The 2011 meeting of the Institute for Mediterranean Political Studies serendipitously coincided with the Arab revolutionary awakening. That disquieted many Israeli members of the Institute, but it also inspired passionate attention in them and the rest of the forty-odd members of the group, all experienced observers of Mediterranean events, including many notable actors in recent events in the Middle East.
A new Middle East indeed—but not the one U.S. policymakers expected when the George W. Bush administration responded to 9/11 by launching the “war on terror,” which the last several days have made irrelevant.
It was not the terrorists or Islamic radicals who launched this revolution, nor are they likely to unmake it. The revolution could veer onto a destructive course in some places, as in Libya, and already seems to be lagging behind expectations. That might intensify protesters' demands if the provisional government of Tunisia and the Egyptian army allow themselves to be outstripped by events, or if reform is resisted in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, and Iran.
Or if Israel refuses to change course. Some Israeli officials have displayed an astounding complacence. When I suggested that U.S. policy towards Israel might change, a high-level Israeli political figure replied, "We got along before without America, and we can get along without America again.” Not all Israelis would be comfortable with that sentiment.
So far this revolution has progressed without Western intervention, and that should continue. The politically and ideologically conditioned official U.S. strategy is to search for allies to support, hoping they will become the new leaders. Restraint would be the better course, combined with multilateral humanitarian aid in the short run—to cope with the thousands of refugees uprooted by the fighting in Libya—followed by low-key multilateral support for the democratic forces that do emerge. The European Union ought to lead that effort because of the residual knowledge and institutional intimacy that still exists between some of the European states and their former colonies. They know what they are doing, and locals will expect them to go home eventually.
The United States is badly compromised by its recent interventions in the Middle East. Benghazi political scientist Abeir Imneina was quoted in Le Figaro (March 1) warning against external intervention. She said local committees, made up of lawyers, magistrates, and teachers, are linking up with committees in neighboring communities near Benghazi to cope with the disorder and prevent a power vacuum, despite the lack of civic structure that was part of the Qaddafi regime’s hostility to any popular political manifestation. Americans in particular should stay away, she said, because if they come “they won’t leave, and Benghazi will become Iraq.”
Apparently she hadn’t heard the news that Americans are getting fed up with foreign wars. The mood in Washington is shifting. On February 25, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave an important speech indicating this change in direction. Survivor of the Bush administration and often criticized as a careerist, Gates is ending his government career as one of the last—or perhaps one of the first—sane men in a Washington gone mad during the past decade.
Gates told the cadet corps at West Point that in their military careers they are unlikely to serve in another large ground war like those waged in Afghanistan, Iraq, and before that, Vietnam—“invading, pacifying, and administering a large third-world country.” He continued: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa ‘should have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.” (Such was the reply MacArthur gave JFK when the president asked if the United States should send combat troops to Vietnam. Kennedy did not do so. President Lyndon Johnson did, under immense pressure from Congress and from Kennedy’s ideologically intoxicated former advisers.)
Implicitly, Gates was answering two questions that every politically conscious high official in the G. W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations has been afraid to answer: Why did we attack Iraq? Why are we in Afghanistan? The answers: We did it to gratify the ego of one president and to defend the career interests of another; to serve venal and sectarian interests; and to advance promotions in our military. God may forgive us. History—and the Iraqis and Afghans—may not.
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).