Strategic change in US foreign policy

:: 1 ::

A recent "blueprint for post-war US policy" in the Middle east, issued by the Washington Institute for Near East policy, states that: "If we do not invest in helping Iraqis rebuild Iraq, then the legacy of our incomplete mission in that country will impede all our other Middle East endeavours for many years to come." The ‘Institute’ does not need to be introduced, as well as the writers of the document (such as Dennis Ross or Matthew Levitt), or its signatories (Lawrence Eagleburger, Newt Gingrich, Alexander Haig, William Perry, R. James Woolsey, etc.) It is well in such institutions that the US Foreign policy is made, which gives a particular authority to any statement or recommendation about the current issues, debated inside this framework. Nevertheless, even if we are not talking here about the official policy, which is expressed only by the State Department, the Pentagon, or the White House, we are not actually far away from it.

It is well the Washington Institute, which advised about seven years ago that the top priority for US policy was to achieve regime change in Iraq. How the policymakers reached this conclusion, is certainly a complicated process unleashed by the first crucial confrontation between the Baathist regime in Baghdad and the USA. Habitually, observers of the international scene, used to say that the US foreign policy in the Middle East has always sought to support the status quo. They often meant that the USA was playing the part of a quietening conservative force rather than that of a revolutionary one. Given the nature of the Arab regimes, it seemed then that the US foreign policy, mostly in the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s of the last century- was based on some "entente" with those Arab players willing to stay in power without too much concessions (concerning Democracy values, Human Rights, etc), either to the West or to their own peoples. As long as some interests were safe (oil, gas, trade, technical assistance, etc) both parties could display a positive self-satisfaction.

The Communist regimes of the ex-Eastern block have never really had a deep impact on the Arab societies, even when the governments were supported by Moscow (Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt until 1977 when Egyptian ex-President Sadate expelled the Russian advisers).

No wonder, the Arabs remain actually conservative in their majority, and this conservatism, which can be summed up in a profound attachment to the traditional values of religion and family- could ostensibly not cope with the Marxist-Leninist schema, even after retouching it with local cosmetics – which was the task of the Arab Communist parties. A task that piteously failed, it goes without saying. If they were not dismantled and their leaders broken by several years of jail, the Arab communist parties were confined to a marginal life.

That’s why the Americans have never lost the game in the Middle East. Even at the peak of the Cold War, when they had all reason to be concerned about the Soviet goals in the region, they knew that ? unlike them- Moscow could gamble on a unique issue, which was the ? alas! Still ? unsolved Arab-Israeli conflict. It was merely unthinkable that the Soviet model of life could touch those societies profoundly attached to the traditional values. One can also state that neither Nasser nor the Baathist regimes in Syria and Iraq have ever pretended to follow Moscow on that path. Those regimes were mainly concerned with survival, and to survive they figured out that weaponry was the key, not self-development; and Moscow happened to be more than willing to help them. Thus, the Arab military class began to accumulate force and weapons with the assistance of Moscow, and the latter pushed its pawns on the chessboard, with the result we know: Double failure in a double war (1967, and 1973), for Moscow allies. When he understood that schema, Sadate gave priority to a change nobody "in Egypt and the Arab world" was then prepared to admit: expelling Moscow advisers, and turning directly to Washington, which held as he thought 90 % of the solution for the Middle East main problem.

So, if America was not a force of change in the Arab world in those years, this does not mean that the Soviet Union was. True, the USA was concerned by keeping the Status quo, and the USSR by challenging it, although the challenge did not necessarily imply settling a project of society. I maintain that such a project, if ever it were available, would be merely rejected. What we call today the Arab Left, has never really had a political impact on the people’s life. The main contribution of the left concerned the cultural matters: artistic and intellectual production was likely more open to the Left appeal than political life. Anyway, what was the Arab left? This is a wide appellation, under which, we may find communist and socialist activists, pan Arabs, social democrats, and even minorities? parties.

