Diplomatic censure from Robert Pelletreau

Diplomatic censure from Robert Pelletreau

It is difficult to get an impartially accurate perspective on US-Middle East relations in Washington. This is because people involved with the region are either Middle Easterners who have brought their torrid battles to the United States, or Americans who have exacerbated our region”s own proclivity for extremism with their own romantic adventurism, ignorant militarism, or shameless pro-Israeli obsequiousness.

The lack of knowledgeable and neutral American policy inputs on the Middle East leaves the US in the Middle East these days incredulously enjoying dwindling credibility, impact and respect at the same time, even when it unleashes its armed forces. A smarter approach would benefit from the rich reservoir of knowledge that exists among some of America”s seasoned diplomats who have devoted their entire professional lives to promoting US national interests in the region.

I had a chance to experience this last weekend during a working visit to the idyllic town of Woods Hole, on Massachusetts” enchanting Cape Cod. I spend several days intermittently discussing US-Middle East relations with a man who spent 35 years in that world – Robert Pelletreau, Jr., a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and ambassador to three Arab countries.

Before retiring, Pelletreau had spent 36 years in government service in Washington and the Middle East, and was involved in some pivotal moments, such as the opening of the US-PLO dialogue and the Madrid peace conference. The gist of his thoughts about US-Middle East relations is that the next American president will have to work quickly and intelligently to devise a set of policies to respond to the array of interlinked issues and interests that Washington will face in the region. The challenge is particularly acute, he argues, because “each problem is worse today than it was in 2001 when George W. Bush took office.”

Pelletreau listed for me the following points he had made a few days earlier in a lecture about US-Mideast issues that, he thought, had deteriorated under the Bush administration. They are worth pondering because they represent the views of that rare species in Washington these days – an experienced, impartial, patriotic American public servant who knows Washington and the Middle East, and speaks honestly to both:

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worse because we”ve gone from near-agreement at the end of the Clinton administration to new waves of violence and counter-violence, a deep split in the Palestinian community along with the growth of Hamas, and a weak Israeli government without any political capital to devote to peace.

“The situation in Iraq is worse because we”ve gone from a ruthless but weakened local dictator, who as we now know had no nuclear weapons, to a struggling and divided Shiite-led government, teetering along the edge of civil war, through an invasion of choice not necessity coupled with a costly and continuing American occupation with no clear exit path.

“The situation in Iran is worse because an ultra-conservative government is now in power, led by an outrageous popinjay of a president, awash in oil revenues, closer than ever to mastering the nuclear technology that could lead to developing nuclear weapons, and brimming with confidence.

“The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is worse because even though we initially overthrew the Taliban and helped set up a friendly leader in Kabul, instability has now spread to Pakistan and the Al-Qaeda leadership is still at large and operational somewhere in the border region, which has proven to be beyond our reach. The Taliban is resurgent in both countries, American military and financial costs are increasing, and neither country”s government has a strategy to deal with the problem.

“The international oil situation is worse because increased demand in China and India plus the weakened dollar and uncertain supply conditions in Iraq, Nigeria, Venezuela and elsewhere have driven up prices, and we can”t seem to curb our appetite for the stuff.

“The effort to expand democracy in the region, another Bush administration priority, has been set back by our headlong push for elections in countries with little or no popular experience in political participation. The result has been clerical-led factions being elected in Iraq, Hamas winning parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, the Muslim Brotherhood gaining ground in Egypt, Hizbullah becoming a stronger political force in Lebanon and even the word “democracy” now being widely treated in the region as an American implant.”

Other challenges like Syria, Lebanon, Islamic extremism, and Sudan have all deteriorated in this Bush era. The next US administration will not have the luxury of putting these issues on hold while it gets its domestic house in order. Among its first priorities, Pelletreau says, should be vigorous engagement in Arab-Israeli peace-making. This would benefit the people of the region, restore Washington”s credibility, dampen other conflicts, improve America”s posture and leverage in other Mideast sectors, and bolster moderates and secularists.

Sound advice, from an experienced American diplomat with few equals in terms of experience, impartiality and honesty in US-Middle East issues.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.