Time for “Constructive Disengagement” from the Middle East

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The dominant U.S. role in the talks between Israel and Syria creates the mistaken impression that core American interests are at stake. The United States may be asked to pledge more than $50 billion to cover the costs of Israel's withdrawal from the Golan Heights, including the relocation of the some 15,000 Israelis who have settled in the area since 1967. And there are indications that a peace agreement between Jerusalem and Damascus may require a U.S. military presence on the Golan, perhaps as part of an international monitoring team.

Most of the debate in Washington over U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Syriannegotiations has focused on the potential costs to American taxpayers andthe risks to U.S. soldiers that could result from new financial and militarycommitments by the Clinton administration. It will be difficult to sell tothe American people the proposal that Israel, the largest beneficiary ofU.S. military and economic aid, should be further compensated for agreeingto dismantle the settlements on the Golan that U.S. administrations havedescribed for years as "illegal." And at a time when Congress and thepublic seem weary of U.S. military interventions overseas, especially in theBalkans, the Clinton administration may find little support for placing U.S.troops in yet another province of the former Ottoman Empire, where ethnicand religious rivalries are bound to entangle the United States.

Yet even Americans who contend that new U.S. commitments to support a peaceaccord would not be cost-effective rarely question the underlying assumptionthat the United States should continue playing a dominant role in the MiddleEast. That Israel and Syria have decided that it is in their nationalinterest to settle the dispute between them should not be used as an excuseto deepen U.S. military and diplomatic involvement in the region. Instead,Washington now has an opportunity to reassess its entire Middle East policyand start a process of "constructive disengagement."

All three major factors that have drawn the United States into the regionsince the 1950s -- the superpower rivalry, Western access to oil resourcesand the security of Israel -- have changed beyond recognition. The SovietUnion no longer exists, and Russia plays a marginal role in the Middle East.The collapse of the oil cartel in the 1980s, the transformation in theglobal energy markets and the political disunity in the Arab world have madethe notion of the "Arab oil weapon" a distant memory. Finally, Israel, withits advanced economic and technological infrastructure, including a nuclearcapability, is the undisputed military power in the region.

Those dramatic strategic changes suggest that the Arab-Israeli peace processhas been "de-internationalized." The region has lost its geostrategicimportance, and that provides incentives for the local players, includingSyria and Israel, to end their conflict. America's national interests areaffected only marginally by the status of the negotiations. In contrast to1956, 1967 and 1973, any Israeli-Arab crisis can now be "localized." Itwould not lead to a superpower confrontation, ignite an oil embargo againstthe United States or threaten the existence of Israel. If crises in theregion have any wider impact, they affect the nearby countries of theEuropean Union far more than they do the United States. If Israel and Syriainsist on the presence of foreign troops to monitor their agreement, the EU,which is developing its own EU Corps for peacekeeping missions, not theUnited States, should be ready to provide that type of assistance.

Hence, while the United States should be ready to play the role of honestmediator in the talks, it should not provide pay-offs to the two sides, inthe form of either financial aid or military commitments. Nor shouldWashington try to encourage Syria to become more "democratic" in exchangefor American economic or military aid. The only "reward" Syria shouldexpect is peace with Israel and normal diplomatic and trade relationshipswith the United States.

A peace accord between Jerusalem and Damascus also should not become anexcuse to shower Israel with more U.S. aid and security guarantees. TheUnited States needs to take advantage of the new developments in the regionto lessen Israeli dependence on Washington. Peace with Syria and otherneighbors will permit Israel to start forming political and militaryrelationships with other Middle Eastern players and create a new regionalbalance of power that could help deter potential aggressors. Normalizingits relationship with the United States, including an end to U.S. economicand military aid, will not only encourage Israel to adapt its long-termsecurity to new regional realities but will also pressure it to continuereforming its statist economy.