The events in the Arab world during the past three weeks have ended American-Israeli intimidation of the region. This is all but universally acknowledged outside the United States, although many in Washington refuse to admit it—as does the Israeli government.
The spectacle of confused and confusing administration and State Department responses to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Yemen, and to the huge mass movement in Egypt, protected by the Egyptian army, as well prudent prime ministerial change in Jordan, suggests that until now no one in an American government office has considered—or, more likely, been allowed to consider—that this day would inevitably come.
The United States has lost its ability to intimidate the half-billion people who live in the Arab, Egyptian, and North African states, once politically united under the Ottoman Turks, and before that under the Arab Caliphates, but which until now have seemed discarded by history. Washington has yet to emerge from two meaningless wars ostensibly for democracy, and is now shocked to confront democracy among Arabs.
The reaction of the Israeli government has been more shocking. It seems to have panicked, rather than been confused and impotent like Washington. Israel, since it defeated the combined Arab armies in 1948, has believed it could only survive in the Middle East through total military domination of its Arab enemies, and through control of the Palestinians. Israel has been supported in this, more or less willingly, by every U.S. administration since Eisenhower—the last to say no to Israel.
The contempt initially shown toward Israel’s Arab enemies ended in 1973 after the Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack, the rise of Hamas (whose creation Israel too-cleverly supported to counter the Palestine Liberation Organization; how could religious enthusiasts harm Israel?), and the resistance of Hezbollah to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in Hezbollah’s political predominance in Lebanon.
Lebanon could have become Israel’s passport to peace with other Arabs. When I first visited Beirut in 1955, Israel was already eyeing Palestine. At that time, the swagger of the Lebanese thought that, given unrestricted relations, they could easily outsmart and outtrade the Jews. The Zionists should have taken up that challenge.
Today the Israeli calculation is that if Mubarak goes, Egypt goes. If Tunisia goes, Morocco and Algeria go. Turkey has already gone (for which the Israelis have only themselves to blame). Syria is gone (in part because Israel wanted to cut off its access to water). Gaza has gone to Hamas, and the Palestine Authority might soon be gone too (to Hamas?). That leaves Israel amidst the ruins of its policy of military domination.
Now it is only America that can save us, Israelis say. But Washington sent Ambassador Frank Wisner to tell Hosni Mubarak not to run for office in September. He should have told Mubarak that leaving in September isn’t good enough. He has to go now—with graceful acknowledgement of the popular will. He has already named reliable and moderate men to take over, whom the Pentagon and CIA trust. Will that be good enough?
I think not. The Egyptian people do not want another U.S.-dominated government. I doubt they would accept that “orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people,” as Hillary Clinton proposed, adding that America stands “ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom.” Such a transition was made impossible by the attacks on demonstrators. I would imagine that Egyptians have had quite enough intervention by Washington.
Would the people accept Mohamed ElBaradei—ex-UN nuclear-agency chief considered an enemy by Washington—as a transitional leader? Possibly. The best thing the United States can do is to stay out of this, speak only when spoken to, and hope the demonstrators’ common sense will triumph.
The trouble is that the people handling these things in Washington are the same ones responsible for U.S. policy in the Middle East under Democratic and Republican administrations since FDR made a deal to trade security for Saudi Arabia in exchange for oil. Certainly since President Richard Nixon clapped the Shah of Iran on the back and said, “We restored you to your throne in 1953, young man—I mean, Your Imperial Majesty. From now on you are our gendarme in the Middle East. Just tell the Pentagon what you need.” Israelis take notice.
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).