Palestinian rights contrasts sharply with its response to the Iran and Iraq issues.
Washington has taken numerous initiatives in the past decade to pressure, sanction and threaten Iran over its nuclear energy activities, repeatedly saying that war is always the last resort option. It marshals impressive global coalitions and uses all available tools -- military threats, economic sanctions, rhetorical appeals, diplomatic coercion, and negotiations -- to push for its stated goals. In doing so, however, it conveniently disregards the stubborn reality that its demands on Iran are all based on heartfelt but totally unsubstantiated, mostly American-Israeli-European accusations, suspicions, concerns, fears and expectations of possible eventualities in Iranian nuclear behavior.
So on the one hand, the United States totally disregards its own foundational democratic principles of obeying the rule of law (in this case the global rules for Iranian peaceful and internationally monitored nuclear energy production); and, on the other hand, the United States and its allies trash another foundational democratic principle by assuming that Iran is guilty and must be sanctioned and threatened, before it has had a chance to be engaged seriously or prove it innocence.
On this tenth anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the United States people and government still broadly refuse to implement perhaps the single most significant and operational element in the kind of democracy the U.S. says it wants to promote around the world: accountability of public officials according to the rule of law. The massive destructive consequences of the American-initiated and -led Iraq war and occupation will reverberate around the region for many more years, yet very few voices are raised in the United States about whether anyone should be held accountable for all this. A few Americans, including former officials like National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley writing in the Washington Post, admit that the war was long and costly, but they conclude that it was all worth it. Accountability is nowhere to be seen today on the American horizons of governance and power, but it continues to drive American demands for answers from Iran or assorted Arab parties. No wonder that most people around the world, especially in the Middle East, find interacting with Americans both exhilarating and dizzying. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global