Column: The Middle East Mess Bush Helped Make Messier

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Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Illinois.

With Team 43 it's either too much or too little, but always plenty of talk. Far-reaching yet short-sighted policies aimed at going over the top or doing nothing at all are launched for whatever politically opportunistic reason, then towering rhetoric kicks in, often retroactively, to justify them.

Last year's gargantuan tax cut was, and remains, the Platonic Ideal. The screwiest idea to come down the pike since SDI, the fiscal gibberish was hurriedly thrown together in reaction to Steve Forbes's equally screwy idea about flat-tax flubdubbery. W. needed a colossally fatuous plan to bewitch hardcore conservatives in the primaries, the scheme was hatched, then campaign rhetoric ensued which made it seem as though George had been walking around with the thing in his hip pocket since partying at Yale. Thus supply-side catastrophe was reborn.

The same depth of thought went into the administration's Middle East policy--to use a charitable word--only this time such thought was directed at doing too little. Aside from ignoring the rather prickly issues that constitute the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the truly Evil One, Bill Clinton, had built a reputation addressing them, W. sat on his entitled posterior and allowed a gruesome situation to become gruesomer mostly to satisfy, once again, his conservative base of a decidedly pro-Israel slant.

For fifteen months he groaned on with the plainly counterintuitive argument that both sides somehow needed to make nice and cease all the firing before the United States would intervene in negotiating a political settlement. Cart-before-the-horse foreign policy, rhetorically tortured to please the hardcore homefolks. That internally political train of thought was, of course, a disaster of international proportion. Former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke for a chorus of critics when he said,"I fail to see how plunging the Palestinian side of the equation into anarchy is a contribution to the peace process." Yet it wasn't Brzezinski's eyesight that was failing, for as an unnamed administration official confessed of his team's policy:"There's less here than meets the eye."

Eventually, conveniently contributing to Bush's Middle East inertia was his Manichean rhetoric about terrorism. The comforting oratory, designed mostly for ringing those approval-rating bells, was deceptively simple and applied retrospectively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to justify our doing--oddly--nothing. There were good guys and bad guys over there; matters were black or white; the belligerents possessed either righteousness or malignity. The rhetoric proffered a simplistic worldview. Hence we could wink at and do nothing about whatever Ariel Sharon felt like doing--he's the one with a white hat on his head (and not a black towel around it) and loads of righteousness, by the way--because, after all, he was fighting terrorism.

There was only one problem with that approach: the rest of the world and especially the Islamic portion seemed to have this fuzzy sort of third view that nothing is ever quite so simple, no matter how stridently one wishes to rhetorically frame it. Complex realities have a way of dissolving tidy definitions.

For example at precisely what point does fighting for national survival end and terrorism begin? If one were to answer,"That's easy, with the taking of innocent civilian lives," then the U.S.--so the Islamic world said--is backing a terrorist madman, for Sharon approved the 1982 massacre of hundreds of innocent Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. And today he matches rock-throwing Palestinian children with tanks and missile-firing helicopters.

The Islamic critique can be extended in a way that hits closer to home. When the U.S. takes innocent lives in the execution of a"higher" purpose we call it unfortunate" collateral damage." True, civilians may not be the prime target, but how much difference does that make to the victims? Is collateral damage more properly collateral terrorism?

When American forces during WWII participated in targeting German women and children with incendiary bombing raids, did they fit today's definition of terrorists? What was Wounded Knee? A necessary and strategic military strike? What was Sherman's"total war" in his march to the sea? What was the destruction of Loyalist property and lives in our own war of liberation? Does mere separation in time give terrorism a make-over?

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States asked similar questions in a recent op-ed piece. He wrote that he was proud to be a friend of the U.S. but"frustrated" that"this strange principle of [Palestinian] resistance to military occupation ... seems to be difficult for many American political, intellectual, and media elite to comprehend--even though it has been practiced by others in the past, such as Nelson Mandela ... Gen. George Washington .. and even Menachem Begin."

In a related note, University of Maryland government professor Shibley Telhami has written that"to pretend that this issue is simply one of a choice between good and evil is to know nothing of human psychology." Yet that is what the Bush administration persisted in doing in ignoring the conflict's complexities. Rather than dirtying its hands in the grueling work of reaching a peace accord that addresses legitimate grievances from both sides, it was busy spewing high-minded platitudes that neatly squared with the administration's simplistic rhetoric on terrorism, pretending one side was fundamentally good and the other fundamentally evil.

The pretense has now backed the U.S. into an even more impossible diplomatic corner, since passions are running higher than ever and charges of terrorism are being hyped by all. The greater tragedy? Far more Israelis and Palestinians will pay with their lives for the Bush administration's sitting back and resting on rhetoric, mostly to please conservative homeboys.

© Copyright 2002 P. M. Carpenter

Fifth Columnist is published weekly by History News Network and

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Chris Messner - 4/12/2002

I think, from the number and associations of prisoners, that Mr. Sharon has been going after Hamas and Islamic Jihad, at least those within areas he can enter. Please note the various leaders of these groups who have been arrested or identified, and maybe you'll agree. Although not authenicated, it does seen a number of documents have been found that are tying Arafat directly to the terrorists, as opposed to the Saudi funding which, while certainly happening, cannot be so easily tied back to the Saudi government.

I don't think it is Bush's intention to go after Saudi citizens in Saudi Arabia for contributing privately to terrorist groups, just as it was Sharon's intention to minimize civilian deaths by going in on the ground (he certainly could have saved Israeli causualties with an air/artillery campaign, with more civilian and less terrorist impact). I personally believe we should break off ties to a number of arab countries for their international behavior, including the Saudis and the Kuwaitis (who apparently believe Saddam would never do that again). I doubt Bush will though, the admin seems set on maintaining relations with countries that pay for their news organizations to say vile things about Jews, Israel, and the US.

As to differentiating between a country and a country's elected leader, well at least in a democracy you can voice a different opinion in government, try telling someone that you can differentiate Saddam from his government! Sharon is a democratically elected leader, and if he loses the support of his cabinet, his Knesset, or his people he will fall and someone else will be elected. Unfortunately that can't happen in most of the rest of the middle east. And before we worry that Mubarak will be replaced by hardliners, note that Israel will probably be just fine, at least then the war would be open to the world, rather than funded underground and supported by the religious leaders and papers. I seem to remember them winning a couple of times already.

I really can't see the logic in arguing against the Israeli response at this point, they are attacked by organizations supported by an arbitrary government who teaches that Palestine's largest port is Haifa, not Gaza, that all of Israel is actually all of Palestine, and that Palestinians have right of return in any settlement (yeah, I see Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia allowing a Jewish right of return and guaranteeing protection, or even offering compensation to those expelled). But that's just me.

Pierre Troublion - 4/11/2002

RE Mr. Messner’s statement: “...terrorism, in any form, can not be allowed to win in any way...”

I certainly agree that resisting terrorism should be a very important priority (although I’m not too worried about Norwegian terrorists seeking to avenge their lost Middle Eastern colonies), but is that what Sharon is really up to ? To those able to differentiate between the people of Israel, the state of Israel, and the current prime minister of Israel, it looks a lot more like provocation and incitement of terrorism. (If Sharon really cared about protecting Israel, why has he not focused on Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the perpetrators of most of the suicide bombings, rather than fixating on Arafat, irrelevant or otherwise ?)

Many of the 9-11 hijackers and much of Al-Qaeda’s funding came from Saudi Arabia. Supposing America had therefore decided to occupy Saudi villages, construct fortified “settlements”, bulldoze olive trees, smash through buildings, cut power lines, and barricade the Saudi King with tanks in order to "teach him that terrorism doesn't pay". Would we expect the rest of the world to line up mindlessly behind us ? Or assume that any country opposing us must be run with guilt-ridden wimps who are soft on terrorism ? One would hope not.