There is no intellectual and ideological platform able to unify all those who claim to be on the left wing in the Arab world. We cannot even say that secularism is this unifying ideology, since there is no agreement between them about the signification of secularism: Some say that it implies atheism, and some others say that it can be perfectly tuned up with Islam, although secularism is actually about separating the two worlds that have never been parted in the Arab history: religion and politics.

To come back to our previous hypothesis, let’s assume that the USA have never gambled on changing societies in the Arab world, but rather on keeping the status quo. What was then the cause that drove such an upsetting change in its foreign policy? In the above-mentioned blueprint, it is said that achieving the regime change in Iraq has been recommended and urged as a top priority for US policy. The Bush administration embarked on a war to accomplish such an objective. So, in what consists the necessity of this enterprise? So far, as we know, the USA tried to be more allaying than disturbing, and more conciliating than clashing with the Arab policies. True, there is a dark spot in this almost clean picture. It concerns the coup masterminded by the CIA in the fifties against Mohammed Mosaddaq, Prime Minister of Iran. But with that exception, the Americans as a rule- have always played their game- if any- from behind the curtains. Their discretion, though dictated by the circumstances, was in itself a guarantee of success.

In this context, if the relations with the Arab states could be maintained at a satisfying level of conformity and fluidity, in spite of all the tempests that swept several times the region – (Israeli-Arab wars in 1967 and 1973; oil embargo in 73-74; isolation of Egypt after Camp David; Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1981; etc.)- all the credit should be acknowledged to that old rule of diplomatic discretion. As a matter of fact, although we know that the Americans were surrounding the Middle East of military bases, from Diego Garcia to Turkey, and beyond them all the way round the famous "arc of crisis" (according to Z. Brzezinski), those forces have always remained in the shade. Moreover, with the exception of the Marines? landing in Lebanon ? at the request of the Lebanese President during the civil war-, the Americans have never interfered directly in the region. For many Arab states, – and despite the proclaimed hostility toward Israel- the Americans were perceived as friends, and protectors.

Today, precisely since the war against Saddam, and possibly even since the "Desert Storm", which was the first American war in the Arab land-, this picture inherited from the last century (60s, 70s, 80s), is rapidly changing. And this is certainly not because of 9/11: the threats against the former Iraqi regime actually preceded 9/11; and the strategy aiming at destabilizing Saddam, notwithstanding that it was really a hateful regime- was certainly being studied and planned well before the terrorist operations of 9/11. Whence the questions: what was the change about in the US foreign policy? Was it necessary? For whom? And why?

:: 2 ::

The main objection to the previous thesis would likely remind us of the Carter Doctrine, and subsequently, of the creation of the RDF (Rapid Deployment Force) and the CC (Central Command). True, these were not the manifestations of a discreet diplomacy. They have even been perceived in some left-wing spheres of the Arab world as the evidence that the USA was actually an imperialist power trying to subdue the Arabs by all means. But we should remember the context wherein they have appeared.

If I mention the reaction of the Arab Left, it is not because what we call today ?the Islamists? had not reacted to the international struggle, but rather because the latter precisely was altogether locally expressed by the internal political game, wherein the Islamists were not yet as influent as they seem nowadays. We should not omit the fact that at that time, the local political struggle of any country, would merely translate the language of the international game going on between the USA and the USSR. Generally, the Left "whether it was pro-Soviet or not- was more active in opposition, and the Right" an appellation that encompasses the governments in place as well as some loose liberal trends – was essentially on a defensive position. The Islamists i.e. the ultra right wing of the traditionalists- were rejecting both parties and marginalized.

To answer the objection, we need to recall that in 1979, one of the most important allies of the USA in the Gulf ? the Shah of Iran- has been dethroned by a revolution. Many American citizens have been then held in custody inside their embassy in Tehran. The USA have not tried to protect the regime of the Shah although such an action was expected and wished by Washington?s allies in Iran, which was perceived as a weakness. An imperialist power would at least seek the protection of its interests. But the Carter administration preferred not to clash with a population that held America – the main ally and supporter of the Shah somehow responsible for all the pains inflicted by the dreadful SAVAC (political police). Besides, the insurgents have hijacked many Americans in the embassy. President Carter had to react.

It is in this context that he declared in January 1980 the Gulf a zone of US influence, but that was more directed to the USSR than to the local population. In effect, he said in what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: "Let our position be absolutely clear. An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf Region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." Then, to back up this doctrine, Carter created the Rapid Deployment Force, described by observers as an ?over-the-horizon? military unit capable of rushing several thousand US troops to the Gulf in a crisis.
Two points deserve to be noticed here:

1- In December 1979, the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, and was thus standing on the boundaries of Iran and the Gulf.

2- The Carter Doctrine was only a reply to more an aggressive position taken by the USSR. In effect, the Brezhnev Doctrine preceded the Carter, since it proclaimed:

"When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries."

This effectively meant that no country was allowed to leave the Warsaw Pact, and the doctrine was used to justify the invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as well as the non-Warsaw pact nation of Afghanistan in 1979.

It was the conjugation of those two events (revolution in Iran and invasion of Afghanistan) that urged the proclamation of the Carter Doctrine and the creation of the RDF.

The main point to be retained here concerns the American position vis-à-vis Iran: No intervention, though any other Western power would have at least tried to force the liberation of its hostages, whose hijacking by the insurgents was in itself a war declaration.

Naturally, those same events would exert an influence upon the traditional course of the American policy in this region. Still, the Americans would not interfere directly in local politics, although they could not remain indifferent to the events threatening the status quo, which they have protected during the previous decades. But a new trend began to point out with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Thus, in the 1980s, the USA began pressing countries in the Gulf for access to bases and support facilities. The RDF was transformed into the Central Command, a new US military command authority with responsibility for the Gulf and the surrounding region from eastern Africa to Afghanistan. But it would not be until 1987, at the height of the war between Iran and Iraq, that the US Navy created the Joint Task Force-Middle East to protect oil tankers plying the waters of the Gulf, thus expanding a US naval presence of just three or four warships into a flotilla of 40-plus aircraft carriers, battleships, and cruisers.

So, if change there is in the American foreign policy, we should seek its seeds in that time, prior to the 1991 first American- led war against an Arab regime. The main turn was not taken during the great trouble of the Iranian revolution, although the latter did not hide its hostility toward the USA and its allies. It was taken during the trouble of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait; and it was to defend a small Arab country against the greed of a bigger one, that the Americans intervened directly, though still sustained by other Arab states.

:: 3 ::

In the background of the first American involvement in the internal conflicts of the Arab world, as it dramatically happened in 1991, there is one of the most important upheavals of modern history: the collapse and the dismantlement of the Eastern Block led by the ex-USSR.

Although Gorbatchev signed the Soviet Union out of existence on December 25, 1991, the slow death of the red superpower has been creeping since years. Not to see what was rapidly changing on the international scene, and subsequently, not to draw the necessary conclusions as regards the affairs of the Middle East, was merely a blindness that only a dictatorial regime – such as the Iraqi under Saddam- could afford.

The invasion of Kuwait under those auspices by Saddam was not only a political misreckoning, – as was the invasion of Iran in 1980 that triggered the 8 years war-, but also – and above all- the evidence that a dictatorial regime – even with the best scientists and the best strategists- can neither understand the subtleties of the political processes, nor the deep trends on the international scene.

As Dr. Robert F. Miller observed, in his essay (the implosion of a superpower), if 1989 and 1990 were the years of the sudden dismantling of the Soviet empire abroad, 1991 witnessed the extension of the collapse of communist rule to the imperial heartland itself. Toward the close of the year it was not at all clear whether something resembling a unified state could even be stitched together to provide a partner for negotiating with the Western allies on the terms for the further reduction of nuclear weapons and the final ending of the cold war.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev still officially represented the Soviet side, but in the wake of the failed putsch of 19-21 August, his position had been fundamentally altered. It was no longer clear whom he was speaking for on a given issue or whether his policy initiatives could be taken as the authoritative position of his country. These were matters of more than merely speculative or theoretical interest: the territory of the former USSR contained some 27,000 nuclear warheads scattered among several of the former republics, many of which began actively pursuing their sovereign independence. Who controlled these weapons and their potential involvement in internal civil conflict were serious issues for international stability.

