Saturday, April 17, 2010

Foreign Policy Magazine explicitly links "Western camp" with support for authoritarianism

There are elements of US Middle East policy that are contrary to US stated goals and ideals but that the US foreign policy establishment avoids discussing.

One is the connection between the US position that Iran and other potential rivals of Israel must not be nuclear capable, though the NPT is clear that non-weapons members of the treaty do have the right to have the capability - as demonstrated by Japan and Brazil among many others and Israel's unique security needs.

The US position that Iran must not be nuclear capable has nothing to do with any violations, evidence, suspicions or questions about Iran's program. The US position has been as it is today ever since the Shah lost power. But members of the US foreign policy establishment tend to change the subject when the connection is drawn rather than try to defend it.

Another element of US foreign policy that the US foreign policy establishment tends to avoid is the connection between US support for authoritarian dictatorships and the cooperation those dictatorships give to Israel. This policy is really indefensible in terms of US values. It amounts simply to an assertion that the five million or so Jewish people who live in Palestine have rights that outweigh those of the over 60 million people under the pro-US Egyptian dictatorship. It is pure and plain bigotry, the only way to avoid describing it as racism is to claim that Jewish people are not a race.

But Foreign Policy magazine has taken a step toward putting this US policy out into the open:
Despite all the Syrian bravado about Hezbollah's strong showing against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war, surely Bashar al-Assad knows that his creaking Soviet weaponry would fare badly in any conflagration -- and that his presidential suite is well within the range of Israel's F-15s. For all the figures you read in the press about the size of Syria's military and its vast arsenal of tanks, the country is essentially a tin-pot dictatorship with little ability to project power beyond Lebanon, where for decades it has dominated its smaller neighbor's domestic affairs.

If you think in regional terms, the (alleged) move makes marginally more sense. Iran, Syria's ally and patron, is looking to show the West that any strike on its nuclear facilities would be extremely costly for the United States and its allies. With pressure escalating, it's not hard to imagine that the powers that be in Iran leaned on Bashar to lend a helping hand next door. (Syria expert Andrew Tabler offers some other plausible motives here.)

The insane thing about all this is that Syria would be much better off by joining the pro-Western camp. It could get the Golan Heights back, get the sanctions lifted, and attract foreign assistance and investment -- while fending off pressure to open its deeply authoritarian system, just as Egypt has. It could reap billions in tourism revenue, thanks to its incredible archaeological and cultural riches. And it could finally bury the hatchet with other Arab states, which have long been frustrated by Syria's close ties to Iran, its support for militant groups, its meddling in Lebanon, and its intransigence on all things Israel.
Now the opinion piece gets a whole lot wrong, mostly by overestimating the potency of Israel's ability to threaten its neighbors. Israel's military is, until further notice, unable to impact the situation on the ground in any direction. Israel cannot project power. Israel can cause civilian suffering. That is something to avoid, but none of Israel's neighbors any longer fear losing power or even further territory to Israel.

Lebanon can be armed, it will be done in a gradual way that avoids an Israeli attack on Lebanese civilians, and if such an attack is not avoided, there will be retaliation against Israeli civilians, but there is no fear that Israeli tanks will capture and hold the territory on which Lebanon is building installations.

The notable thing about the piece though is how clearly the author presents joining the Western camp as a strategy for avoiding pressure on an authoritarian dictatorship. (As Egypt has.) The fact that the United States has to choose between democracy and support for Israel is becoming increasingly unavoidable since the Iraq occupation. A United States that openly opposes democracy goes against the core national self-conception.

As the United States is further forced to admit that it is not the country it pretends to itself to be, the consequence will be a deterioration in the US' own sense of self confidence and morale. Barack Obama's June 2009 interview, along with this article in a mainstream foreign policy outlet are steps along the way in that process.


Lysander said...

What strikes me about this article and so many others like it, is the assumption that the west really wants to be very generous if only Syria (or Iran, or Hamas, or etc.) would be reasonable. What the author does not know, or pretends not to, is that there is really no chance at all Israel will willingly give back the Golan. Syria can have a deal if it is prepared to permanently renounce (along with its alliance with Iran, its claim to the Golan. But no Syrian leader can do that and stay in power.

Sadat's situation was unique. He had just mounted a serious military challenge to Israel. His trip to Jerusalem was shocking and lined up much international support behind him, and essentially neutralized the pro-Israel lobby in the US. Most of all, there was a Soviet Union and bringing Egypt to the western camp was valuable to the US establishment.

None of those factors exist today. That does not mean Syria wouldn't accept a deal. I think it would, but it will only do so if it regains the Golan. To achieve that it needs a major change in the balance of power. Meaning, a nuclear capable Iran, and a heavily armed ally like Hezbollah.

Sending scuds, if indeed Syria did that, is exactly the right thing to do.

Arnold Evans said...

Thanks Lysander. A point I often miss in presenting Egypt as a colonial vassal of the United States is that Egypt, because of the unusual situations you describe, was able to wrest an unusual amount of concessions from Israel. Including all of the Sinai.

Of course you're right that Syria could not expect, without more leverage than it now has, to get the amount of concessions Egypt got - and even then not from Israel's current leadership.

Another factor is that the US seems willing to make offers too late, and Israel may as well. Once Iran already has almost two tons of LEU, the US offers to allow Iran to continue to enrich as long as it gets its stock under one ton. This may have been a deal Iran would have accepted when it actually had less than a ton in its stock.

I can envision a rapidly declining Israel offering Syria all of the Golan with some conditions on Syria's use of it (what Egypt got in the Sinai) a decade or two from now. By then Syria may not still be willing to accept a deal it would accept now when it has a clearer option of just waiting for the situation to improve further.