Damn the Iranians and full speed ahead. That was the U.S. policy in the Middle East. But the waters have proved treacherous, with torpedoes everywhere. Despite an initial hopeful sit-down with Iranian negotiators, this won’t be the October the White House wanted on the foreign policy front. By now, Barack Obama was supposed to have announced — with ruffles and flourishes — the beginning of Middle East peace talks, leading to a final status agreement by 2012. But something didn’t happen.
Israeli police officers hold riot shields as they stand in front of a graffiti depicting a Palestinian flag during clashes with Palestinian stone-throwers in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud, October 6, 2009. A senior Palestinian official on Tuesday accused Israel of deliberately creating “an extremely dangerous situation” in East Jerusalem, to trigger violence, justify a crackdown and tighten its grip on the disputed city. REUTERS/Baz Ratner
What went wrong? The heart of the problem was not Israel’s supposed power over U.S. policy. The United States still has plenty of leverage over the Israelis and everyone else in the region. Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea is right: “Everyone depends on America, its money, its military aid, and its moves vis-à-vis Iran.”
But it is precisely those U.S. moves, meant to contain the power of Iran, that are the main stumbling block on the path to a U.S.-brokered two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Middle East is a textbook example of the perils of containment.
The ghost of Cold War past
If Obama’s troubles keep him awake late at night, he may hear the ghostly voices of past presidents echoing down the White House hallways — Bill Clinton saying, “I tried to get the Israelis and Palestinians together, too. It’s a bitch,” or Dwight D. Eisenhower recalling (as he once wrote to a friend) that he felt “forced to give constant attention… to problems that defy solution.”
The loudest voice of all, though, may come from the ghost of the Cold War, whose spirit of containment still haunts the White House and shapes foreign policy decisions every day.
The drive for containment of “the commies” created problems that defied solution. After all, containment meant maintaining total control over the global chessboard, always making exactly the right move at exactly the right time. The task was, quite literally, a mission impossible. Eisenhower revealed why when, resorting to the imagery of his era, he described the American “wall of containment” to his National Security Council as a “free world dike” holding back the rising “red tide.” When that dike got “leaky,” he said, the United States had to “put a finger in” rather than “let the whole structure be washed away.”
As any high school physics student knows, plugging that dike with your finger merely increases the pressure somewhere else, inevitably leading to yet another crack. In other words, containment turned the United States into Sisyphus, laboring at a task that never ends.
As Obama and his advisors make policy for “the greater Middle East” — that huge swath of mostly Muslim lands from Somalia to Pakistan — they are guided by a regional version of containment, with Iran as its object. The longer the Israelis occupy Palestine, the more Iranian leaders profit by riding a wave of anti-Israeli fervor throughout the area. Hence, the big push for a negotiated peace.
Yet the first move in that push — the demand that Israel freeze settlement expansion — set off a whole new series of stresses and strains.
After all, the United States relies on Israel as a major weapon in its Iranian containment policy. It also relies on that weapon being under U.S. control, so that just the right pressure can be exerted on the Iranian leadership by making just the right threatening gestures to Tehran at just the right moment (without, of course, letting the Israelis actually act upon those threats, which would create chaos and mayhem in the region).
When the administration’s freeze demand triggered right-wing outrage in Israel, Netanyahu turned his threats on Washington: If the demand persisted, it could bring down his government, he claimed, leaving no one holding the trigger on the necessary weapon of containment or (even worse) running the risk that some crazy leader might grab the weapon and actually pull the trigger.
So the United States backed off a total freeze and, according to one Israeli report, promised to deal with “Iran first… The Palestinians will have to wait their turn and pass the time in empty talks until Iran is restrained.”
But the U.S. moves to shore up the Israeli part of its containment wall only created a new crisis elsewhere — in this case, with the West Bank Palestinian government headed by Mahmoud Abbas. His appointed role is to make his Fatah-led regime strong enough to keep Hamas out of power and out of any negotiations, since Hamas is seen as a proxy for Iran. Whether that perception is accurate hardly matters to policymakers. In the game of containment, perceptions are the realities that matter most.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perceptions are the most important realities, too. As recent research shows, majorities on both sides are not as concerned about gaining substantive political and economic advantages as they are about inflicting symbolic defeats on the other side. Anything that looks like a victory, especially in intangible matters of prestige and pride, is a victory.
If Abbas accedes to U.S. demands to negotiate at a moment when Israel is rebuffing the United States on the freeze, he will look like a loser. That will make him a loser and so, by default, Hamas will be the obvious winner.
Abbas has already created that impression in some circles simply by agreeing to meet with Obama and Netanyahu, offering the Israeli leader a “tentative handshake” at the U.N. “The whole process has lost [Abbas] a lot of credibility with the Palestinian people,” said veteran Palestinian diplomat Hanan Ashrawi. “For Palestinians it’s very important that our leadership not constantly be the one to give in.” “How will anyone from now on take him seriously?” another Palestinian official asked.
To answer that question Abbas, the designated agent of U.S. interests in Palestine, only has to look at other leaders who have been assigned the same role: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. They have both been holding on to power by publicly rebuffing the United States, thus laying claim to independence and turning anti-American sentiment in their countries to their advantage. Why shouldn’t Abbas do the same?
The Obama administration might be tempted to buy further concessions from Abbas by strengthening the hand of General Keith Dayton, who oversees the training of the Palestinian security forces that keep Hamas suppressed on the West Bank. However, what many Palestinians scornfully call “the Dayton government” is already unpopular. Giving it more power could easily boost the political fortunes of Hamas.
