Thursday, August 27, 2009
Naïve pan-Arabism in Washington
Middle East Strategy at Harvard
Until the end of July, the Obama administration had been signaling that the mid-August visit of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, would be the occasion for the roll-out of a major U.S. initiative for brokering a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the weeks immediately preceding the visit, the White House scaled back expectations. On August 18, the two presidents conducted a joint press conference. At the moment in the proceedings when President Obama might have announced something substantive about the initiative, he instead treated us to the following:
George Mitchell has been back and forth repeatedly; he will be heading back out there next week. And my hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel. If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we’re in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make real progress.
This statement is a bland reiteration of the doctrine of collective responsibility that the administration formulated shortly after the inauguration: everybody, including the Arab states, has to pitch in to get the bus out of the ditch. In the intervening six or seven months, the president has been doing nothing in the Middle East if not energetically wedging planks under the wheels of the peace process. In addition to dispatching George Mitchell to the region numerous times, he himself delivered his famous speech from Cairo. President Mubarak described this as a “great, fantastic address,” which “removed all doubts about the United States and the Muslim world.” Many seasoned observers agree with Mubarak: American credibility has been restored. Be that as it may, the speech was intended to inaugurate an era of multilateral negotiation, which, however, has not materialized. In fact, the bus might even be more deeply mired than before all of this credibility building began.
With respect to the Israelis, the administration has been crystal clear about what is expected from them: they must freeze settlement building. For many weeks, Washington has been claiming that there is “progress” in the negotiations with the Netanyahu government over the freeze, but a mutually acceptable formula has so far eluded the two sides. This negotiation has already eaten up valuable time and slowed momentum. The administration, however, can console itself by saying that it always expected difficulty with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and an agreement will emerge sooner or later. Moreover, as President Obama recently told American Jewish leaders who met with him at the White House, putting some daylight between Washington and Jerusalem is in the interest of both parties, precisely because it bolsters U.S. credibility with the Arabs. One might disagree with the president on this particular point. Nevertheless, by the standards of his own terms of reference, prolonged disagreement with Israel is not an obvious indication of an imperiled regional strategy.
The same cannot be said with respect to the Arab response to the president’s overtures. U.S. credibility, if it truly has been enhanced, certainly has not generated the expected cooperation. In fact, the Arab states have treated the president to an extraordinary rejection of his basic conception. Until just a few weeks ago, the administration was still pressing Arab states to agree to some gestures toward Israel that might arm the president with something significant to announce during the Mubarak visit. It received a resounding “No” from the Saudis, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, and Egyptians—from, that is, the closest Arab allies of the United States.
It is not all that surprising that the Arab states did not feel obliged to get out and help George Mitchell push the peace process along. What is surprising, however, was the public nature of their rejection. They made no attempt to paper over differences in order to protect and strengthen the president’s supposed credibility. Instead, they openly undercut him. The Saudis led the way in announcing that the Obama doctrine of collective responsibility for peace was flawed at its core. While meeting with Secretary of State Clinton at the end of July, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told the press baldly that “incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and, we believe, will not lead to peace.” It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The president’s advisors told him that his Cairo address, especially combined with open pressure on the Israelis, would generate a wave of Arab cooperation.
Obviously, that expectation was unfounded. This stark fact begs the question: What changes in conception must the administration make in order to recover? Here’s one, modest recommendation: Drop the notion of brokering a comprehensive peace while reaching out to enemies and antagonists. This idea rests on the erroneous conception of a shared Arab interest in resolving the conflict with Israel. Anyone with a deep knowledge of Arab history knows that collective Arab interest is a shallow fiction propagated by a discredited ideology, pan-Arabism. Thirty years ago, Fouad Ajami announced the demise of this ideology in his famous Foreign Affairs article, “The End of Pan-Arabism.” Although it died in the Middle East itself, the ideology continues to influence the thinking of Western diplomats and intelligence officers, who insist on using it as the prism for viewing Arab state behavior with respect to Israel. They fail to realize that the more the Arabs talk about a common interest, the further it is from a reality. In our own political culture we are attuned to the fact that loud calls to patriotism and solidarity are designed to brand somebody else as disloyal and selfish. Similarly, we need to train our ears to recognize that calls to Arab solidarity are indicative of discord, not unity.
No Arab states see any advantage to getting more deeply involved than they already are. Saudi Arabia, the most influential Arab state, has never been a major player in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and certainly does not want to start now. However, the demands of Arab politics forbid the Saudis from openly admitting as much. In order to demonstrate concern for the Palestinians, protect their leading status in the Arab system, and yet remain aloof they have formulated a position—the Arab Peace Initiative—that effectively states: “Once you guys get the bus out of the rut, we will pay for the gas.” They have stuck to this position for nearly a decade.
It’s about time we started building our strategies around the Saudis as they actually are rather than as we would wish them to be. For President Obama to have repeatedly and publicly called on the Saudi monarch to get behind the bus and push was to court embarrassment and failure at a moment when the president needs to build true credibility, which will be generated more by successful initiatives than by “great, fantastic” speeches.
When the president decided on his doctrine of collective responsibility, he was probably unaware that Cairo, despite enjoying good relations with Riyadh, has a limited interest in seeing the Saudis at the center of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. The Mubarak regime, precisely because it is the leading Arab interlocutor with Israel, enjoys a special status in the international system. Direct Saudi involvement would threaten the Egyptian role, thanks to the massive resources at the command of the Saudis, to say nothing of the preferential access that they enjoy both in Washington and in European capitals.
Fortunately for Mubarak, the Saudis don’t covet that role anyway. Consequently we have recently witnessed the rather odd spectacle of Cairo, which already has a peace agreement with Israel, standing together with Riyadh, which does not have one, in a staunch rejection of the American call for Arab peace overtures to Israel. Both regimes can dress up their self-interested positions as a shared commitment to Arab national solidarity and Palestinian rights. We shouldn’t be so naïve as to believe that a commitment to solidarity is the true engine of their shared policy. Moreover, if our closest Arab allies cannot work together in support the administration’s multilateral project, what can we expect from hostile states like Syria, who have bad relations with Israel, the United States, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Egypt?
By seeking a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict while simultaneously reaching out to the enemies of the United States, the Obama administration has invited an unflattering comparison with the Carter administration. It will be recalled that President Carter’s first foray into peacemaking was an initiative to re-convene the Geneva Conference, which the Soviet Union co-chaired, in an effort to bring all of the Arab states together in a process with Israel. That particular scheme ran afoul of Egyptian state interests. Sadat, who truly sought to end the conflict with Israel, was mortified by Carter’s initiative, which would have given the Soviet Union, and lesser Arab states, such as Syria, a formal position from which to hold Egyptian interests hostage.
Much to the chagrin of the Carter administration, Sadat stopped confiding in Washington and opened up a secret bilateral channel with Israel. When President Carter first got wind of the Egyptian gambit, he reacted with consternation. Egypt was refusing to read from the pan-Arab script written in Washington. To his credit, however, Carter came around and dealt with the Egypt that he had rather than the one that he had wanted. Ironically, it was Sadat’s rejection of Carter’s pan-Arabism that afforded the American president the opportunity to broker the Camp David Accords, his greatest foreign policy achievement.
President Carter blindly shook the tree until a plumb fell into his lap. The fact that it all worked out in the end is hardly a vindication of his strategic conception—especially when one remembers that Iran blew apart in the meantime. From that shock to his worldview, Carter never recovered. Developments in Iran are again threatening to shake up the region. Let us hope that President Obama will be quicker to read the Middle East as it actually is rather than the pan-Arab fiction that his advisors penned for him.