IN THE NEWS
Lately, I've been worried that many Americans has reached a tacit conclusion about their own government that's completely incorrect and unjustified. The same willingness to give the benefit of the doubt, in spite of clear warning signs that severe doubt is justified, is in operation now, just as it was in 2003. The thinking, such as it is today, runs something like this:
- Surely, the Bush Administration must acknowledge that it made horrendous mistakes in Iraq.
- Of course, anyone who recognizes mistakes of this magnitude would avoid repeating them.
- Obviously, US foreign policy in Iraq, as well as other parts of the Middle East, must now be constrained be guided less by wishful thinking (a polite term for what Thomas Ricks calls "adventurism"), and more by cautious pragmatism.
Unfortunately, this line of thinking starts with an unjustified premise—the President and his senior advisors believe the axioms and corollaries of their foreign policy in the first term to be wrong—and builds an unsustainable edifice of hope on this weak foundation. If the American electorate needs proof that the Bush Administration is unrepentant and recalcitrant, we need only look at the last couple of weeks of news coming from Lebanon.
First, it's important to understand the Bush foreign policy from the perspective of the most influential members of the Administration—Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Perle, et al.--who crafted it. This recent article in Salon does a good job of explaining their mindset, so I won't repeat their summary of the neoconservative Weltanschauung here. Suffice it to say that, in their minds, the problem wasn't the strategy itself, but inadequate opportunities to take it as far as they believed it should go—not only to Baghdad, but also to Damascus and Tehran.
Once again, we're left with less information than we should have about our own government. While that's partially the result of the Bush Administration's psychotic obsession with secrecy, it's also the fault of the press for not following up on important stories. Since Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice began her global "let's keep Israel fighting" tour, journalists have focused on the question, Why has the United States been blocking efforts to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah? However, that question is only the shadow cast by a much larger concern: Why are US officials urging Israel to expand the war to Syria?
Without understanding the mindset of influential people inside the Administration, such as Eliot Abrams, or currently outside of it, such as Richard Perle, the idea of asking Israel to attack Syria seems crazy. However, if you take the perspective of Abrams and Perle and assume that it's shared by people in the White House, the President included, the notion of attacking Syria makes perfect sense. (Of course, by "sense," I mean, "whatever seems to logically connect facts and interpretations." Unfortunately, we're talking about people whose interpretations of Middle Eastern politics have proven to be completely wrong, and who casually ignore any inconvenient facts.)
The conditions for sustaining the same strategy that got the United States mired in Iraq still exist. George W. Bush started his presidency with practically no knowledge of foreign affairs, and there's not much sign that he's learned the challenges, pitfalls, and subtleties of international relations during five years on the job. The traditional source of foreign policy advice, the National Security Council, remains a weak institution, more interested in conformity than candor. The Republican-dominated Congress provides no counterweight to Bush's foreign policy, and the Democrats seem incapable of mobilizing any effective opposition. The State Department and the CIA continue to be treated as pariahs, even though US foreign policy can't function without them. Bush's closest advisors, such as Condoleeza Rice, do not seem to be able to convince Bush that his policies in general are leading in a bad direction. The men and women with whom Bush has the closest personal connections, as well as the "wise old men" of his father's foreign policy team, are equally incapable of convincing Bush that some of his less effective subordinates, such as Donald Rumsfeld, need to be restrained or removed.
If people like Perle and Abrams were to get their wish, a broadening of Israel's war to Syria, the results would be an unmitigated disaster. Israel would be completely on its own, attacking a country that is not playing a direct part in the current clash with Hezbollah. Obviously, Syria has been Hezbollah's patron for decades, but that's a thin pretext for war with Syria.
The most that US troops in neighboring Iraq could do is watch. Already overstretched, the US military is re-deploying to concentrate on central Iraq, Baghdad in particular. However, even if the troop strength existed to assist the Israelis, the political basis for such assistance does not exist. The US public is likely to be outraged at the expansion of its own ongoing war in Iraq, which an increasing majority of Americans do not support. Diplomatically, the United States has had good reason to avoid fighting alongside the Israelis. US and Israeli troops fighting in tandem would end any hope of the United States playing the role as honest broker in Middle Eastern affairs, except if the survival of Israel were immediately at stake. Needless to say, two kidnapped soldiers and harassing rocket attacks do not amount to the imminent destruction of Israel.
However, nothing I said in the last paragraph means that the Bush Administration wouldn't commit a grievous mistake, if given the opportunity. Fortunately, that opportunity does not seem to exist, in large part because the Israelis are not interested. When Israel pre-emptively attacked Syria in 1967, Syria was part of the Arab coalition mobilizing for an attack on Israel. Attacking Syria now is far less justified, and more likely to shatter any support the Olmert government has for the current war effort. Instead, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have focused on damaging Hezbollah as much as possible before continued attacks become politically unsustainable. The IDF is also trying to "prepare the battlefield" for the next conflict with Hezbollah, by de-populating southern Lebanon. Unless the Olmert government has a sudden change of heart, that's as likely as IDF operations are likely to go.
The fact that the Israelis have resisted American pressure to attack Syria should not be cause for relief, however. The fact of the pressure itself means that the guiding principles of the Bush Administration's Middle East policy have not changed. The bloody stand-off in Iraq has not prompted soul-searching. Instead, the top officials who have the greatest influence over the President are searching for new "opportunities."