So the U.S. has to stand by, watching Abbas stiffen his spine and negotiate with Hamas, while hoping he doesn’t emulate al-Maliki’s game of cozying up to the Iranians as a counterweight to the Americans.
The perils of perception
Beyond backing off the settlement freeze, the administration also offered another concession to the Israelis. They leaned on Abbas to defer a draft proposal at the U.N. Human Rights Council that would have endorsed the recommendations of the Goldstone Report, which found evidence of Israeli war crimes in last winter’s attack on Gaza. Israel desperately wants U.S. help in hanging onto its image as an oppressed, blameless victim.
For the same reason, the United States also encouraged Arab states to join the proposed peace talks, rather than making it simply a one-on-one Israeli-Palestinian affair. Here’s how the Israeli paper Haaretz summed up recent remarks on the subject by Defense Minister Ehud Barak: “In negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel is the ‘only one that can give. The Palestinians are the underdog and the talks are asymmetrical.’ But in regional talks… it becomes clear that Israel is the isolated party.”
To the Obama administration, however, regional talks fall into another category: promoting a regional containment policy against Iran. Containing Iran, in fact, is the one goal the Israelis, the Fatah-led rump Palestinian Authority, and all the major Arab states might have in common. According to Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. message is: “If you don’t engage in the process of making peace, you give Hamas and Hizbullah and Iran, who are enemies of the peace process, and vocal opponents of it, a veto.”
If the United States had the kind of total control that containment theory requires, it would, indeed, use such peace talks to strengthen a region-wide anti-Iranian alliance. But the leaders of the major Arab states run up against the same problem that Abbas faces: Domestic publics, wary of any pro-American moves, might be swayed into seeing Iran as their champion. So the Arab states have offered few concessions indeed, which the Israelis then point to as yet more “proof” that they are surrounded by enemies on all sides and can’t afford to give up one more thing.
When Washington leans on the Arab states, it highlights Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program as the number one threat. And Arab leaders might be happy enough to go along, were it not for the obvious image problem: How can they say with straight faces that they are banding together to stop an imagined Iranian nuclear menace, while sitting down to negotiate with an Israel that has at least 100 — perhaps 200 or more — very real nuclear weapons? Even the increasingly hawkish Ehud Barak admits that Iran’s nuclear program is not an “existential issue” because “Israel is strong.”
Every time the United States warns about Iran’s nuclear program, it merely calls more attention in the region to Israel’s ignored and unacknowledged nuclear arsenal. Then Arab leaders feel forced to take a tougher public stand against Israel’s nukes because their people want to see Israel firmly contained. And in the game of containment, where image is reality, the first rule is: Always show resolve.
That’s the prevailing rule in Washington, too. On the same day that Obama met Netanyahu and Abbas at the U.N., his hometown newspaper, the Washington Post, chastised him editorially for “Wavering on Afghanistan.” When containment prevails, firmness is required. No waverers need apply. (Extra fingers are, however, useful.)
The president gets the message. Last week, when the Iranians surprised the world with significant concessions at their first meeting with American negotiators in Geneva, the New York Times urged Obama to “push Iran’s leaders hard” and “be ready to impose tough sanctions if Iran resists.” But he was a step ahead, having already declared: “We are prepared to move towards increased pressure.”
Times reporter Helene Cooper saw that as “the exact opposite of what a White House usually does… Instead of painting lukewarm concessions as major breakthroughs… officials were treating a potentially major breakthrough as if it were a suspicious package.” But this was, in fact, an exact echo of what a Cold War White House usually did. In those superpower stand-off days, endless negotiations, with each side making offers deflected by the suspicions and stern rebuffs of the other, actually fueled the ritual of containment.
In reality, Obama’s troubles are not caused primarily by “the bad guys,” nor by Israel’s supposed power or that of the domestic “Israeli lobby,” nor even, as some critics charge, his own tendency to vacillate. Instead, he’s trapped in the conundrum that’s built into U.S. containment strategy in the Middle East. No matter what other nations do or don’t do, everything that looks like it might be a solution only turns out to create new problems.
The United States will keep on pursuing Middle East peace. Obama will keep getting intense pressure from the hawks at home to capitulate to every Israeli demand. He will certainly look for maneuvering room. And the rising influence of the Jewish peace lobby will give him more room than his predecessors had. But even a peace movement strong enough to offset the “pro-Israel” right might not offer room enough as long as the overriding aim of U.S. Middle Eastern policy is to make Iran say uncle; that is, to make its leaders accept the image of a humbled, overawed loser.
If the administration sticks to that approach, no move to cut through the Gordian Knot of Israeli-Palestinian relations will truly work, not with Obama and his team trapped behind a wall of containment. President Obama and his advisors will, instead, live in terror of the image of Iran that the U.S. has had such a hand in creating. Like Eisenhower and all the Cold War presidents after him and all their advisors, they will remain endlessly plagued by problems that defy solution.
The recent Iranian concessions offer the president the beginning of a way out, a chance to make good on his own message to the United Nations: “The future does not belong to fear… All of us must decide whether we are serious about peace.”
Now he and his administration, too, must decide if they are serious. They would do well to modify the old mantra of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for president and put it everywhere: It’s the Iranians, stupid. If they can rid themselves of their Cold War-style Iranian obsession, another path is possible. If they make the two-state solution an end in itself rather than just another means of containment, if they transcend the fear that is the brick and mortar of the wall of containment, if they tear down that wall and exorcise the ghost of the Cold War, then they just might guide the Israelis and Palestinians to the peace that both sides so badly need.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity. This article first appeared at Tomdispatch.com