Secretary of State John Kerry, bringing intensive Henry Kissinger-like shuttle diplomacy back into fashion to make another one of the periodic post-1948 U.S. attempts to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict once and for all, instead would better be compared to Wile E. Coyote’s attempt to catch the ever-elusive Road Runner. Will the United States and its government officials never learn from the lessons of prior failures?
Kerry has made five trips to the Middle East since becoming secretary and is feverishly trying to prod the reluctant Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks, discontinued since 2010, before a likely divisive United Nations debate on the Middle East begins in September. The question of why is never asked.
It is just assumed that a superpower needs to shepherd, coax, and even bribe the two recalcitrant parties to do what is in their best interest to do anyway. For example, merely to entice Israel back to peace talks, the United States is apparently again bribing Israel with even greater U.S. guarantees of its security than already exist. But again, why should the United States go bankrupt to bring the resisting parties to the negotiating table?
Traditionally, the two contradictory pillars of U.S. policy toward the Middle East have been securing supplies of oil from Arab nations and support for Israel. Both have been presented as issues strategic to the United States, but that doesn’t make it so. In my book, No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, I debunk the myth that oil is any more strategic than any other product and argue that the oil market, free from military force or intimidation, is the cheapest way for the United States to get adequate supplies of the commodity. Despite all of the hype, Palestine also is not strategic to the United States and never has been. Even during the Cold War when having friends in the Middle East seemed vital, and continuing today, being an ally of Israel has meant diminished relations with all other countries of the region. Deep down, lobbying from domestic pressure groups in the United States, not a strategic imperative, has driven slavish U.S. support for Israel. Also, these domestic pressure groups demand that the United States continually beat its head against a wall to broker a chimerical Israeli peace with the Palestinians (and supposedly the Arab world), giving Israel a cover to steal Palestinian land.
The pro-Israel domestic pressure groups have tried to make any empathy for the Palestinian plight within the United States taboo and have tried to label any scrutiny or criticism of their own activities as “anti-Semitic,” which of course is ridiculous. In fact, the pro-Israel lobby consists of Jews, fundamentalist Christians, neo-conservative hawks, and others.
Thus, the pro-Israel lobby ensures that Americans never hear that the Arab peoples of Palestine were promised their independence at least twice by the British Empire, but then had some of their land pledged to others by those same Brits and most of the rest stolen at gunpoint by the state of Israel on more than one occasion. Most Palestinians want at least some of their land returned—the radicals are demanding it all back.
Yet whether Palestinians like it or not, Israel is now a fact of life and is too powerful to be dispensed with anytime soon. But slavish and lavish U.S. military and political support for Israel allows its government to obstruct the peace process by continuing to grab as much Palestinian land through the settlement of occupied territory, a violation of international law. In addition, some Palestinians still entertain fantasies, even with American domestic pro-Israeli pressure groups ever more powerful, that the U.S. government can pressure Israel to make concessions that will end in a comprehensive peace or even can be an honest broker in the peace process.
A distant third goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially when it does not run counter to the two prior main objectives of U.S. policy (which it often does), is to spread liberal democracy in the region. Of late, that has not worked out too well, especially if imposed by U.S. military action—as the examples of Iraq and Libya demonstrate. Even when the United States reluctantly supports democratic movements, such as those in Tunisia and Egypt, liberal democracy may not be the endpoint. For example, recent developments in Egypt–with a sizeable minority of the population justifiably concerned about their rights at the hands of the majority of fundamentalist Islamists—show that arriving at liberal democracy from democracy may be a difficult and destabilizing prospect. The lesson from this messy process is not that the United States should intervene and remain until liberal democracies take hold in developing nations, but that the process is so chaotic that the United States should stay out of these nations, especially in the Middle East.
This recommendation will be hard for the government of a swaggering superpower to stomach but may be critical to restoring America’s finances and thus preserving U.S. great power status for future generations.