Powell on Mideast: Seduced or Cynical?

I almost hope that Secretary of State Colin Powell’s opening to more involvement in the always-ephemeral Middle East "peace process" is a public relations gesture that is essentially a cynical ploy rather than a serious move. One can imagine it being so. There are not only governments in the region but established and influential lobbying groups on both sides of the Middle East working to get the United States more directly involved with mediating (and financing) the spurts of negotiation.

So it is just possible to imagine that Gen. Powell and his top aides, knowing that former Maine Sen. George Mitchell was about to release his hopeful but unrealistic report on the current nastiness, along with some goodhearted but probably unattainable policy proposals. What could be the harm in endorsing the report, hoping in public that the disputing parties would take it seriously, and even sending a special envoy to the region for a few weeks of desultory consultation – especially if you’re reasonably sure nothing much will come of it and the United States won’t end up with even more extensive and expensive obligations in the region.

As cynical as such a scenario might be, it would be preferable to the determination that an administration that had come into office with a bias against deeper involvement in at least some of the multifarious quarrels and disputes of this sad old world had decided that maybe it should give the old Middle East peace process a shot. Unfortunately, that seems more likely to be the case than the cynical view.


The most puzzling thing about all the news stories I have read and some of the people I have talked to is the implicit assumption that the more violent and intractable the conflict in the Middle East the more important it is for the United States to get involved. This seems profoundly counterintuitive to me, especially considering the very real possibility that Bill Clinton’s insistent micromanagment last summer – remember? – was in important contributor to the current violence by sharpening the issues rather than resolving them.

Secretary Powell seemed to understand this when he came into office, and in some ways he still seems to understand it. In announcing an envoy and ballyhooing the Mitchell report – he did eliminate violence in Northern Ireland recently, right? – he acknowledged that "at the end of the day it [a peace settlement] is not something that the U.S. can impose – leaders need to look beyond the passion of the moment and take the action necessary to bring the cycle of violence to an end."

Almost all the news stories and commentaries have acknowledged that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now, after some eight months of violence that seems to show little sign of leveling off and may even be increasing, will be more difficult now than it might have been earlier and might be later. As Time’s State Department correspondent Jay Branegan put it, "Right now, neither side sees any advantage to being the one to take the first step towards ending the violence. Both have painted themselves into positions where taking the first step would be counter to their principles and their domestic political climate."

One can imagine that it would be shrewd and perhaps even statesmanlike for the United State to continue to maintain the position – even implicit in Sec. Powell’s comments – that the most constructive role the United States can play is to be available when the two sides are getting close to an agreement and can use a bit of help getting past minor obstacles. The notion that the United States should become more intensely involved at precisely the moment when a solution is most difficult is not especially wise – and perhaps borders on the pathological.


One can understand Dennis Ross, who was the Clinton administration’s designated Middle East troubleshooter and has a good bit of his life invested in the notion that the United States is the logical facilitator and broker of a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. But it is difficult to understand how his opinions resonate with others – especially with Secretary of State Colin Powell and with a Bush administration that seemed to have a more realistic outlook when it assumed office.

"I think [the Bush administration] put a premium on working with the parties, but hoping the parties themselves could find a way out of this, Mr. Ross told NBC News Monday. "I think we can see this isn’t going to work. We need more intense involvement."

Two questions should arise. How can one make a judgment as to whether a few months of trying a half-articulated policy of somewhat less engagement in a conflict that has lasted for decades is or isn’t working? And what evidence is there that "more intense involvement" by the United States is likely to make things better – either for the Israelis and the Palestinians or for the United States itself?


If anything, most of the evidence is to the contrary. Even if you don’t believe, as I do, that by intense involvement – and the implicit and often quite explicit promise that it is more than willing to use American taxpayers’ money to purchase the appearance of compliance – the United States invites manipulation by both sides, you should be concerned.

You don’t have to go all the way to the position that the best hope is to let the Israelis and Palestinians duke it out – after eliminating all forms of aid to both sides and informing them that no more will come until a settlement is reached – to understand that to a certain extent the United States is and has been subsidizing conflict in the Middle East. The United States doesn’t acknowledge this, of course, and most of the media are too polite to point it out. But we pay both sides, purchase weaponry for both sides, and let both sides know we are terribly eager to pretend there’s progress being made on the eternal peace process.

Do you blame both sides for wondering, given the history, whether a real resolution of the problem might mean an end to or a reduction in subsidies from Uncle Sugar? As long as they keep the conflict going, while also gulling the United States into thinking just a little more money, just a little more help with intelligence, just a few more trips to Washington or Madrid just might lead to a resolution this time.

Hope springs eternal when it’s not your own money you’re spending.


And then there’s the world-historical seduction. "There’s a recurring temptation," Cato Institute director of defense and foreign policy studies Ted Carpenter told me, "for American presidents to muse: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this were the administration that finally brought lasting peace to the Middle East?’ I hope the administration has not been seduced by this attractive yet elusive notion."

To be sure, Secretary Powell’s acknowledgment that the US cannot impose a peace settlement on the Middle East suggests a becoming modesty and realism. But modesty and realism seldom coexist long with political ambition and the desire for a place in history. In fact, the most constructive thing political leaders can do about most of the problems in the world today is to get out of the way and allow free people to seek their own solutions without mandates or punishment from government. But getting out of the way doesn’t look active or forceful or decisive or masterful. So politicians seldom do it.


Ted Carpenter believes peace is likely only when war-weariness on both sides is such that large majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians pressure their leaders for an end to conflict – which might not be for decades. One may hope he is overestimating the time frame while acknowledging that the leadership on the two sides is far from facing demands from a majority to shut down the conflict.

Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister and the virtual collapse of the Israeli peace movement suggest that popular sentiment for doing almost anything to secure peace is not exactly high in Israel. Among Palestinians, at this point anger seems to predominate over a desire to see conflict ended.

It is possible that there is a deep war-weariness on both side that is not surfacing now, will not surface for some time to come, but could develop into majority sentiment rather quickly if the right circumstances develop. It is possible, but evidence is hard to come by.


At the beginning of the Bush administration the sentiment among the incoming foreign policy experts seemed to be that the United States should approach the Middle East with restraint and refrain from too much pushing or micromanagment. Some policy makers and more than a few observers believed that sending the message that the parties involved have to solve the conflict, that they can’t depend on the United States to come rushing in when things get rough, would be the best way to offer incentives to come to some kind of resolution.

But if that is the strategy, you have to refrain from meddling, then refrain from meddling again, and refrain again and again. Only when the parties get the message that the United States will intervene only when they are reasonably and realistically close to a settlement – only when the answer to repeated requests for more intensive intervention is a resounding and finally convincing "no" – will they take their own responsibilities seriously. That still won’t guarantee a settlement – the differences may well be too deep for resolution in the near or even medium term – but it’s the way to go if your goal is to wait for the parties to resolve things.

If that was the Bush strategy, it has been torpedoed by the latest flurry of activity. Even if the current flurry is just a cynical ploy intended to appease various interest groups and the permanent foreign policy bureaucracy, it has undermined the possible strategy of pushing the parties through inaction and a determined placement of responsibility on those doing the fighting.

Unfortunately, the latest flurry seems not to be mostly a ploy. Instead, the administration seems to have been seduced, either by the hope of a place in history or by the calculations of those running the American Empire that the mighty US simply must be involved or face a loss of prestige. I’ve never been able to figure out the concrete dire consequences that are supposed to follow from simply letting events play themselves out in the Middle East without US meddling. But the keepers of the empire don’t need real consequences to justify their meddling.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).