Boxed In

April 14, 2002

by John K. Bates

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets uglier by the day. Despite hand wringing from the Europeans, strong admonitions from the Americans, and increasing vitriol from the Arabs, the Jews simply refuse to back down. Meanwhile, the Palestinians continue to gather support and empathy for their sustained campaign of terror. The two sides are further apart from peace now than they have been in many years, and the conflict appears to have the potential to spread to other nations of the Middle East. A widening conflict would be bad for many reasons, not the least of which would be to jeopardize both America’s anti-terror effort and the flow of oil to the West.

America, for all its efforts throughout the years to bring its vision of “peace” to the region, appears to be in a box. Israel - still our best ally and the only democracy in the region - is unwilling to back down and is more or less telling the United States to pound sand. (It is hard to blame them, especially in the face of what are brutal and daily terrorist attacks. How can America - which has made prosecuting a “war on terror” its top national priority - tell Israel that it may not prosecute such a war that is ongoing and more deadly in terms of percentage of civilians killed? But I digress.) The Arabs, meanwhile, are showing an increasingly open hostility towards America. Despite years of subtle and even outright efforts to appease the Arab bloc, it is becoming evident that the Arab community simply does not like the West in general and America in particular. The only thing we have going for us is the Saudis; if they were to decide that they do not value the uneasy alliance they have had with America since 1990, the entire region could return to the embargo-happy days of the early 1970s.

Some commentators and many politicians worry excessively over why this is so. Indeed, the United States foreign policy of the past 10 years has been a never-ending quest to discover why the Arabs “hate” America so much and to then try to appease them in some way. The first George Bush initiated this policy; Bill Clinton was a master of it. His constantly quivering lower lip and the “blame America first” worldview he brought from the 60s were perfect tools to try to appease not only Arabs but also Western liberals. George W. Bush has been marginally better, but in his journey towards maintaining poll ratings and appeasing the New York Times, he has been all over the map concerning Israel. Today, they should withdraw; yesterday they had the right to defend themselves. With no consistency and little direction, it is small wonder the Jews have decided they will act on their own, with or without our support or approval.

Rather than trying to understand “why no one likes us” and instead of trying to feel other nations’ pain, perhaps America would be better served by a practical, no-nonsense foreign policy that accepts present realities and attempts to modify selected relationships in ways agreeable to our national interests. A good place to start would be for policymakers to re-read Professor Samuel Huntington’s book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In the six years since this landmark book was published, it has been hotly debated in foreign policy, defense, and even historical circles. The main pretext of the book is simple: There are some peoples and cultures of the world that simply have different values than others. Where these values clash, they are more or less irreconcilable and in many cases there is conflict. Hence, the notion of foisting democracy or Western concepts of “peace” upon non-Western cultures (such as China or the Middle East) is an exercise in great hubris and even greater futility. The people and the cultures in these places simply do not value these things the way we do.

Under this model, efforts to impose western “peace” and living standards in the Middle East are doomed to failure. Furthermore, efforts to form any but the most tenuous of alliances with the kingdoms and dictatorships of the region are of limited use. They will never “like” us and never accept how we do things, and vice versa. If this is so, what then is the best course of action for the United States? Do we throw our hands up and say we can do nothing? Do we just say to heck with it and use our massive military superiority to impose our values? Or should we recognize our limitations and seek to act within them?

To understand the model of civilizations is to understand that there are variants within civilizations. Despite the common perception that the Middle East is an “Arab” region, stretching from Libya to Pakistan and marching lockstep in opposition to the West and the Jews, in reality there are several nations that do not fit into the hard-line Arab culture. Three nations in particular either lean towards or have a history of leaning towards the West and are far more sympathetic to American interests than others in the areas. If America is to have a successful Middle Eastern foreign policy, it is here that America should, and indeed must, adjust her strategy and make a concerted effort at alliance.

The first and most important of these nations is Turkey. It is an ongoing mystery why America does not openly court and promote this important regional ally. Turkey is a Muslim nation, but since the days of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s and 1930s, Turkey has strived to be more western and to be accepted by the West. Straddling the Bosporus, they to this day lean much more towards the West than towards the Arabs to their south. For years they have been members of NATO and, except for Israel, our most reliable ally in the region. Despite this record of pro-American behavior, we badger them about “human rights” and other “Western” values that the Muslims in Istanbul do not value. This imposition of Western values limits our support both politically and militarily, and gives rise to mistrust among the more strident Muslim elements within the country. Indeed, American sometimes appears to spend far more time courting brutal regimes such as Saudi Arabia. This must change. We must make Turkey our number one priority and ally in the region.

The second nation that can help is Pakistan, and to our credit we have been courting this former Soviet quasi-satellite. President Pervez Musharraf has been very helpful in our dealing with Afghanistan, and he must be rewarded with aid and, if necessary, military support. Pakistan is a “tweener” - it leans to the West but has a large, restless militant Islamic component. America owes this newfound ally all the support it requires to defeat the radicals; to lose Pakistan to radical Islam would embolden others in the area and greatly jeopardize our ability to act in Afghanistan, another nation that we must ensure remains our ally. In fact, a Pakistani-Afghani-American alliance would be a great check on the extreme elements of Islam that spawned al Qaeda and that are likely behind the current waves of suicide bombers in Israel. We must do whatever it takes to encourage this relationship.

The third nation we must court is also the most difficult. For the past 23 years, Iran has been one of the most bitter and hateful enemies of the West. Beyond the images everyone recognizes - the “Great Satan” chanting and the street rallies complete with American flag burning - the Iranians have been culpable for a great deal of the recent terrorism in the Middle East. It was just a few months ago that the Israeli navy captured the Karine A, a ship loaded with explosives and bound for Palestine. It came from Iran. Despite the overtures of relatively moderate Iranian president Mohammed Khatami, there are plenty of elements in the Iranian government still bent on exporting the late Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolutionary fervor.

Yet, like Turkey, Iran has historically been quite supportive of the West and of what are called western values. In Biblical times, the Persians were quite decent to the Jews, treating them far better than either the Babylonians (Iraq) or the Assyrians (Syria). Ancient Persian kings Cyrus and Darius built an empire founded very much so on principles of justice and the Rule of Law which we still cherish to this day. In modern times, until the rise of Khomeni in 1979, Iran was our best ally in the region. The bungling of the Carter administration and the raw greed of the Pahlavi dynasty brought the regime down. Yet to this day many Iranians desire better and closer contact with the West, and even with the “Great Satan,” America. This sentiment can, and must be exploited to slowly being change in Iran. Far more than the ouster of Saddam Hussein, courting Iran and encouraging even a moderately pro-American state in Persia would bring enormous stability to the region. It would also give America gravitas when dealing with the Arab culture. Persia may not technically be a part of that culture, but it is respected. Gain the respect of Persia, and we gain the respect of Arabia.

Of course, courting three nations does nothing to solve the immediate crisis in Palestine. It says here that whatever it takes, a cease-fire must be imposed immediately. If this involves American troops and firepower, so be it. Like fighting spouses, the leaders of each respective group at this point cannot settle their differences on their own. So we should step in and settle it for them. Once they stop fighting, they can work towards peace. That is the short-term solution. But if America is ever to get past the short term and recognize any long-term progress in improving relations in the Middle East, we must stop caring about why people there do not like us and instead sort out who does like us, who doesn’t, and who might. Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran have historically shown that they are at least in the last category. We must recognize that the people of these cultures look more favorably upon us than the other people in the area. It is with these nations that we must start to rebuild American foreign policy in the Middle East.



John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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