Thus, those disturbances on the map of Europe, carried up with them – or inside them- the ineluctable signs that, henceforth, the responsibility of millions of lives threatened by all those nuclear warheads on the loose, would fall on the USA shoulders. Who else is capable of controlling that threat and confining it to acknowledged limits? To pretend that the US attempt to control such a danger stems from an imperialist will, is merely irresponsible, not to say pure madness.

It is obvious then that even if the USA did not want any involvement abroad, it would be like unleashing the wild animals of the zoo in a city and asking people not to put a nose outdoors. That would be a fine solution only for those who have nothing to do outdoors.

In that context, the strategic change in the American foreign policy, was imposed by the international conjunction of those dramatic events in Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR, on the one hand, and the grave misreckoning of the Baathist regime, which thought that in such ambiguous configuration, nobody would care about invading Kuwait and putting its wealth under the authority of a dictator who gazed his own people, while pretending to use his new asset (Kuwait) for a new casting of the game with Israel, on the other hand.

The curious thing is that to some degree, it worked. Many Arabs (from outside the Gulf Cooperation Council), oblivious of the Kuwaiti right to freedom, believed that Saddam was going really to beat Israel. With the wealth of Kuwait added to the Iraqi, Saddam would be able to reach a level matching Israel. Among those Arabs were the Palestinians, or some of them headed by Yasser Arafat, who did not hesitate to side with Saddam, although he owed everything to Kuwait.

I do not understand what is the logic that allowed such an unbelievable project. Even if Iraq was really able to match Israel, and even if Saddam was really serious about liberating the Palestinian people from its yoke, what is the ethical ground permitting to subdue a free people (the Kuwaiti) for the purpose of liberating another ( the Palestinian)?

Now, is it true that Saddam could beat Israel? With what? With his exhausted army? With his monstrous debts to all the Western States and Russia? With his 22 millions of people craving only for some peace after 8 years of a vain war? With his legions of hypocrites and sycophants lying about everything and never daring to tell the truth? With his censured media? With his political police forbidding any genuine expression or any free thought? And who were his allies? Who among the Arabs would have trusted him? Then, who pretended that he would stop after Kuwait? If the conquest of the latter was easy, why not to try a bigger shot? Saudi Arabia, for instance…or any other state of the Gulf! That would give him all the wealth and power he needed.

That’s exactly how all the dictators worked: a little country. Then, if nobody reacts, another. Then another, etc… Hitler was the model, not any righter of wrongs inspired by Salah Eddine al Ayyoubi, as Saddam’s propaganda lied.

:: 4 ::

The great turn in the US foreign policy in the Middle East came up in 1991, as a response to Saddam Hussein’s threat. In effect, the invasion of Kuwait was hardly representing any threat to Israel – as some Arab media suggested-, but it was surely a real threat to the freedom of the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is well this plausible schema that disturbed what we previously called the Status quo, not any other farce of war against Israel fantasized about by some Arab media. For even with Kuwait under the Iraqi dictatorship, Israel was quite able to strike Saddam and crush him, if only the Americans allowed it. But that would have been a grave and irredeemable mistake: if Saddam wished to play the heroes and the martyrs, after swallowing up Kuwait, no rational mind would permit him to achieve such a satisfaction. The first priority was then to keep Israel away.

The security and the stability of the Gulf had so far little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Saddam naturally wished to open that gate, in order to cover up his crime in Kuwait. He attracted to his game a much-diminished Yasser Arafat, who almost desperately embarked on the Iraqi shaky ship, probably thinking that he would get through to a safe haven. A mistake, which the Kuwaiti will never forgive.

