The Silk-purse Promises of a War We’ve Lost

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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The Iraq Study Group believes that “The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.”

Two observations:

First, the irony of it: Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, Iraq was the key. Remember? Remove Saddam Hussein from power, bring democracy to Iraq, and the other bits and pieces of the Middle East puzzle will fall into place. Democracy will, domino-like, sweep the region, and the Arab-Israeli conflict will soon be resolved.

But now, it turns out (according to Messrs. Baker and Hamilton), the order must be reversed: First solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and then the Iraq crisis will be eased.

It is surely a mark of just how wretched the Iraq crisis has become that serious people believe the a resolution of the chronic Arab-Israeli conflict — a “comprehensive” resolution, no less — is a precondition for extricating ourselves from Iraq.

Second, the illogic of it. Lord knows, there’s an urgency to resolving the Arab-Israel conflict. But there is no reason to suppose that its resolution will cause the insurgents in Iraq, Sunni and Shi’ite alike, to lay down their arms and make nice to each other. Their grievances and their ambitions have at the very most a glancing relationship to problems beyond their borders.

That said, the specific proposals of the Iraq Study Group regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, if taken in their own right, unrelated to Iraq, are entirely sensible. The element that has drawn the most criticism from some of the pro-Israel camp — including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself — is the commission’s call for the United States to enter into dialogue with Syria and Iran and, more specifically, for Israel, in the context of a negotiated peace with Syria, to return the Golan Heights.

The American Jewish Committee registered its “deep concerns” about the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations, which, it said, “could seriously complicate the quest for Middle East peace and stability, rather than advance it.” It objects to what it describes as “a gentle approach to so recalcitrant and menacing an adversary” as Iran, sees no useful purpose to be served by persuading Syria (in the words of the Iraq Study Group) “to obtain from Hamas an acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist,” and sees no point in Israel negotiating with (again, in the words of the commission) “‘those [Palestinians] who accept Israel’s right to exist,” since it is not they but Hamas who now holds power.

Yet, whatever one makes of the Iraq Study Group report in general, the fact is that its language regarding Israel contains some unexpected positive elements. It very specifically recommends that Israel negotiate only with those Palestinians who accept its right to exist, thereby endorsing the current isolation of Hamas. And it bluntly says that “No American administration — Democratic or Republican — will ever abandon Israel.”

It decisively endorses a two-state solution consistent with United Nations resolutions 242 and 338, both of which are the necessary points of departure for diplomatic discourse and both of which are sufficiently ambiguous to offer an acceptable basis for negotiation. Most important, the Iraq Study Group calls for a vigorous American effort to advance a negotiated resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a position that accords with a significant swath of the American Jewish community.

Curiously, given James Baker’s known disposition, the Iraq Study Group report makes no mention at all of the Saudi peace initiative, of which even Olmert had a few kind words to say just two weeks ago. (Perhaps Baker wanted to avoid calling attention to his coincidence of interest.)

The main thrust of the Iraq Study Group report is, of course, Iraq, and America’s role there. The neoconservatives who were in effect severely chastised in the report yelped, but those who had hoped the policy of the president and his people would be repudiated were pleasantly surprised by how explicit and unrelenting its repudiation was.

One cheer for schadenfreude. But the sense of satisfaction — a kind of relief that the adults are back in charge in Washington — did not last very long. By the time people were done reading the full report, its gloomy assessment of the situation in Iraq very substantially overshadowed its laundry list of recommendations.

The sad fact is that the president could, though there is no reason to believe he will, safely endorse virtually all the recommendations without significantly improving the prospect of an honorable conclusion to the conflict. Essentially, the report rejects “cut and run” in favor of “cut and walk.” But the walk it describes feels mostly like a walk on the gangplank. The silk purse the neoconservatives promised turns out to be a sow’s ear after all.

Israel, as it happens, is just about the only nation a majority of whose citizens continue to believe in the silk purse theory. From the beginning, during the run-up to the war, most Israelis were delighted at the prospective American intervention. Minimally, they believed, the anticipated American victory over Saddam would remove an important threat to Israel. Very few people paused to imagine the unthinkable: What if America were to lose?

Yet that is where we are today. Our new defense secretary, Robert Gates, and our old secretary of state, James Baker, along with a host of others, tell us “we are not winning.” They cannot bring themselves to speak the whole truth: We are losing.

And what we are losing, beyond lives and treasure, is America’s stature in the world. In the long run, that may cost Israel far more than it has gained from the passive policy and the permissive friendship of the 43rd president of the United States.

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