How can you describe a doughnut without mentioning the fact that it has a hole? I suppose you can if you have to, but it’s a laborious and unsatisfying task. You can describe its composition and texture and color, you can talk about its uses, and so forth, but if you really want to get to grips with its distinctive identity you have to point out its shape. And the distinguishing feature about its shape is its hole.
How can you talk about the current scene in the Middle East without mentioning Israel? You can talk about Islam and its sects, you can talk about pan-Arabism versus national differences, you can talk about sects and tribes and ethnicity until you are blue in the face, but no analysis of what is happening in the region is complete without reference to Israel and its regional impact.
And yet, that is what is happening here in the land of the free. Almost no one publicly dares to relate our relationship with Israel’s present government to what is going in the Middle East today, except in a formulaic, politically correct way that is devoid of meaning. Talk about terrorism, it all comes back to Arafat and his failure to control the Palestinian suicide bombers. Talk about why we invaded Iraq and our continuing security problems in the Sunni triangle of Iraq, never a mention of Israel. Talk about introducing democracy in the region, it’s all about corruption, or maybe about Islam, never a word about Israel.
And most particularly, you can talk about why polls show that almost everyone in the Middle East hates us, and all you get is “they hate us for our freedom” and such nonsense, accompanied by suggestions that all we need to do is “sell” our “message” more effectively.
It’s been two months since I wrote the first draft of this essay, and since then Sharon’s government has blatantly assassinated Hamas leaders Sheikh Yassin and Rantisi. The U.S. media didn’t even gulp. Sharon came to Washington and demanded that President Bush in effect abandon the “road map” and endorse the Sharon plan for absorbing much of the West Bank. Bush rolled over. Kerry announced that he would have rolled over too. Nobody speculated that this would hinder our effort to win hearts and minds in Iraq except the usual pro-Arab apologists on the left, and that veteran right-wing contrarian Pat Buchanan, who announced that Washington was “outsourcing” its foreign policy to Tel Aviv.
Within the last couple of weeks the Bush administration has been backpedaling on previous policy and putting its hopes on the UN official, Lakhdar Brahimi, to pull its chestnuts out of the fire and arrange an orderly transfer of power in Baghdad by the magic date of June 30. On April 23 Brahimi publicly stated that Israel’s policies and American support had poisoned the the atmosphere and rendered his task more difficult. Shouldn’t this be a newsworthy statement? The New York Times, on April 24, buried it in a small article on page 5, starting with the news that the UN secretariat would have preferred less inflammatory language. The esteemed Washington Post buried Brahimi’s squawk even deeper, at the back end of a long article about Jerry Bremer’s latest contortions.
The present situation is comparable to the parable about the emperor that has no clothes. The “Israel right or wrong” gang in America has managed to impose such a complete embargo on any rational discussion of our problems in the Middle East that in order to find any intelligent analysis of the Israeli factor you have to turn to Europe, or to Israel itself, where the liberal opposition in that country can still raise its voice. American gentiles have been bludgeoned into the notion that any attempt to relate recent Israeli expansionism to American interests in the region is, horrors! anti-semitic, and therefore completely reprehensible and anti-American. And every time some American Jews try to raise questions, they are accused of undermining Israel’s security. It’s amazing, how unfree our vaunted free speech has become on this issue.
What a difference there is, once you step outside the United States! The Middle East, of course, is obsessed with Israel, and you won’t talk very long to people there before the subject comes up. The tunes vary but the underlying mode is always resentment at the United States for providing such strong and uncritical support to what they all see as the major threat to stability in the region. All right, but Israel is right there in the middle of the region. How about the rest of the world?
The prevailing European attitude is sharply at odds with our view of contemporary Israeli behavior, and opposition to our support for Sharon and his team is a major source of anti-American sentiment. But how about the others? Don’t the developing nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America have more to think about than our policy in the Middle East? Well, they do, but when they think about the USA, our global reputation as a post-colonialist backer of colonial-style aggression in the Levant lies somewhere in the backs of their minds, coloring their attitudes.
When I lived in Nepal twenty years ago, resentment at U.S. support for Israel was almost invisible, overlaid by more proximate concerns, but it was there, and it diluted otherwise favorable attitudes toward the USA.
If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the votes in the UN General Assembly about Israel over the past forty years or so. On almost every other issue the U.S. delegation can muster up a respectable amount of support, but on this one we are almost never able to scrape up more than a pitiful handful of inconsequential mini states; it is the United States and Israel, a minority of two, against the world.
America has paid a heavy price for getting out on a limb in this manner and isolating itself from the mainstream of the world community. For example, terrorism is our number one problem these days, and we share it with Israel. Israel’s right-wing government stubbornly refuses to look at the reasons why Palestinian women will strap explosives around their waists and blow themselves up in order to take out a few Israelis. To do so would expose the extent to which Palestinians as a culturally distinct group have been oppressed and humiliated to the point they feel their whole world is threatened with extinction. So Sharon continues to trumpet the criminality of the attacks and avoid or misconstrue any discussion of the motives of the attackers. And we supinely follow Sharon’s lead. Now that we face our own terrorist threat, we insist on spending billions, and shortchanging our constitutional liberties, the better to bash its symptoms, while refusing to take any meaningful action to get at its causes. We refuse to distinguish between politically motivated terrorism and ordinary crime. We refuse, as does the Israeli government, to recognize the possibility of attacking politically motivated terrorism not just by clobbering it whenever possible, but by getting to the societies that spawn terrorists, and altering their perceptions of their future.
