The political scholar Walter Russell Mead recently alluded to more than a half-century of American “world order-building tasks,” a formulation which I would think most Americans would accept as describing the international obligations Washington assumed in 1945–46, and the policy the United States has undertaken since 1941, when it entered World War II against Nazi Germany and the Japanese empire.
Victory in the war was followed by the Cold War, its outcome in the 1980s taken complacently to be another American victory. History was pronounced to be over—another success for Washington. Completion of that American-built world order seemed just over the horizon. Then came 9/11, after which Washington has faced world disorder.
There are many in that city and elsewhere who believe that the democratic awakening of the Arab nations will consolidate a predominantly democratic order for nearly all the major states, with the United States enjoying a respected leadership role. Nothing is less likely.
The American commitment of the past four decades (at least) has been to the reactionary and undemocratic order that has prevailed in the Middle East, and to the three wars and several small and misconceived “Greater Middle Eastern” interventions that sowed the disorder now undoing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean geopolitics.
Popular uprisings are the immediate cause of the present disorder, but Washington is clinging to the undemocratic remnants of the past, while hoping for more democracy. In Bahrain, the U.S. Navy’s alliance has been with the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain, being held in place by the Sunni Saudi Arabian monarchy. Both are trembling with anxiety that the exploited Shiite majority in Bahrain and minority in Saudi Arabia might find effective support from Iran—America’s and the Sunni monarchies’ nuclear-nightmare state, itself a shaky despotism, but Shiite, and just as determined as the Saudi monarchy not to yield to democracy.
The Arab intellectual Khaled Hroub, writing in the London-published daily, Al-Hayat, argues that the Arab dictators have profited from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by making it a pretext for demanding discipline and conformity from their populations to stand firm against Israel. If democracy takes hold in the Arab states and Egypt, an increasingly authoritarian Israel, seizing Palestinian territories and displacing the Jerusalem and West Bank Palestinian population, will be all the more isolated (if not worse)—and with it, the United States.
The self-destructive alliance the Obama administration (like the G. W. Bush administration before it) has forged with the reactionary and expansionist Likud party in Israel is a barrier to American friendship with Arab democracy.
Last week’s veto by the U.S. of an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council resolution condemning further illegal Israeli settlement-building on Palestinian land advances the moment when the Palestinians will take the issue to the General Assembly, which (not the Security Council) is the UN authority that voted to create Israel inside the territory of a partitioned Mandate Palestine. It also guaranteed the well-being of the Palestinians whose land was appropriated. The Palestinians may now ask for recognition as an independent state and government, existing within the UN-defined frontiers, which are under illegal military occupation, and they will demand that the General Assembly require enforcement of partition on its original geographical terms (with mutually agreed modifications).
If Israel believes itself the victim of an international “de-legitimization” campaign today, wait until that happens! Its only friend will be a United States discredited by its abandonment of past Arab allies and rash past commitments, as well as by its frustration with Iraq and Afghanistan. The Israelis should note that even now the United States is not a true friend to Israel since its relationship to Israel is tainted by hypocrisy. Washington too, from the very start, has refused—and continues to refuse—officially to accept Israel’s violations of international law and its settlement of Palestinian territory. Its actions unofficially suggest otherwise, but they contradict America’s official commitments only because the right-wing Israeli lobby in the United States holds a gun to the back of Congress. Israel should take care.
The Obama administration itself launched its Middle Eastern policy in 2009 with a demand that Israeli settlements cease. It backed off that demand, when it was contemptuously spurned, but Barack Obama’s successor will inherit the hypocrisy of past American policy choices in the Middle East, and find himself the enemy of the governments that eventually will have replaced the unseated Tunisian, Egyptian, presumably Libyan (and other) despotisms of recent memory.
He or she and their electoral counselors may be more disposed than Obama to accept the unsavory but lucid advice of Machiavelli that I quoted in a recent column: “A prudent ruler [make that American president] ought not to keep faith when by doing so would be against [his country’s] interest.” One should add that above all is this good advice when the candidate for betrayal seems determined, in any case, to commit national suicide: as is true of Israel under Likud rule.
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About the Author
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).