Freeman: Obama has failed in Middle East due to ‘pathologies’ of US political life
from Mondoweiss The War of Ideas in the Middle East A Nation Institute project
by Philip Weiss on September 1, 2010
Whatever his talents as a diplomat and reader of confidential cables, Chas Freeman is a fabulous writer. Here, at Helena Cobban’s blog, is his speech to the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday on America’s inability to make peace in Israel and Palestine. Scathing description of the peace process and of the lobby’s generosity to politicians. A respect for the existence of a Jewish state. And throughout the speech, the sense that the lobby has never been so powerful, that it has spavined a president who had the best intentions.
Read the whole speech to see Freeman’s statement that 9/11’s perpetrators saw it as “a reprisal” for Palestinian conditions, which he describes as ghettos on the West Bank and prison in Gaza. Finally, look through this excerpt for Freeman’s warning about anti-Semitism rising in the west if the current state of affairs continues.
The widening involvement of Americans in combat in Muslim lands has inflamed anti-American passions and catalyzed a metastasis of terrorism. It has caused a growing majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims to see the United States as a menace to their faith, their way of life, their homelands, and their personal security. American populists and European xenophobes have meanwhile undercut liberal and centrist Muslim arguments against the intolerance that empowers terrorism by equating terrorism and its extremist advocates with Islam and its followers. The current outburst of bigoted demagoguery over the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque in New York is merely the most recent illustration of this. It suggests that the blatant racism and Islamophobia of contemporary Israeli politics is contagious. It rules out the global alliances against religious extremists that are essential to encompass their political defeat.
President Obama’s inability to break this pattern must be an enormous personal disappointment to him. He came into office committed to crafting a new relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds. His first interview with the international media was with Arab satellite television. He reached out publicly and privately to Iran. He addressed the Turkish parliament with persuasive empathy. He traveled to a great center of Islamic learning in Cairo to deliver a remarkably eloquent message of conciliation to Muslims everywhere. He made it clear that he understood the centrality of injustices in the Holy Land to Muslim estrangement from the West. He promised a responsible withdrawal from Iraq and a judicious recrafting of strategy in Afghanistan. Few doubt Mr. Obama’s sincerity. Yet none of his initiatives has led to policy change anyone can detect, let alone believe in…
Arabs and Muslims familiar with European history can accept that European anti-Semitism justified the establishment of a homeland for traumatized European Jews. But asking them even implicitly to agree that the forcible eviction of Palestinian Arabs was a morally appropriate means to this end is both a nonstarter and seriously off-putting. So is asking them to affirm that resistance to such displacement was and is sinful. Similarly, the Arabs see the demand that they recognize a Jewish state with no fixed borders as a clever attempt to extract their endorsement of Israel’s unilateral expansion at Palestinian expense.
The lack of appeal in this approach has been compounded by a longstanding American habit of treating Arab concerns about Israel as a form of anti-Semitism and tuning them out. Instead of hearing out and addressing Arab views, U.S. peace processors have repeatedly focused on soliciting Arab acts of kindness toward Israel. They argue that gestures of acceptance can help Israelis overcome their Holocaust-inspired political neuroses and take risks for peace.
Each time this notion of Arab diplomacy as psychotherapy for Israelis has been trotted out, it has been met with incredulity. To most in the region, it encapsulates the contrast between Washington’s sympathy and solicitude for Israelis and its condescendingly exploitative view of Arabs. Some see it as a barely disguised appeal for a policy of appeasement of Israel. Still others suspect an attempt to construct a “peace process” in which Arabs begin to supply Israel with gifts of carrots so that Americans can continue to avoid applying sticks to it.
The effort to encourage Arab generosity as an offset to American political pusillanimity vis-à-vis Israel is ludicrously unpersuasive. It has failed so many times that it should be obvious that it will not work. Yet it was a central element of George Mitchell’s mandate for “peace process” diplomacy. And it appears to have resurfaced as part of the proposed follow-up to tomorrow’s meeting between the parties in Washington. It should be no puzzle why the Saudis and other Arabs could not be persuaded to join this gathering….
[L]et me make a quick comment on a relevant cultural factor. Arabic has two quite different words that are both translated as “negotiation,” making a distinction that doesn’t exist in either English or Hebrew. One word, “musaawama,” refers to the no-holds-barred bargaining process that takes place in bazaars between strangers who may never see each other again and who therefore feel no obligation not to scam each other. Another, “mufaawadhat,” describes the dignified formal discussions about matters of honor and high principle that take place on a basis of mutual respect and equality between statesmen who seek a continuing relationship.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s travel to Jerusalem was a grand act of statesmanship to initiate a process of mufaawadhat – relationship-building between leaders and their polities. So was the Arab peace initiative of 2002. It called for a response in kind. The West muttered approvingly but did not act. After a while, Israel responded with intermittent, somewhat oblique suggestions of willingness to haggle over terms. But an offer to bicker over the terms on which a grand gesture has been granted is, not surprisingly, seen as insultingly unresponsive.
I cite this not to suggest that non-Arabs should adopt Arabic canons of thought, but to make a point about diplomatic effectiveness. To move a negotiating partner in a desired direction, one must understand how that partner understands things and help him to see a way forward that will bring him to an end he has been persuaded to want. One of the reasons we can’t seem to move things as we desire in the Middle East is that we don’t make much effort to understand how others reason and how they rank their interests. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conundrum, we Americans are long on empathy and expertise about Israel and very, very short on these for the various Arab parties. The essential militarism of U.S. policies in the Middle East adds to our difficulties. We have become skilled at killing Arabs. We have forgotten how to listen to them or persuade them.
I am not myself an “Arabist,” but I am old enough to remember when there were more than a few such people in the American diplomatic service. These were officers who had devoted themselves to the cultivation of understanding and empathy with Arab leaders so as to be able to convince these leaders that it was in their own interest to do things we saw as in our interest. If we still have such people, we are hiding them well; we are certainly not applying their skills in our Middle East diplomacy.
This brings me to a few thoughts about the Western and Arab interests at stake in the Holy Land and their implications for what must be done.
In foreign affairs, interests are the measure of all things. My assumption is that Americans and Norwegians, indeed Europeans in general, share common interests that require peace in the Holy Land. To my mind, these interests include – but are, of course, not limited to – gaining security and acceptance for a democratic state of Israel; eliminating the gross injustices and daily humiliations that foster Arab terrorism against Israel and its foreign allies and supporters, as well as friendly Arab regimes; and reversing the global spread of religious strife and prejudice, including, very likely, a revival of anti-Semitism in the West if current trends are not arrested. None of these aspirations can be fulfilled without an end to the Israeli occupation and freedom for Palestinians.
Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, also have compelling reasons to want relief from occupation as well as self-determination for Palestinians. They may not be concerned to preserve Israel’s democracy, as we are, but they share an urgent interest in ending the radicalization of their own populations, curbing the spread of Islamist terrorism, and eliminating the tensions with the West that the conflict in the Holy Land fuels. These are the concerns that have driven them to propose peace, as they very clearly did eight years ago. For related reasons, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has made inter-faith dialogue and the promotion of religious tolerance a main focus of his domestic and international policy.
As the custodian of two of Islam’s three sacred places of pilgrimage – Mecca and Medina – Saudi Arabia has long transcended its own notorious religious narrow-mindedness to hold the holy places in its charge open to Muslims of all sects and persuasions. This experience, joined with Islamic piety, reinforces a Saudi insistence on the exemption of religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem from political interference or manipulation. The Ottoman Turks were careful to ensure freedom of access for worship to adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths when they administered the city. It is an interest that Jews, Christians, and Muslims share.
There is, in short, far greater congruity between Western and Arab interests affecting the Israel-Palestine dispute than is generally recognized. This can be the basis for creative diplomacy. The fact that this has not occurred reflects pathologies of political life in the United States that paralyze the American diplomatic imagination. Tomorrow’s meeting may well demonstrate that, the election of Barack Obama notwithstanding, the United States is still unfit to manage the achievement of peace between Israel and the Arabs. If so, it is in the American interest as well as everyone else’s that others become the path-breakers, enlisting the United States as best they can in support of what they achieve, but not expecting America to overcome its incapacity to lead.