The Bush administration’s disastrous doctrine of militant unilateralism didn’t arise out of indigenous American isolationism alone. That tendency, always latent in our land, was cross-fertilized by the Israeli experience, and nourished by our growing sense of global isolation, to grow into a jingoistic monster. Instead of worrying about why the rest of the world disagreed with us, some of us decided, in a rather childish way, the hell with them, we’ll show them, we’ll go it alone. And that faction won the last election, on a technicality.
Our efforts in Iraq are severely handicapped by our close association with Israel’s current policies. We are engaged in many good works in that unhappy country, but Sharon’s albatross hangs around our neck, and that factor alone can spell the difference between success and failure. We thought we were coming to Iraq as liberators, and were surprised that so many people that suffered under Saddam’s heel regard us as enemies.
There is much soul searching in Washington about our unpopularity in the Middle East, and some talk about doing something about it. Poor Margaret Tutweiler has been given a fresh mandate to “sell” America to the world, as though we were a brand of toothpaste. The Bush administration is so convinced that spin can overcome substance that it would market toothpaste tasting like cow manure if it thought its advertising budget was sufficient. Tutweiler can only succeed if we change the product. But that would require an open public discussion of where our relation with one faction in Israel was taking us, and how we might alter it. And that we cannot seem to accomplish.
The political correctness that governs our internal dialogue is wrong intrinsically, and wrong because it is out of phase. The whole Israeli “issue” has developed far beyond the early stage, which revolved around the question of whether Israel should continue to exist. Yes, there was a time when many Arabs were committed to combat Israel and if possible get rid of it. Some still do, but for years now there have been countless signs that majority Arab opinion has swung around to accepting Israel as an accomplished fact, however unwelcome. In that sense Israel and its powerful supporter, the United States, have won. But even by saying this, on the basis of a tremendous amount of evidence, I am getting controversial. It suits the mystique of political correctness that prevails here to insist that most Arabs still are dedicated to conquering and terminating the Israeli state. This is simply not true, but a lot of Americans believe it, because the Likudniks have pounded that line into our very subconscious. And they have done that because they do not want us to focus on where the real battle is being fought these days.
The present Israeli leadership isn’t satisfied with winning the war over whether it should continue to exist. It wants more. If the battle over Israel’s existence is over, the battle over Sharon’s plan to annex much of the West Bank, and achieve permanent control over the rest, is only now reaching its peak. And this is the battle we are not allowed to discuss. We politely stand aside while the Bush administration talks about road maps and process while Sharon and his cohorts build the wall and erect “facts on the ground.” It’s all leading to what I call the 85% solution—absorption of much of the West Bank directly into Israel and reduction of the rest to isolated pockets, like the holes in a Swiss cheese. Sharon sometimes pays lip service to our so-called “road map,” but his own map is leading in a quite different direction. What he foresees is a West Bank that remains under effective Israeli control, speckled by little Bantustans where surviving Palestinians eke out a claustrophobic existence
That’s the real battle going on these days. It began with a battle over the settlements, and now it’s moving on to the next stage, with Sharon’s announced intention, now ratified by our President, to impose a unilateral solution unless the impossible happens and every last Palestinian Arab agrees not to fight back. Until now, the United States has officially been opposed to the expansion of the settlements, but it has never gone to the mat with Sharon over this issue, and now Bush has agree to let Sharon get away with whatever he wants. Sharon’s followup moves will come at the height of election fever in the USA and he is probably correct that Bush and company will steadfastly ignore whatever outrages he may commit. And if Bush loses and a new and more honorable administration takes over, well, even if Kerry changes his tune it will be a bit late. Once the cat has swallowed the canary it’s difficult to get the bird back in its cage.
Most of the world, in sum, sees the USA as an accomplice to an international colonialist land grab. This is why world opinion is so down on us, in the Middle East especially. It isn’t that they hate our freedom, quite the contrary. It isn’t that Islam is entering a clash of civilization with the West, that is nonsense. It isn’t even that they think we’re just seeking control of the world’s number one petroleum source. That’s a secondary factor at best. They see us as accomplices to a crime, and as lying in our teeth in our attempts to prove otherwise. Their disapproval isn’t just cynical, and it certainly isn’t just naive; it is ethical, based on a sense that we are morally delinquent.
We won the first war, and Israel is here to stay. We should begin as soon as possible to exercise our influence in Israel and the region and put a stop to the second war, by forcing Sharon to back down and follow our road map, not his. If we do this, and are seen to do it, we shall secure a mammoth victory on a much wider front. We won’t solve all our problems, but we’ll get the cowflops out of that toothpaste and once again have a product that can sell.
Carleton S. Coon, Jr., was a career officer in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1949 to 1985. Most of his posts were in or involving the Near East and South Asia. He was ambassador to Nepal from 1981 to 1984. Since retiring he has published one book, Culture Wars and the Global Village (2000). Another work, “One Planet, One People,” is due out this September.