Not Ripe, Sally Ann

February 19, 2003 Topic: Security

Not Ripe, Sally Ann

 Little Sally Ann Tucker from over across the croft visited Chestnut Nook again the other day.

 Little Sally Ann Tucker from over across the croft visited Chestnut Nook again the other day. Sally Ann is just shy of her fourth birthday, cute as a button, and, as we learned from an earlier visit, very much enamoured of fresh raspberries. She had two questions for us at the ready: "Where's Tilly the bunny?" and "Can I have some rastalberries?" (That's what she calls them.) My wife, Scilla, answered that we haven't seen Tilly lately, and that the only raspberries we have from our patch were the ones in the jam we made: "No fresh ripe raspberries in the middle of winter, Sally Ann." She seemed to understand and settled contentedly for jam on a muffin.

Why can't some adults behave as intelligently as Sally Ann? Hearings were held on February 11 before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and CIA Director George Tenet, FBI Director Robert Mueller and DIA Director Lowell Jacoby were on hand to edify the assembled. At one point in the proceedings, Senator Diane Feinstein read out a sentence from Vice-Admiral Jacoby's prepared statement for the avowed purpose of associating herself with it, and obviously meaning that association as a criticism of the Bush Administration. The sentence went as follows: "The prolonged Israeli-Palestinian conflict is furthering anti-American sentiment, increasing the likelihood of terrorism directed at U.S. interests, increasing the pressure on moderate Middle East regimes, and carries with it the potential for wider regional conflict. With each side determined to break the other's will, I see no end to the current violence."  

Now, Admiral Jacoby's statement was a statement of fact befitting an intelligence analyst's brief, and as such it is unexceptional. It is true that the U.S. image in the Arab and wider Muslim world is affected negatively by the perception that American policy tilts sharply and unfairly toward Israel. It is true, too, that were the conflict to be suddenly becalmed, or even solved, through American diplomatic aegis, it would do a fair bit of good all around. But Senator Feinstein's use of this statement implied three other presumptions, about policy, not a one of which is true. 

The first is that the administration has back-burnered Arab-Israeli diplomacy, illustrated most recently by its decision to hold back on release of the Quartet "road map." The second is that if the administration would only front-burner the issue, it could indeed becalm or even solve the problem. And the third is that if it did so, dramatic change would ensue in how Arabs and Muslims perceive the United States, and that, in turn, would have palpable benefits in the war on terrorism. Let us take these matters in turn.

The charge that the administration has back-burnered Arab-Israeli diplomacy is an old one, long pre-dating September 11, 2001. But it is true only if an observer thinks that short of public Secretarial and Presidential initiatives complete with photo-ops and State visits, no other forms of diplomacy really count. Putting it like this shows how ridiculous such a view is, but that hasn't stopped lots of people from having it. Ever heard of the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet Plan, one might ask them. Have any idea how many thousands of hours U.S. officials have spent working this problem? Apparently not.  

Bush Administration principals have taken the view that the previous administration overspent Presidential and Secretarial capital and got much too little to show for it. Such capital was wastefully discounted, in their view, because it was and remains illogical for the United States to want progress and peace more than the local protagonists. Peace can only be made by those protagonists coming to terms with each other, not by exporting their concessions through the United States, which must sweeten the product with its own resources before its importation on the other side is accepted. Too much mediation, too much pressure, too much interest in the part of the United States can make real peace harder to achieve. One may disagree with this point of view, but it is not obviously wrong. The insinuation that only "prime-time" style diplomacy counts, however, and that it is always the appropriate way to proceed, obviously is wrong. 