Chris Messner - 4/11/2002

Lets get to the underlying issues then: why is it that all of Europe is calling on Israel to back off? Is it the same reason the arab countries rally for Arafat and refuse to call suicide bombing terrorism? The europeans are afraid of their arab minorities and jealous of their place in the world; the collective guilt they hold not only for WWII but for dividing up the middle east in the first place is not a good reason to stand with dictator nations sponsoring murder against a democratic society that has demonstrated survivability and economic progress. For Bush to back down on his moral clarity in the 'Bush Doctrine', in order to attempt to swing lukewarm arab support in a campaign against Iraq, is ludicrous.

You are right, the Israelis are not without guilt in actions that have happened in the Middle East. They have made bad decisions, and have done things that many can find repugnant, just as we can say about European countries, the US, and especially the arab states to this day. Israeli leaders run the risk of losing their leadership roles if they do not perform the way the citizens elected them think they should. Sharon was heckled during an address in the Knesset the other day, by Israeli-arab knesset members elected to represent Israeli citizens. Please tell me where I can find stories of ELECTED JEWISH representatives allowed to heckle an ARAB leader. Or where ARAB representatives are allowed to campaign against an ARAB leader. Better yet, please point to AN ELECTED ARAB LEADER(note: Arafat's "elected" term gave out in '99, he arbitrarily extended it).

It is time for Bush to wake up, with as much of the rest of the world as possible, and acknowledge that terrorism, in any form, can not be allowed to win in any way, or the next bomb can be found anywhere.

Pierre Troublion - 4/11/2002

Well, at least we're dealing with historical matters on this History site now, even if the foregoing litany is a highly selective set of historical issues and events. Suppose we grant (if we are capable of open-mindedness) that both Palestinians and Israelis have at times lapsed from perfection and morality. Suppose we even assume that such lapses have been notably greater on the Palestinian side, at least up until a few weeks ago. That still says next to nothing about the issues raised by P.M. Carpenter: Why is there so much death and destruction going on in the Middle East now and what should "our" President (if we are Americans who are posting to this thread) do about it ? Broadly speaking, there are two answers to that question. One view is held by Ariel Sharon, the other is held by nearly every other democratically elected leader in the world. It is time for Americans to wake up (as George W. Bush finally seems to have begun doing) and move beyond the absurd equation: Support Israel's right to exist = 100% support for Ariel Sharon.

Chris Messner - 4/11/2002

"one can go all the way back to 1994 to see whether the Nobel Peace Price Committee thought Arafat had ever "contributed anything to peace". Unless you think that the Norwegian Parliament is run by terrorists"

Based on the rejection of someone wearing a star of david in support of Israel from the Norwegian parliment, where po-palestinian symbols are okay, I might think the parliment is rather pro-terrorist. And lets not forget the regrets of the Norwegian Nobel committee member for awarding Peres, you know the one who served in prison 5 years for aid and comfort to the Germans in WWII.

"Clearly Arafat has slipped markedly since '94 in his devotion to peace, but that does not give Sharon the right to rewrite history or decide who is or isn't a terrorist"

Yes lets allow Arafat's buddy's to determine this. As I recall, when asked if they would allow Arafat to enter in case the US needed to help get Arafat out last week, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia REFUSED him (only Morrocco signed up). Gee, maybe that's because Arafat attempted to overthrow Jordan's king in the 60's, and Tunisia only let him in without his supporters in the 80's because they knew what he'd do. Everywhere Arafat has been, he's destablized the region (Jordan in the 60's, Lebanon in the 70's-80's, and 'accepting' peace with one hand and ordering war with the other in Israel and the territories now).

Israel tried to give the West bank back to Jordan after '67, the Jordanians didn't want it because they didn't want to deal with the Palestinians directly anymore.

