Commentary

Timeout for U.S. Diplomacy in the Middle East

By Leon T. Hadar
November 9, 2000
Old U.S. diplomatic habits never die, and unlike old generals, they don’t even seem to fade away.

Predictably, the recent Mideast peace summit held in Sharm el-Sheikh failed to calm the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leading Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to call a “timeout” from the peace process so he can cobble together an emergency government. If formed, the new government will incorporate the Likud party, whose platform calls for retaining Israeli control over the West Bank and whose leader, Ariel Sharon, provoked the recent violence by visiting the Temple Mount.

Nonetheless, President Clinton continues his shuttle diplomacy, insisting on reviving the “peace process” and “projecting leadership” in the region, while at the same time announcing that U.S. forces at several Middle East sites are being placed on high alert following terrorist threats. The current U.S. diplomatic strategy, which enjoys strong support from Capitol Hill and the media, is dominated by the idea that American activism is crucial to stabilizing the region.

According to this conventional wisdom, there is a positive correlation between Washington’s efforts “do something” in the Middle East and the level of stability there. Its proponents warn that placing the Middle East on America’s foreign policy back burner will engender nightmarish scenarios, including a regional war that could imperil Israel and jeopardize oil exports.

The debate is now staged between those in the Clinton administration who think our Pax Americana project can be accomplished through presidential schmoozing with Israeli and Arab leaders and those who contend that Washington should become more involved in the region. The latter group would use American might against challengers to American-Israeli hegemony, even if that means collaborating with a nationalistic and repressive Israeli government and inviting more terrorist attacks against Americans.

If anything, the growing conflict in Israel and rising anti-American sentiment in the Arab world suggest that it is time to turn our traditional diplomatic strategy on its head. As demonstrated by the outcome of recent U.S. efforts in the region, American diplomatic activism doesn’t secure regional stability. Rather, it tends to intensify ethnic and religious animosities and harden opposition to the United States.

By rushing into the Camp David Summit, determined to resolve in a few days what are profound and longstanding differences, President Clinton created unrealistic expectations and found himself siding with Israel on the issue of Jerusalem, where no U.S. national interest is at stake. All Clinton accomplished was an anti-American backlash in the Arab world that forced the shutdown of 21 embassies and increased the likelihood of terrorism and direct military attacks, such as the suicide bombing of the USS Cole.

Some analysts argue that the past month’s calamities can be explained by poor diplomatic timing on the part of the Clinton administration. But it is the conceptual framework in which the administration’s decisions were made that should be the focus of reassessment in Washington. U.S. policymakers should take a hard look at the assumption that American involvement in the region, including our attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while coddling authoritarian and corrupt Arab regimes, serves the interests of the United States and the people of the Middle East.

Leon Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.