The Middle East

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President Bush told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that “our nation will not try to force peace” in the Middle East. That was quite some time ago, when the idea of the peace process “succeeding” was not so impossible to believe.

At the time, I wondered whether a measure of sanity had returned to American foreign policy after an 84-year leave of absence.

As the Washington Times reported, Bush’s comment were pregnant with more meaning than a nascent anti-interventionism. “It was a veiled reference to Mr. Clinton’s aggressive push for peace, which failed after high-pressure talks at Camp David last year.”

Clinton approached the Middle East in the same way that he approached “the health care crisis,” his impeachment, and every other fight he staged with the Republican party. He charged head first into the fray, loudly sniping at critics as foolish or evil, and attempted to simply push events the way he wanted them to go. (Did he treat foreign peoples the way he treated women? Hmm).

At the core, Clinton’s approach to all problems was the approach of the huckster, loudly braying about the amazing benefits of letting him run your life, forcing you to sign on the dotted line, and disappearing before you realize you’ve signed your life away.

This circus act had a chance of working in domestic politics because the power-mad Democratic party, as well as its lickspittle allies in the labor unions, teachers’ unions, and “civil rights” hierarchy, would cement the Clinton policy by endless repetition of the chosen mantras.

Where domestic policy is concerned, the Democrats were at least able to try to brainwash the sheep called voters into believing that Bill Clinton gave the American people”the most ethical administration in history,” was “the first black president,” and brought “peace to the Middle East” and was solely responsible for “peace in Ireland.” Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Never mind that men, women and children continue to die in Belfast and Palestine, that numerous Clinton cronies are now behind bars, and that American blacks are not much better off than they were in 1992 when the “first black president” took office.

The Democrats and their establishment allies, however, are utterly helpless when it comes to persuading the Palestinians and the Israelis, or Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, about what a great deal Bill Clinton deigned to give them.

As a result, Clinton’s snake-oil sale went bust overseas. Nobody told the Palestinians that Clinton brought “peace” to the Middle East. At a party in Manhattan, Clinton reportedly told Yasser Arafat that Arafat had made Clinton “a failure.” Ah, the elusive search for a legacy.

Even if the American media had had the Palestinians, Israelis, and the six counties of Northern Ireland as a captive audience, Clinton’s strategy was bound to fail for the reason that Clinton is no Yasser Arafat, and he is no Gerry Adams.

Arafat and Adams live with the threat of death on a daily basis. Their political careers are built upon earlier careers based upon less subtle forms of persuasion. Arafat has spent his life fighting the Israeli army and intelligence agency, while Adams has spent his life struggling against the British army and Loyalist terror groups. Adams has also spent a time in prison.

A snake oil salesman from Arkansas was not about to make Yasser Arafat or Gerry Adams blink.

As the Washington Times continued,

“The Camp David talks…went haywire, putting Jerusalem front and center as the sort of the be-all and end-all of negotiations before it really was ripe for solution,” Vice President Richard B. Cheney told The Washington Times. “You’ve got to look at the situation we inherited in the Middle East and, frankly, it’s a mess.”

Yes, it is indeed a mess. But it would be a continuance of American ignorance of the Middle East to suppose that it is wholly Clinton’s fault that the region is “a mess,” or that the situation is wholly the fault of the United States.

Those who wish to at least begin to understand the Middle East must recognize that newspapers (even, and perhaps especially, the New York Times and the Washington Post), magazines, TV and radio news (even the “in-depth” government-sponsored variety on PBS and NPR) are not likely to provide a serious understanding of the Middle East.

The reason for this is the nature of news. Fundamentally, a newspaper tells you what happened yesterday. A magazine goes a bit more in-depth, and tells you what happened last week. Nightly TV news is much like a newspaper, but with bright colors and flashing lights, and the radio is not much more than someone with a nice voice reading you the newspaper. For that matter, some radio hosts actually read the newspaper on the air.

Those who wish to at least begin to understand the Middle East — note, I make no promises that anyone will actually understand the Middle East, nor do I claim to fully understand the Middle East — have some homework to do, something more meaty to read than newspapers and magazines.

For starters, consult David Fromkin’s masterful book, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. (Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples is also worth a look, as is The Arab World: Forty Years of Change by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Robert A. Fernea).

At the very least, Fromkin’s book provides food for thought such that those who read the book will hopefully be less susceptible to manipulation by politicians acting through the news media. (Fromkin, by the way, has also written an excellent book on the American military intervention in the Balkans entitled Kosovo Crossing: American Ideals Meet Reality on the Balkan Battlefields).

To summarize Fromkin, the mess in the Middle East can largely be traced to the First World War and the master mess-makers who controlled America, England, France, and Russia. Clinton’s mess-making was only the latest mess-making in the Arab world by meddling outsiders.

In the First World War — the blood-soaked butchery which manifestly failed to “make the world safe for democracy” (democracy, you see, is so fragile that it can only exist in a bubble) — England, France and Russia all had their own schemes for the Ottoman Empire, which we know today as Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire itself was wracked by internal dissension. The “Young Turks” party sought to “modernize” Turkey by exterminating the Armenian population and forcing Turkey to become an industrial nation.

Note that 84 years later, Turkey is still trying to become an industrial nation. Also note that “internal dissension” is simply political verbiage for people being people. Human beings generally being dissatisfied with life on earth, they tend to be restless and constantly in search of a magic formula to bring a life of ease and constant pleasure. This is, of course, a fool’s errand, but it happens. Suffice it to say that people in Turkey were struggling to decide what it meant to be Turkish, and what kind of place Turkey ought to be. Sound familiar?

Enter England, France, and Russia, all offering to “help” Turkey — and in the process carving up the Middle East into “spheres of influence,” picking winners in local power struggles, and, generally, botching the job.

These were the same “best and the brightest,” after all, who so masterfully drew up a new map of Europe after World War One — which to this day is being redrawn by bloodshed in the Balkans.

In the end, American voters must come to understand that the troubles of the world are more complicated than an action movie. Despite the fact that Ariel Sharon “blames Mr. Arafat for much of the ongoing bloodshed,” more Palestinians than Israelis have been killed.

Rushing in with guns blazing is not going to change centuries of history. It is only going to get innocent people killed. Before the United States retaliates for the attack on the USS Cole, or for the attacks on Washington and New York, the “best and the brightest” had better do their homework. And do it better than their predecessors.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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