Why didn't the Arab governments give Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinians BEFORE all the wars? Why did Kuwait kick out all the Palestinians after the Gulf War? These same friends of the Palestinians now certainly must of found them not so friendly when they are activists in their own countries.

There was no such country of Palestine in existance, historically (contrary to denials of arab history books, there were Jewish kingdoms here, although long since eliminated the history is suppported). Just as there was no such country as Syria, Jordan, etc. These borders were created after WWI and WWII, by the Europeans. In '48, Israel was created, just as a Palestinian state was to be. Israel did not prevent this, the arab states did when they seized Gaza and the west bank; they decided that everything would be okay once they defeated and drove out the Jews. Problem was, they lost, and the Palestinians have been clinging to that failed policy ever since.

Pierre Troublion - 4/10/2002

There is plenty of senselessness to go around in all directions. But first calling Arafat irrelevant and then blockading him with tanks hardly sounds like coherence. And preventing him from attending the Arab summit, arrogantly defying the appeals of the U.S. President, the U.N. Secretary-General, and the European Union, seems a bit different from the Israel of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.

Furthermore, since this is supposedly a History site, one can go all the way back to 1994 to see whether the Nobel Peace Price Committee thought Arafat had ever "contributed anything to peace". Unless you think that the Norwegian Parliament is run by terrorists (after all, isn't that where that terroristic Olso Peace Process, that was furthered by terrorists Clinton and Rabin, came from ?). Or is it possible that Sharon CLAIMS to be fighting terrorism but is actually fighting to save his own position of power ? Clearly Arafat has slipped markedly since '94 in his devotion to peace, but that does not give Sharon the right to rewrite history or decide who is or isn't a terrorist, or to continue his preposterous and insulting claim that he's just doing what the U.S. did in Afghanistan (where is his "Northern Alliance" ?).

In reality, Sharon's current policy is way out of line (and failing to protect Israel). Almost the entire educated world knows this, and that includes sensible Israelis like Ehud (Israel has lost her "moral compass") Barak, and, yes, it even includes the President of the USA. Remember him ? He was the subject of original article posted.

Diane Anderson - 4/10/2002

I disagree on both points. First, the Palestinian Authority has documented ties to terrorism, for example the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Karine-A ship and the accounting records in Arafat's office. The official map on the PA's website doesn't even show Israel, just *Palestine.* Arafat hasn't contributed anything to peace, and isn't a *moderate.* The Israelis would be better off if they dealt directly with Hamas and the other terrorist groups. Second, the Israeli military campaigns are not *senseless violence,* but an attempt to round up terrorists. They would have had less casualties if they had used more artillery and air power, instead of going house-to-house. However, it doesn't seem that Israel is getting any credit for that. Israel is trying to fight as clean a war as possible. How is that losing its *moral compass*?

Pierre Troublion - 4/10/2002

These points are well-taken, but do not undermine the central thrust of Carpenter's piece:

1. Sharon's policy of smashing the civil and institutional infrastructure of the Palestinian territories is not improving the security of Israel or any place else.

2. His senseless violence was predictable, given his past, and a more astute U.S. President would have tried (harder and sooner) to head it off.

Of course Bush has a pro-Israel bias. America has always had such a bias. And that bias was justified as long as Israel was part of a civilized world of democracies and defending itself against outside attack while trying to work for peace. Unfortunately, as Sharon's predecessor has said, Israel has now lost its moral compass. And one has to wonder why it has taken the U.S. president so long to come to that realization as well.

Chris Messner - 4/10/2002

While admittedly not a degree holder in history, I felt the need to respond to your diatribe against the Israeli side of the confict, and the logical (to you) association of US guilt.

You may wish to note that, while listing the US guilt of taking innocent lives in past history, the US has acknowledged guilt, sorrow, and remorse for those actions. Even the evil Israeli government, and the IDF, admit guilt of wrongdoing, as they did in killing the family of a suicide bomb director in a mis-targeted attack. I don't see the Palestinians expressing regret taht they killed 24 innocent family members at a Passover dinner. Or expressions of regret over 3000 Americans (I think the pictures indicated another reaction).

