Most foreign analysts believe that change in American Foreign policy is exceptionally rare. Even when there is a major ideological transition, such as the one from Clinton to Bush, foreign analysts believe that change would be minimal. A Pakistani diplomat recently remarked, “I do not expect much difference. Change in American foreign policy is usually in nuances and not in substance.”
Be that as it may, US policy towards the Middle East has certainly changed in fundamental ways. Comprehensive peace and the desire for a New Middle East, politically serene and economically integrated, were the cornerstones of Bill Clinton’s American vision of the region. But George Bush and Colin Powell are more interested in the security of Israel and reviving adversarial relations with Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Iraq.
In a recent talk to AIPAC, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Powell suggested that Israel’s security and not peace was the primary objective of the new administration. He essentially echoed the position advanced by Israel’s new Prime Minster Ariel Sharon that there would be no talk about peace until there is an end to violence.
The US has withdrawn the CIA from the role of a security broker in the area. It has not appointed any one to replace Dennis Ross, the former special envoy to the Middle East. It has replaced the slogan, peace for security with emphasis on security. While there is much rhetoric coming from both Powell and Bush about continued US involvement in the region and support for Israel, it is obvious that Washington is retreating from its earlier position as the region’s Big Brother.
While Bush and Powell may be more comfortable with this position of lesser responsibility, American interests in the region will be hurt severely by this policy of limited and selective engagement. So far the new administration has merely committed itself to two goals – a renewed commitment to Israel’s security and to a tougher and more hostile approach toward Iraq. This policy may bring the Bush brigade some support and applause at the luncheons hosted by AIPAC and other Israeli lobbies, but in the region itself, it will hurt US influence.
The rejection of Clinton’s supposedly evenhanded approach and a full-scale alignment with Israel will surely disappoint and distance vital allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The new message that the US only cares for Israel’s safety, and the Palestinians should dance to Sharon’s tune is neither going placate the Palestinians nor reassure Arab allies. Increasingly Iraq and Palestinians have gained significant international public sympathy. Arab governments cannot afford to ignore the plight of the Palestinians nor step up their hostilities toward Iraq. In fact, even Europe has now joined the Arab streets in reconciling with Iraq and supporting Arafat. Recent military attacks on Iraq and the deliberate silence on the Palestinian plight has not only made the US less popular in the Middle East but has also increased the cleavage between US and great powers like France, Russia and China.
Increasing hostility toward Iraq will destabilize allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait. These nations already are wary about the US’ now hot-now cold attitude towards Iraq. The US and not Iraq will be globally isolated on this issue. To most of the world, US policy toward Iraq reeks of vendetta and lacks wisdom. With respect to Palestine, dropping the land for peace, or peace for security principle in the favor of security first then peace is a sure recipe for disaster.
But if Israel’s security is guaranteed then why will it want to make peace? Why will it want to give up Jerusalem, or the settlements or even West Bank and Gaza? With its security guaranteed, Israel will seek to enjoy the fruits of its conquest; it will keep all annexed territories and continue to fuel its economy using the homeless Palestinians as cheap labor.
It is only the threat of an unending cycle of violence and war, which has compelled it to sit at the negotiating table. If that threat is eliminated, then that is peace for Israel and there will be no more need for any more peace talks. What Powell and Sharon are asking is impossible. They want the Palestinians to give up their struggle for freedom and then hope for some gesture of generosity from Israel. Unfortunately that is not going to happen. The Palestinians who have suffered the brutality of Israeli army for decades will not give up their struggle. After all, the only thing that they have that gives them their identity and a meaning to their existence is their struggle. Everything else Israel has annexed. Bush is asking too much and giving nothing. His Middle East policy will only cause more pain and suffering to all and will bring peace and security to none.