This year’s presidential campaign season has highlighted two very different approaches to issues such as Iran, Iraq, the peace process and our ongoing war on terror. Underlying the candidates’ Middle East policy differences are two divergent views regarding the sources of the regional rage aimed at America and, indeed, the entire West.
The left’s explanations for Middle Eastern rage can be reduced to the following: misunderstanding (almost always ours), humiliation (almost always inflicted by us, or by key allies, such as Israel) or insufficient commitment to conflict resolution (almost always by us). And since we are, in large part, to blame for the problem because of either ignorance, arrogance or absence, then the solution lies in our hands as well, by pursuing some new policy initiative that remedies whatever was lacking in our previous efforts.
The right approaches the issue from a different perspective: Middle Eastern rage is a manifestation of contempt toward the West, which is itself a result of the deep agony that has gripped the Islamic world since its failed siege of Vienna half a millennium ago. The contempt emanates from a sense of entitlement and superiority, the agitation from frustration. The rejection of the West’s rise over the last millennium drives the politics of our enemies — be they secular Ba’athists or Shiite and Sunni Islamists. As long as that contempt is confirmed and stimulated by displays of Western guilt or apology, then the embers of hope for a restored Islamic empire will continue to burn.
The policies of Senators Barack Obama and John McCain — anchored as they are to such different understandings of the problem — diverge sharply. For the left, the main theme of policy toward the region must be to convince our adversaries that we respect their convictions, mean them no harm and seek to right the injustices we have inflicted. For Obama, then, the only reasonable approach to the Middle East is what has fashionably come to be called “soft power” — diplomacy, aid and rectifying grievances. These grievances, of course, are understood as having been deepened by our continued presence in Iraq, as well as by our and Israel’s inability to ameliorate Arab humiliation on Palestine. Talking to Iran, getting out of Iraq fast — victorious or not — and focusing on resolving the Palestinian issue thus assume the highest priority, as both Obama and Joe Biden have suggested in so many words.
In contrast, McCain supports policies that would reaffirm the power, resilience and solidity of the West and its informing ideas. By challenging and defeating those in the region who seek the West’s demise, we also confirm the wisdom and build the confidence of those in the Middle East who seek to lay to rest the delusional dreams of the extremists. Both McCain and Sarah Palin noted in their first two debate performances that emerging from Afghanistan and Iraq strong and victorious — rather than wheezing and humbled — is the sine qua non of winning the larger battle of ideas.
Ultimately, this debate should be argued not according to theories and assumptions, but by evidence of what works, what doesn’t and what has never been tried. The policies that Obama advocates — dialogue with Iran, investing the full weight of American prestige and presidential power on resolving the Palestinian issue, attempting to seduce the dictator of Damascus into a Western orbit — have all been tried, not once, but by almost all administrations until now.
Indeed, with the exception of the Reagan years, almost all the policies toward the Middle East in the last 35 years are anchored to the left’s assumptions, carried onward by Obama. President Carter tried dialogue and sought to preserve diplomatic relations with the new revolutionary regime in Iran to convince it we meant it no harm. Iran answered by taking our diplomats hostage. Both President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologized to the Iranian regime for injustices done by the West. It was in that period that Iran’s nuclear program gained critical mass and momentum. Presidents Carter, Bush (41), Clinton and Bush (43) all invested the prestige of their office in resolving the Palestinian issue — and, for all that effort, peace is more distant and anti-Americanism more rampant than when they started. They also all courted Damascus, but have left the bazaar quite impoverished and without any goods to show for it.
Thus, the evidence amassed over decades on these sorts of policies toward Iran, Syria and the Palestinians is overwhelming: They not only fail but carry costs that further undermine American prestige, increase anti-Americanism and weaken our key allies and friends in the region. Some of the renowned Arab philosophers of past centuries would little wonder at this result. They understood the dynamic. To paraphrase one of the greatest, Ibn Hazm: Those who chase the friendship of their foes only earn the despair of their friends and the contempt of their enemies.
For a brief but ultimately aborted moment, the current administration trod a different path, leaving Afghanistan and Iraq liberated, inspiring awe of American power and resolve (which led even Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi to believe he must curry our favor to survive), and igniting a new regional discourse and momentum toward freedom (which liberated Lebanon). But this administration ultimately succumbed to old policies and nearly lost Iraq (salvaged in the end only by a return to the sort of resolve advocated by McCain), is losing Afghanistan and Lebanon, reignited rising regional contempt toward us, and endangered our closest allies and vital interests.
We do need change and a new approach to the region. But while Obama has embraced the rhetoric of change, the Middle East policies he advocates represent continuity with a failed past, not a bridge to a new future. McCain, on the other hand, correctly understands the true meaning of change and calls for the kind of policies that will bring America and Israel peace and security.
Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute.