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Losing the Middle East?
From the March 18, 2002 issue: When it comes to peacemaking, don't trust the Saudis and Egyptians.
by Reuel Marc Gerecht
03/09/2002 12:00:00 AM

DO THE Arab leaders of the Middle East think we're clever? Or to put it more politically: Do they think we can tell the difference between friend and foe? Among Arabs themselves, knowing who the good guys are has long been a devilishly difficult task, since the great divide--believer and infidel--is usually of little use in separating sides. From the tenth century on, the Middle East has been overwhelmingly Muslim, yet shifting allegiances and war were the common state of affairs between Muslim potentates. In contemporary times, it's only gotten worse since traditional ties of kith and kin--the second skirmish line of the Arab identity--have been extended into nation-states where modern ideologies have devolved into brutal despotisms that rely primarily on family, often with fratricidal intensity. The Assad regime in Syria, like Saddam Hussein's Baath party in Iraq or Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, can be a friend one day and try to kill you the next.

Fortunately, we don't have to play in intra-Arab politics. Knowing thine enemy for Washington ought to be an easier task. Which of course provokes the question: What in the world is the Bush administration doing indulging Saudi crown prince Abdullah's "peace" initiative? Why did the administration send the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, whose CIA credentials give him enormous significance in the conspiracy-laden Muslim world, to speak directly with Abdullah, as would a vassal to his lord? Why is the administration again sending General Anthony Zinni to the Middle East when there is an absolute certainty that in his mission he will appear feckless? And his fecklessness--made worse, of course, because Zinni is a renowned military man with quintessential American looks--will only undermine the more important, Iraq-related objectives of Vice President Dick Cheney's upcoming journey through the region.

An administration self-confident in war now insists on dissipating its awe by allowing itself to appear panicked by the Israeli-Palestinian "cycle of violence," warnings from the rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and a Gallup poll depicting America in a bad light among the Muslim masses. Whatever one thinks about polling as a valuable social-science tool--and using polls in closed, distrustful Muslim societies is dubious--the publication of the Gallup poll at the same time as Abdullah's "peace" proposal and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's visit to Washington is an exquisite irony. In the Arab world, no two states have done more to fan hatred of America than have Washington's two primary Arab "allies."

PRINCE Abdullah and President Mubarak encouraged Yasser Arafat to trash the Camp David talks with President Clinton and Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak in July 2000. Does the administration really believe that Abdullah has now abandoned the principles that define his identity, his faith, and his country's foreign policy? It is inconceivable that Abdullah now wants Arafat to accept less than what Abdullah, Mubarak, and Arafat rejected before. The only statements that matter are those that are publicly expressed in Arabic to the Arab world, and the three gentlemen have given no indication whatsoever that Arafat's decision to scuttle the Clinton administration's diplomacy was wrong.

Is it at all reasonable to believe that Prince Abdullah, a devout Muslim who with his family rules over the oldest, most militant Islamic state, could ever imagine an Israeli embassy in the "country of the two Holy Places" (Mecca and Medina), a land whose better-educated denizens can explain to you at length how a Jewish cabal is trying to ruin the Arab and Muslim worlds and despoil "Christian America"? And Riyadh, with its American-educated bureaucrats, is enlightened compared with Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi heartland in the Najd, where if a referendum were taken tomorrow about restoring slavery--banned in the Kingdom only in 1962--it might pass.

Behind our backs, and often to our faces, Egyptian and Saudi officials have belittled us. In their state-controlled (in the Saudi case, family-owned) media, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have relentlessly attacked us and advanced Nazi-like anti-Semitism throughout the Muslim world. Since September 11, it does not appear that Saudi missionaries and Saudi-financed religious organizations--preeminently the World Muslim League (ar-Rabita al-Islamiyya al-'Alamiyya)--have in any way altered their message of contempt and hatred for the West. I've recently visited Saudi-financed proselytizing organizations in Western Europe, and they still reek of studied loathing for the United States.

And the Egyptian government is no better. When in Washington, President Mubarak was concerned with helping America in the Middle East; in Egypt, he is in the process of destroying the American University in Cairo, which along with the American University of Beirut has been the great symbol of American education and culture in the region. Avaricious and power-hungry, Mubarak's wife has led the charge to force the sale of AUC in downtown Cairo so that Mubarak, Inc., can tear down the gracefully crenellated university to build luxury high-rises and other profitable enterprises. In compensation, the Egyptian government has generously donated land in the desert for a new university.

Hosni Mubarak, who increasingly appears as a cross between Pharaoh and a well-manicured Tony Soprano, tells his people with his words and deeds that his dominion is unchallengeable, that he can command America's attention and largesse (currently around $2 billion per annum), and belittle the United States as he chooses in downtown Cairo. During his dictatorship, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser loathed seeing the American flag fly above the American University and often launched menacing words toward the institution. But he never touched it. "Our friend Hosni," as American officials have often referred to the Egyptian, intends to demolish it.

IT IS no coincidence that the two countries whose political and educational systems produced September 11 are now promoting a new Arab-Israeli "peace process." They have, with the assistance of the New York Times's Thomas Friedman, successfully turned the conversation away from September 11 to the much more familiar and far less threatening subject of the Arab-Israeli clash. If they can make the Americans believe that the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation can upend the U.S. strategic position in the Middle East by threatening to awake the mythical "Arab street," and if they can successfully imply to Washington that the Israeli-Palestinian "cycle of violence"--that is, the Israeli military response to Palestinian terrorism--may unleash further kamikaze holy warriors against America, then they can probably put U.S. foreign policy in the region on the defensive. The Bush administration's evident desire to have Muslim cover for U.S. military action in the Middle East--now in Afghanistan, tomorrow in Iraq--encourages Cairo and Riyadh to believe they can indeed obtain some kind of a check on U.S. policy by playing the Palestinian card.

Washington needs to wean itself from viewing the Israeli-Palestinian collision as the center of the Middle East. We have lived for decades with the imminent threat of the Arab street. The Near East Bureau of the State Department, and easily panicked U.S. embassies and consulates in the Muslim world, have often written about the doom and gloom just beyond the barbed-wire walls. Yet not once has the street arisen. It is very unlikely that Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt or the House of Saud's rule in Arabia is at all threatened by the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Just the opposite is nearer the truth. Mubarak and the Saudi family are quite adept at encouraging public anger against the United States to protect and fortify their despotic regimes, to make them seem one with the people--a hard trick given that Mubarak, who likes to spend his time at luxurious Sinai resorts, and the oil-fattened Saudi royal family live distinctly uncommon lives. But the Egyptians and the Saudis deserve praise: It requires political dexterity and subtlety to run effective dictatorships that can nevertheless elicit American support by suggesting their fragility. Iran's Islamic revolution also helps: It spooks us and emboldens them.

But September 11 should have told us that we must break free from the State Department's traditional interpretation of the Middle East. Before the war in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda saw us as weak. Bin Laden, like most if not all Muslim fundamentalists, viewed the 1990s as a time of American retreat. President Clinton's failure of nerve in Somalia, his palpable fear of confronting Saddam Hussein militarily, and the administration's botched coup and abandoned Iraqi opposition were seen by many Muslims, certainly by the fundamentalist set, as proof that Americans no longer were, as bin Laden put it, "the strongest horse." The psychological impact of the Israeli-American embrace of the Oslo process, which essentially amounted to the joint hope that Israeli concessions could somehow propitiate the PLO's deep yearning for the eradication of the Jewish state, further inflamed the militants' hope.

The Islamic kamikazes in Israel are not blowing themselves to bits because Israel refuses to give back all of the "settlements," which comprise a bit less than 1.5 percent of the West Bank and Gaza; they are not killing themselves because of where and how a sovereignty line should be drawn in East Jerusalem. (These are issues about which secularized Muslims and American newspapers grow angry.) They certainly don't blow their intestines all over the streets, as President Mubarak suggested, because they have no hope economically. If this were the case, Cairo's roads would be splattered crimson, since the average Palestinian certainly has more economic hope than the average Cairene.

Palestinian holy warriors are martyring themselves because they believe that with God's help they can smite the Jews and take back all that they believe was theirs. Muslim holy warriors, be they the men of al Qaeda, the Iranian boys who rode across minefields on motorcycles in the Iran-Iraq war, or the Palestinians who rap their heads with Quranic surahs in their goodbye videos, are individuals who operate from hope, not despair, who see their sacrifice as a starring role in a passion play of Good versus Evil. Islamic militants don't want to compromise with Israel any more than Osama bin Laden wants to compromise with America.

Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres gambled that by resuscitating Arafat and the PLO as a negotiating partner they could create a thankful petty dictator on the West Bank and Gaza who would control the passions of the Palestinian people. For decades, the PLO chairman had fed Palestinians the promise that one day Israel would cease to exist. Arafat, who has lied about almost everything to almost everyone, has however been faithful to his youthful dreams forged in Egypt's oldest fundamentalist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. He, too, really can't see Israel and a Palestinian state coexisting. It is extremely doubtful that Arafat's muscle men, lieutenants like Marwan Barghuti, Muhammad Dahlan, and Jibril Rajub, can stomach the idea either. Too many young Palestinian men carry the disease--the religiously inspired hope that they can through violence wear down the Israelis--for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to have any value.

Only an overwhelming Israeli military victory against the Palestinian Authority, in particular against Arafat's men, will likely burn out the hope that Palestinian fighters and kamikazes can eventually bring Israel to its knees. Israel is now just about where King Hussein was in August 1970, when Yasser Arafat and his men threatened to bring down the Hashemite monarchy and replace it with a radical Palestinian state east of the Jordan river. King Hussein, after girding his loins, struck back with his Bedouin Legion, killing around 5,000 Palestinians.

Contrary to Secretary of State Colin Powell's bloodthirsty aspersion on the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon has shown little appetite for the type of warfare that King Hussein used against Palestinians. Sharon's tactics with armor, helicopters, F-16s, and targeted killings of Palestinian extremists have all been designed to minimize both Israeli and Palestinian casualties. If Arafat's lieutenants are going around giving out their traceable cell-phone numbers to American journalists, you can rest assured that the Palestinian Authority doesn't really believe its own rhetoric about the lethality and savagery of Israel's military actions.

Which isn't at all surprising, of course, since the Israelis have become so profoundly Americanized. It's a decent bet that when Palestinian fighters look at their enemy even now, after Sharon's harsher words about relentlessly pounding Palestinian targets, they don't see a tough, unrelenting foe. Arabs are fond of exaggerated, grandiose language; older Palestinians, who can remember Lebanon in 1982 and Jordan in 1970, know what a determined enemy really is. Israelis are overwhelmingly sensible, liberal- minded people who are obviously scared of reoccupying the West Bank. Yasser Arafat, his lieutenants, and the Palestinian holy warriors can surely smell that fear and find it inspiring.

THOUGH Secretary Powell's sympathy for the Palestinians that he so forcefully expressed in Congress is estimable, his critique of history--that wars don't settle disputes between hostile parties--is just not true. Wars are the primary, and easily the most successful, instrument for resolving conflict. We may morally recoil from what war demands of us--and in that revulsion lies our humanity--but it is preposterous to suggest that diplomacy has any relevance when your enemy is hurling suicide bombers at you. The "peace process" for years, probably decades, is finished.

In the Middle East, America's awe--the key element that gives both us and our Israeli and Arab friends security--can only be damaged by a Bush administration publicly fretting about Ariel Sharon's prosecution of his war against the Palestinian Authority. Though the Near East Bureau at State hates the notion, the tougher Sharon becomes, the stronger our image will be in the Middle East. But we need to realize that Israel has not the capacity to make or break us in the region. As Ayatollah Khomeini so felicitously put it, we alone are "the Great Satan." We sink or swim by whether the United States can project indomitable power, thus banishing bin Laden's depiction of us as spoiled and bereft of staying power.

The coming war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq--whether we have the wisdom and tenacity to crush the Baathist regime and patiently replace it with some kind of liberal, democratic order philosophically inimical to the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran--will decide our fate in the Middle East. The war on terrorism, like the Gulf War, will just be a prelude to more wars unless we begin in earnest the daunting effort to aid Muslims to live in societies free of holy warriors and despots. But if we do try to help them enjoy what we consider our birthright--and President Bush's assertion that we will was the most arresting, promising, and revolutionary part of his "axis of evil" speech--the Muslim allies the administration seems so scared of losing will surely abandon us anyway.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rolls on and America prepares for war against Iraq, the administration should perhaps consider the advice of the 11th-century theologian Ibn Hazm:

"He who befriends and advances friend and foe alike will only arouse distaste for his friendship and contempt for his enmity. He will earn the scorn of his enemy and facilitate his hostile designs; he will lose his friend, who will join the ranks of his enemies."

Ibn Hazm's counsel converted into policy means that Washington should tell Egypt and Saudi Arabia that Israel's right to respond to terrorism is unquestioned and that we are going to war against Iraq. They are either with us or against us. The theologian, a redoubtable man, would also tell the Mubarak family to keep its hands off the American University of Cairo.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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