The second presumption, that were we to put our shoulder to it we would succeed, is equally suspect. For the eight years of the Clinton Administration, and for a good chunk of the Bush père years before it, as well, Arab-Israeli-and particularly Palestinian-Israeli-diplomacy was very much front-burner. And it did not succeed. Short of imposing an imperial settlement against the will of Israelis and Palestinians alike-which is not how we usually do business, and ought to remain how we do not do business-it is far from obvious that success would be at hand. Administration principals have not been oblivious to the issue, but they believe that one party to the dispute, Yasir Arafat, to name names, has not been negotiating in good faith. They take this view from his effort to import surreptitiously 50 tons of Iranian arms and explosives, from his signature on documents ordering payment to terrorists, from his failure to order a stop to violence and incitement, and from his failure even to respond seriously to, let alone embrace, the increasingly generous proposals of the Barak government from Camp David to Taba. Every time it seemed that a peace deal might be within reach, administration principals watched as Arafat's actions pushed that possibility away. They concluded, not unreasonably, that a final peace settlement was more a threat to Arafat's political strategy than a consummation of it. Hence the President's June 2002 speech calling for Arafat's retirement, so to speak, and a reformed Palestinian Authority.

Again, this judgment may be wrong-virtually every EU diplomat is sure it is wrong-but it is not unreasonable. Given the evidence, assuming that U.S diplomatic willpower alone can do the trick is unreasonable.  

Moreover, if the administration's judgment is correct, it follows that forcing concessions on Israel in the face of Palestinian violence would not produce peace, but only more violence. (That, certainly, is what the majority of Israelis have concluded from the evidence on the ground over the past few years.) Generally speaking, the administration is not in a mood to reward the use of political violence and terrorism anywhere, and its reasons require no explanation. And this need have nothing to do with the President's demand for "moral clarity" (although it might); it is simply common strategic sense. Put a little differently, if the fruit of the peace process is not ripe, not only can't you pick it, but trying to do so may well harm the plant. 

But suppose for a moment that this fruit could be picked. What effect would it have on images of the United States in the Arab world? It would help some, no doubt; but how much? As Michael Scott Doran shows in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, for most Arabs Palestine is a metaphysical, symbolic construct that condenses a historical narrative of blameless victimization. They need it, and they use it, to express a general frustration with their national and personal stations in life. As such, Palestine-as-symbol is not about the details of borders and security arrangements, compensation for refugees and so forth. Since any workable solution would involve compromise, it means that Israel would continue to exist as a Jewish state and that "Palestine" would not look much like the shape of the land that so many Palestinians and other Arabs wear around their necks as jewelry. An end to the violence, if it could be achieved, would force Al-Jazeera to move on to write the next chapter in its saga of electronic yellow journalism, and that would be good (except for its next target). But the sense of generalized historical victimization at the hands of the West that Palestine-cum-symbol represents would not end.  

Besides, those Islamist militants who are the source of anti-Western and anti-American terrorism would not be appeased by a political settlement to the conflict. In their narrative of history, and in the moral calculus they apply to that narrative, Israel has no right to exist in any borders whatsoever. An American-led diplomatic "success", since it would necessarily involve compromises on all sides, would inevitably be interpreted by America's Islamist enemies as just another imperial humiliation foisted upon Arabs and Muslims with the help of their impious, servile governments-and a large but unknowable percentage of the famed Arab "street" would agree with them. Arab governments associated with such a peace settlement would be at greater risk of violent assault and destabilization, not less-or have people already forgotten what happened to Anwar es-Sadat after he made peace with Israel? Compromise settlements do not wash well in what for all practical purposes is a passion play to many Arabs-people for whom, by the way, religious and political passions have a general tendency to blur. 

A more active and high-profile U.S. diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian front, that stands a significant chance of real near-term success, and that would in turn yield major benefits in the war on terrorism is, alas, an illusion. A time may come, and it may come soon, when a U.S. push for peace will make sense and, as I have said, its success will do some broader good as well. When that time of ripeness comes, the administration will know it and seize it, just as the first Bush Administration produced the breakthrough at Madrid after the 1991 Gulf War. In the meantime, perhaps we could pretend to be fronting an active diplomacy, despite our private recognition of its near-term futility. Perhaps we could fool the Arabs, or at least help friendly Arab governments to better defend U.S. policies on their "streets." But somehow I don't think this is what Senator Feinstein has in mind.