This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 8, 2006

Urgently needed: a new Mideast policy


Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently wrote in the Aug. 10 Washington Post that the consequences of U.S. actions “have caused an unprecedented decline in America’s position in the world and are provoking dangerous new anti-American coalitions and encouraging a new generation of terrorists.”

I believe that this decline has been largely self-inflicted, yet it could get much worse if the United States were to carry out a bombing campaign to eliminate Iran’s capability to manufacture nuclear weapons, a plan described by Seymour M. Hersh in the Aug. 21 issue of The New Yorker.

On the other hand, with some dramatic revisions to foreign policy, America can recover its strength as well as being a guidepost of participatory, humane government. Examples of needed revisions follow:

  • The U.S. must stop supporting an Israeli policy of seeking security by attempting to dominate its neighbors and occupying territory beyond its 1967 borders.
  • Six decades of major conflicts with Egypt, Syria and Jordan, two invasions of Lebanon, and continuing campaigns against the PLO and Hamas demonstrate that Jerusalem’s military conflicts have not achieved peace for Israel. Like the wars between France and Germany from the Congress of Vienna in 1814 to the end of World War II, the conflicts between Israel and the Arab world continue with no ultimate resolution.

    Certainly, the Israelis have a right to defend themselves and the United States has the right to assist them. But, clearly, new policies must be sought.

    This summer’s conflict with Hezbollah resulted in loss of life on both sides and massive destruction of infrastructure in Lebanon.

    The U.S. role was seen by the Arab states as supplying weapons to Israel and manipulating votes in the United Nations leading up to the cease-fire -- with the result that the policies of Washington and Jerusalem were regarded as being one and the same.

    The consequences of the Israeli incursion into Lebanon and the subsequent partial withdrawal of Israeli troops have already dramatically changed perceptions. Israeli military forces are no longer considered invincible and Israel is allowing the United Nations to attempt to keep the peace.

    If the recent cease-fire holds, it may open a new path.

    If a robust U.N. force is ultimately deployed to Southern Lebanon to support the cease-fire, even if it does not disarm Hezbollah it could be a precursor for ultimate peace in the eastern Mediterranean. This force could be expanded to replace Israeli military units in Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights coupled with the dismantling of all Israeli settlements in these areas. This would give these Arab areas the independence from Israel they have been seeking; it would contain the threat of rockets being launched against Israel; it would liberate U.S. foreign policy from an unhealthy dependence on Jerusalem, and it would allow the United States to more freely interact with the Arab world.

  • In another major policy change, the United States must settle on a policy of stability in Iraq and give up trying to bring democracy to tribes whose favorite form of politics seems to be assassination.
  • The debate in this country -- with undertones of betrayal on all sides -- is polarized between those who want a timetable for a full U.S. withdrawal and those who advocate “staying the course.” Many fear the consequences for the United States and the Mideast in the case of withdrawal, while, to most, “staying the course” means hundreds more U.S. lives lost, as well as thousands of Shiites and Sunnis, in a useless and endless conflict.

    There is an alternative. In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, the United States protected the Kurds while abandoning the Shiites to Saddam’s murderous retaliation. Today, the United States continues to support the de facto independence of the Kurds while trying to pacify the Shiites and, Saddam’s old tribe, the Sunnis. This has managed to turn both Shiites and Sunnis against us.

    Instead of accepting the status quo of continuing civil war, a solution, as others have advocated, is a de facto partition of Iraq. Separating the Shiite and Sunni populations, particularly in mixed areas like Baghdad, will not be easy, but, in the end, giving up trying to have the Sunnis and Shiites live in peace while persuading the Kurds and Shiites to give the Sunnis an equitable stake in oil profits will dramatically reduce the opportunities for violence and, after things calm down, allow a significant draw down of U.S. troops.

    A continued U.S. presence in the Kurdish area and, along with the British, in the Shiites’ area in Iraq will also prevent Iran from dominating Iraq and will stabilize the region. At all times, we must make it clear to Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites that we will leave their areas when and if their local populations want us to. There is always the risk of potential Iranian dominance in the Shiite area, but the risk is far less than it would be if we left Iraq unilaterally. This would surely leave Iran in a position to dominate the oil fields in southern Iraq and the Shiite population there. Leaving would also give impetus to Turkish intervention against the Kurds in northern Iraq. In other words, we will have abandoned those whom we promised to protect -- a dishonorable course.

  • In a third change in policy, the United States should give up military threats to destroy Iranian nuclear weapons manufacturing capabilities. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan stands on the brink of failure because we did not insert enough troops to consolidate our victory over the Taliban, and al-Qaeda continues to operate. The U.S. intervention in Iraq stands on the brink of failure in Iraq because we did not insert enough troops to keep the peace. The Israeli intervention in southern Lebanon failed because the Israelis did not invade with sufficient forces to root out the Hezbollah guerrillas. Now we learn from Seymour Hersh that the Israeli bombing plan of Lebanon was to serve as a prelude to a potential U.S. preemptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. Hersh quotes former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage as saying, “If the most dominant military force in the region -- the Israeli Defense Forces -- can’t pacify a country like Lebanon, with a population of 4 million, you should think carefully about taking that template to Iran, with strategic depth and a population of 70 million. The only thing that the bombing has achieved so far is to unite the population against the Israelis.”
  • The U.S. concern with Iran is threefold: the weapons and reconstruction funds it supplies to Hezbollah, Iran’s threats to destroy Israel, and its refusal to stop enriching nuclear fuel that could lead Teheran to acquire atomic weapons.

    The White House should continue to work through the United Nations to offer security guarantees in exchange for Iran’s giving up the technology that could feed a nuclear weapons program. But if the United Nations does not succeed in persuading Iran to give up its nuclear program, we must remember that the United States coexisted with a nucleararmed Soviet Union and it now coexists with such nuclear-armed states as Pakistan and India. Coexistence was made possible by mutual assured destruction. It still strongly inhibits governments -- even the Iranian government -- from initiating nuclear conflict. We and the Israelis must never forget that.

    Two lessons from the 1962 Cuba Crisis are applicable. The first was that President John Kennedy threatened Moscow by saying that any nuclear weapon launched from Cuba would generate the same response as a nuclear weapon launched from the Soviet Union. We can make the same threat to Iran if it were to attack Israel.

    The second lesson was that President Kennedy gave Premier Nikita Khrushchev a U.S. security guarantee that the United States would not launch a unilateral attack on Cuba. If the United States did the same with Iran, it would go a long way toward removing Iran’s self-perceived need for nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. or Israeli attack.

    Charles N. Davis served in the Navy and as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council.

    National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006

    This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
    Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
    All rights reserved.
    TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: