Correcting the course of US foreign policy
Chat: Will there be a new US policy toward the Middle East?
LE MONDE | 13 November 2006 | 18:42 • Updated 15 November 2006 | 12:57
Debate with Guillaume Parmentier, Director, French Center for Study of the United States, the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), Wednesday 15 November, 12:00
Q. How are the results of the mid-term elections going to change US policy in the Middle East?
Relatively very little. Most Americans view Israel as the potential victim of a possible mobilization of the Arab world. In other words, they see Israel as isolated from the region, and threatened. Traditionally, the Republicans, who are more sensitive to the influence of oil interests, are more independent of Israel than the Democrats. But that does not mean that they are closer. Over the last few years, the Republicans have come under the influence of the evangelical wing of Protestant activism, which is unconditionally favorable to Israel from their reading of the Bible. This has led the Administration of George W. Bush to unconditionally back all Israeli initiatives, even when these actions have undermined the traditional peace process conducted by the United States. From this point of view, the November 7th elections may produce some softening, because the evangelical wing of the Republican Party has been weakened. But this softening shouldn’t be overstated because there could be compensation for it by the degree of support that the Democrats general give to Israeli initiatives.
Q. What element could modify US policy in the Middle East?
The United States has always been viewed in the region as the power responsible for the degeneration of crises. But this is less so during the presidency of George W. Bush, although he is often apt to foot-drag before addressing conflicts. Since his reelection two years ago, we have nevertheless witnessed a return to a more traditional posture. Mrs. Rice regularly visits the region and the United States has adopted an attitude that, without being as engaged as that of President Clinton during his second term, is not as distant as it was during Mr. Bush’s first term.
Q. Do you believe that the foreign policy of the United States has been changed by the radical behavior of Iranian President Ahmadinejad or do you believe that the United States has fixed rules for dealing with any country belonging what has been termed the “Axis of Evil” since September 2001?
Truth be told, both statements are true. On the one hand, there is no doubt that since September 11th, the US tends to view in the dictatorial nature of the Iranian regime and its possession or desire to possess weapons of mass destruction as a threat to its security. On the other, the bellicose and racist statements of the President of Iran have provided credibility to the assertions of the Bush Administration and reinforced the mistrust of all Americans and political circles concerning the regime. But this does not mean that all Americans believe that there should be no relations with Iran. The leaks coming from the Baker-Hamilton Commission, which was appointed recently to find a solution to the Iraqi conflict, suggest the establishment of dialog, albeit informal, with Iran.
Q. Does the US Jewish community more or less support the Bush Administration?
The Jewish electorate is largely Democrat. On the one hand, it is true that when American Jews, as well as all other Americans, witnessed the consequences of suicide bombings targeting civilians by Palestinian extremists, they rallied to the stern position of the Administration. The Jewish community supports Israel. But it is wrong to say that it supports Israeli policies unconditionally. Remember the 1996 statement by the American Jewish Committee that condemned the policies of Mr. Netanyahu, whose government fell a few weeks later.
Q. What exactly is the amount of influence of the American Jewish community has on Republicans and Democrats?
The Jewish community is very powerful because it is composed of successful individuals in terms of education and enviable affluence. But I repeat, the Jewish community is very largely loyal to the Democratic Party. But its influence in intellectual circles, the media, etc. is undeniable. Above all, Americans, beyond the Jewish community, see Israel as a democratic, Westernized country, which is obviously not the case for the Arab countries that surround it. The reflex reaction of support for Israel extends far beyond the Jewish community. The “pro-Israel lobby” is not a Jewish lobby.
Q. Is it true that without the United States, Israel is powerless?
Israel is a difficult country to defend from a strategic point of view. Its land mass is very small. But it was able to achieve peace with Egypt and Jordan, which gave it a certain peace of mind that it did not enjoy before. But the United States played a major role in establishing that peace. However, it remains in a perilous situation. One the one hand, it has a large Arab minority living within its borders which is unhappy with their status because the Palestinians do not yet have a viable state, which they believe is their right. Moreover, several states in the region (Syria, but above all Iran) have had a consistently hostile attitude towards Israel. In these circumstances, Israel is heavily dependent on political and military support from the United States. But it is an overstatement to say that Israel can do nothing without the United States. We recently saw the Israeli government go far beyond the wishes of the United States in Palestine and in Lebanon. But the strategic dependence of Israel on the United States is undeniable.
Q. What is the United States doing to improve its negative image in the Middle East and, more generally, in the Arab world?