Until 1991, the United States was unable to persuade the Arab Gulf states to allow a permanent American presence on their soil, although military facilities on the perimeter of the Gulf, from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa to the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, have been expanded, and a web of bases and training missions has extended the US presence deep into Central Asia.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, while maintaining its close relationship with the United States, began to diversify its commercial and military ties. In the late 80s, the USA had fallen to fourth place among arms suppliers to the kingdom, thus "supplanted by the British, the French, and even the Chinese", according to Chas Freeman, then American ambassador to the kingdom.

If Saddam could not even dream of defeating Israel in a real confrontation, as any rational mind would state at a simple comparison of the forces and the means available to both state at that time, it was easier for him to borrow a model of behaviour from his master Stalin, or maybe even from Bismarck if not from Hitler, to pretend to the unification of the Arab Gulf under his banner. On the ideological level, such a project would not alienate his Baathist followers. It might even attract or fascinate some other dreamers of Arab union, who have little – if any- respect for the conservative monarchies of the Gulf, besides the fact that they altogether don’t care whether Saddam is a democrat or a dictator, in the same measure that the pure and hard communists of the Cold War time were indifferent to the crimes of the Stalinism.

Few among the theorists of the generalised paranoia toward the West in the Arab world, would acknowledge that if the American military presence became ineluctable to protect the Western interests – and other assets -, it was well Saddam Hussein who became the Trojan horse of such intervention in the Gulf. Who else opened the gate to such disturbance?

Once Kuwait invaded, it was logical that the Gulf States would no longer oppose a direct US military presence. Once again, a dictator’s ambition proved that Israel was not necessarily the first enemy of the Arab states. Inside the Arab world, Saddam was the enemy within. Even from the perspective of the very official Arab League, when invading Kuwait, Saddam insulted and trampled on all the protocols and the conventions regulating the Arab National Security. What he did was exactly similar to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and to the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories. This is before all a matter of international law. Thus, one of the lessons we draw from that case, is that problems of democracy and/or dictatorship in the Arab-Islamic world are as important as the Israeli problem.

The point was not missed by the American theorists, who focused since then on this issue in connection either with the Iraqi problem or the Palestinian. Moreover, after 9/11, a line would be drawn between two choices: radicalism and terrorism in the name of Islam, or democracy and modernism inside the Islamic world.

:: 5 ::

The Washington Institute Strategy paper- i.e. Winning the peace in the Middle East- we have previously mentioned, states that " success in defeating Saddam and helping Iraqis rebuild their country offers opportunities for the United States to support the efforts of Arab and Iranian liberals to open the region’s closed, authoritarian societies. This will be the moment to assist their fight for greater freedom, not draw away from them…"

The point here is that the US foreign policy, breaking with a long-settled tradition of keeping the status quo, makes of assisting the liberals of Iran and the Arab world one of its top-priorities. A first question is: to which extent the Bush administration is ready to go in such an endeavour? A second question concerns the choice of allies: opposition or rulers? The third question is how the American strategists think it possible to conciliate the state-to-state diplomacy with assistance to opponents generally believed hostile not only to the rulers, but sometimes to the status quo?

Furthermore, there is almost a settled tradition in the Arab world, consisting in a permanent outbidding about the official positions towards the USA and the Western powers. From this perspective, a "good" leader – or party- of opposition is expected to be more aggressive toward the West and particularly the USA, than the government he is assumed to oppose.

Nothing could earn more popularity to an opposition leader in the Arab world than to display a hard-line stance against – for example- the negative attitude of the Bush administration toward the Palestinians and the Arabs in general. In this context, to keep good connections with -say- some official spheres in the West, – were it even with a diplomat- is considered as a negative aspect in the leadership. The Iraqi opposition in exile – for instance- was not exempt of such innuendoes disparaging its leaders. Naturally, it is quite an irrational aspect of the Arab politics, yet it is widespread.

Thus, as long as Saddam Hussein and his ministers were dealing with the American officials, they were "safe" from being their lackeys, for they represented the State of Iraq, and the State is empowered enough not to fall under American pressure (although everything actually hinted to the contrary)! But if it is the opposition, which deals with the foreign powers, then there is necessarily conspiracy whereby a party (the local) is conceding future rights and privileges to the foreigners. This is a standard scenario rehearsing itself many times in several cases, and not only in Iraq. Whence a first conclusion: as long as the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is not resolved, siding with the USA, were it for quite a fair cause – such as developing democracy and human rights’ considerations- would sound somewhat suspect in some Arab spheres, not to say merely discrediting. Suffice it to observe what were the positions of the majority of Arab opposition parties during the war against Saddam Hussein, to have a clear idea about this point. The fact is that they outbid the stances of their own governments, and rejected the American intervention, just because it was the Americans who intervened. That’s a fact.

Normally, an opposition party would side with a similar organization. In the case of Iraq, who does not know that it was a dictatorship that the opposition in exile was trying to overthrow, with the American help? Normally, the so-called liberals of the Arab world – and many organizations of opposition- should have identified with the Iraqi exiles in their ultimate and crucial fight against the regime of Saddam Hussein. But that did not happen. Why? That’s the point.

In this context also, we observe that the Palestinians in their majority did not identify either with the Iraqi opposition. The second conclusion we draw from this picture is that prior to democratizing the Arab societies, the Americans should first help the Arabs find a fair solution to the conflict with Israel. It is understood that terrorism is produced by societies closed to democracy and modernism. Understood that after 9/11, the USA had to protect itself and its allies. But although the democratization of those societies is the responsibility of its own elites, the US assistance would be much more admitted after a success in tackling the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

We notice that though we argued differently, this is also the conclusion of the Washington Institute blueprint, which states: " The Bush administration is already committed to two radical experiments in democratization in the Middle East- in Iraq and inside the Palestinian Authority. Their success is essential to the larger effort. Successes for the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples will create their own demonstration effect elsewhere in the region."

This is theoretically true. Yet, democratization is not a process that could be achieved in the short term. If the Bush administration wishes to be practical and efficient, it should give up the dream of democratizing Iraq and the Palestinian Authority in a year or two, or even in five. The American assistance is needed in launching the process in these two cases, but the rest would be achieved by the peoples themselves through many years of learning and training. In the Palestinian case particularly, there is an urgent need for freedom even before democratizating the PA. What’s the PA anyway? To the outside observer, it seems to be some kind of a provisory government – something like the Council that was running the affairs of Iraq. By no means it may be considered as a State or even representing a State, for it is lacking the prerogatives and the status of states, which is: sovereignty. In both cases, there is a force of occupation, which is the reference of authority. But if the Americans are directly involved in Iraq, and thus they are kept responsible for the whole ongoing process, this is not true for the Palestinian case. Here, the Palestinians under Israeli occupation need a real presence and a real involvement of the Americans as protectors of the peace process. And in both cases, if the Americans are not willing or not able to do more, they should give responsibility to a United Nations’ led mission. If both Iraqi and Palestinian situations evolve toward more violence, what is the wisdom of staying on the same positions and watching?

The Washington Institute’s mentioned paper acknowledges anyway that if in spite of all the efforts, an interim accord on provisional statehood is impossible to reach, a "coordinated unilateralism" would be a good solution: " In this case, the parties themselves are likely to opt for unilateral acts that each believes will provide some progress toward their respective strategic goals. For Israel, unilateral disengagement from a significant portion of the West Bank and Gaza; for the Palestinians, declaration of independent statehood in territories from which Israel had withdrawn". We will add only that to support such a scheme, a UN’s force of dissuasion would not be unwelcome.

Likewise for Iraq, the same paper advocated, "as soon as practicable, the US-led military administration should give way to an international administration". In this context, A United Nations’ authorized framework for a security force, would end the argument about whether the USA is " a colonial power erecting an empire in Iraq" or not. An UN-led security force may implicate the participation of Muslim states in assisting the government of Iraq in its hard mission.