"And today he matches rock-throwing Palestinian children with tanks and missile-firing helicopters."

Gee, rocks killed 10 on a bus today and 24 at a Passover dinner? Actually, I think they are using a high tech and organized armed force to search out and remove a highly organized and well funded terrorist movement that fully accepts using innocent civilians as human shields. And they are accepting casualties to their own, and minimizing civilian deaths, by doing it house to house on foot. Do you think this would be acceptable to Clinton, who found it easier to rain down cruise missiles over a wide area regardless as to who might actually be there? Yes, the Israeli's use US built equipment, the media is quick to note. How about a further note on the Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi supplied guns and explosives funded by Saudi money that equip the Palestinians?

The Israelis have as much at stake as the Palestinians in finding a solution, but the Palestinians, and the Arab world in general, have a greater stake, as they have trained the current generations to be a powder keg of hatred and death; to think that negotiations with a group that condone, and reward, suicide bombing of civilian targets as an acceptable response is suicide for all future generations, for where does it end? If Israel falls, will Madrid see suicide explosions for the return of Iberia to the Muslim descendants of those displaced by Christian Spain?

"True, civilians may not be the prime target, but how much difference does that make to the victims? Is collateral damage more properly collateral terrorism?"

The difference is, of course, we didn't want to kill the civilians, they did. You are right, victims are dead either way, but your moral equivalency is striking.

"Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States asked similar questions in a recent op-ed piece. He wrote that he was proud to be a friend of the U.S. but "frustrated" that "this strange principle of [Palestinian] resistance to military occupation ... seems to be difficult for many American political, intellectual, and media elite to comprehend--even though it has been practiced by others in the past, such as Nelson Mandela ... Gen. George Washington .. and even Menachem Begin." "

Gee, I don't recall George Washington strapping explosives on children and sending them to the governor's mansion, or even inns frequented by British soldiers, to blow them up. I similarly don't remember Nelson Mandela doing similar acts.

I will say, however, that the most amusing thing is your attempt to link a pro-Israeli bias to Bush and his administration throughout all this. The conservative right wing, at the same time, is bashing him for being too pro-Palestinian. Apparently refusing to declare Arafat a terrorist, NOT going after the terrorist PA like we are going after Osama's group, and repeatedly calling on Israel to back off and negotiate with the head terrorist Arafat is pro-Israeli to you?

Pierre Troublion - 4/10/2002

When W. Bush said last September that the "war" against terrorism would henceforth be the number one priority of his administration, what he really meant was: "Now I have an issue that can get me re-elected by a margin of more than a few hanging chads, and I'm not going to blow my chance like Daddy did." That underlying selfish arrogance is more important than his knee-jerk devotion to "pro-Israel conservative homeboys" in explaining how U.S. diplomacy has failed to stop a messy Middle East from becoming messier and bloodier.

Following September 11th, we might under received a presidential speech similar to those other presidents have delivered at other historic moments of tragedy and challenge. We might have heard about humility and sacrifice and learning from past mistakes, about perseverance over outrage, about prevention over retribution, about root causes over quick fixes, and about invoking what was once called the "Powell doctrine" of limited intervention rather reverting to pre-Vietnam JFK "bear any burden" type sloganeering. We got no such speech, and the loyal opposition has been silenced into forgetting almost completely about the "opposition" part of its role.

Sharon used Bush's simplistic rhetoric to tighten the trap into which Arafat continued to dive, willingly and headfirst. I don't think one can blame America's chief executive for the latest surge of violence which is destroying, in days, processes of peace-making which took years to build. But it is high time for other American leaders, opinion makers, and journalists to stop condoning the misuse of patriotism as a cover for blundering ineptitude. We need more outspoken clarity of the type Mr. Carpenter displays here.