This is a very difficult task. President Bush is hated throughout the area and this has carried over to the image of the United States. But let us entertain no illusions: the image of the West and Westerners is also negative. The most effective steps to counter this situation would be in the use of more balanced rhetoric and, above all, to force a certain number of concessions from Israel so that the fledgling Palestinian state has a chance to develop under satisfactory conditions. In other words, so that the state is viable. Such a policy could be implemented by the current administration. Let us not forget that President George W. Bush is the first United States President to have officially evoked the need for a Palestinian state. However, it is also true that the personal image of the President in the Arab and Muslim world is extremely negative to the point that, in my opinion, it is unlikely that esteem for the United States would return under his presidency.
Q. Can we hope that one day Americans will adopt a more objective position on Israel? I refer to the veto imposed on the UN resolution condemning Israel for Beit Hanoun.
It’s possible, but it is far from certain. It’s difficult to read the tea leaves, but I repeat, for the great majority of Americans, Israel is seen as the victim. So its harsh policies are viewed as a natural response to the de facto situation. The fact that this perception is different in Europe does not change the reality.
Q. Will there be a change in US policy toward Turkey (Iraq, Cyprus, and the Southern Caucasus)?
The problem with Turkey is that the American Right has never forgiven it for prohibiting the transit of US aircraft through its airspace and the passage of ground forces through its territory during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That is far less the case with the Democrats, who have arrived at a far different stance on the war since then. I don’t doubt for a minute that Congress will seek to restore cordial relations with Turkey given the new circumstances. However, although the Turkish elite continue to view the United States with a certain amount of benevolence, Turkish public sentiment in this regard is extremely negative. It is not certain that relations can return to the status enjoyed previously.
Let’s not kid ourselves, this situation will only encourage the United States to continue to use demagogic rhetoric concerning the entry of Turkey into the European Union. And when I say demagogic, I am obviously referring to the statements of the United States urging the European Union to admit Turkey rapidly and under relaxed criteria.
Q. And where are the Europeans in all this? Can they influence the position of the United States in the Middle East? Can the Middle East become an area for reconciliation between the EU and the United States or will it be a casus belli?
I hope it will not become a casus belli, or even the stage for verbal clashes. But there will be no real rapprochement unless Israel is directly threatened. This would lead the Europeans to reaffirm their support for the existence of Israel, which would then bring them closer to their US partner. Beyond such circumstances, which are certainly not desirable, I don’t see how the positions of these transatlantic partners, which are now far apart, can be reconciled.
Q. Do the United States or the UN really have the means to carry out their threats of sanctions against Iran, following the reports issued by the IAEA?
The international community recognizes that Iran is playing a very dangerous game. For this reason, the position of the United States is not isolated. It remains to be seen what policy it will implement. Until now, the United States has acted relatively distantly from certain statements by the Administration, which has enabled the US to escape isolation. The reality is that the US Administration cannot tolerate Iranian attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, nor can it use force. This has created for the United States, as for the rest of the world, extremely powerful constraints. The occupation of Iran is inconceivable and targeted strikes would have little likelihood of destroying Iranian nuclear potential and would render ineluctable an acceleration on the part of Iran of its nuclear program. It is a problem that can be resolved only by convincing Iran that a nuclear arsenal is not in it interests But for this, flexible individuals or groups in Iran must be sought out. It is not certain that the US and the rest of the world can do so.
Q. What is the Bush Administration prepared to offer to the Democratic majority in Congress in terms of foreign policy?
It is the President who possesses the initiative for foreign policy. If the Administration wishes to lead effective foreign policy, it has to engage its Democratic partners in Congress in a genuine and systematic fashion. If it fails to do so, it's going to find itself in a very difficult position. The Senate is going to put obstacles in the way of nominations to the Defense Department and the Department of State and the House will cut funding for initiatives which it does not support. Everything depends on discovering whether the Bush Administration is willing to compromise. The least that can be said is that, given its natural persuasion until now, it will seek to push the Democrats into a trap, which consists of assigning them the blame for a possible governmental gridlock. However, from this point of view, domestic issues will be far more important than international issues.
Q. What transformations do you predict in US policies on the Middle East in the next 15 years?
I can’t read the tea leaves. However, I hope that the recent tendency to adopt generic recipes for all the countries which the United States has involved in the ambiguous and hazy “Greater Middle East Initiative” will give way to policies that are far more differentiated. Many Democrats have expressed strong reservations on the validity of the initiative. If the Administration is willing to compromise, we can hope for positive change. As to 15 years from now, remember that Harold Wilson, the former British Prime Minister, used to say that a week is a long time in politics....so, 15 years are….
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