Leon Hadar has written a short, dispassionate, and gently theoretical sort of book on American policy in the Middle East. It is not, chiefly, about military operations, terrorists, prisons, and headlines but about policy at the “geo-political” and “geo-economic level” and about predictions. Though dry, Sandstorm is accessible to the general reader.
Hadar believes that the United States has long been tempted to bite off more than she can chew in the Middle East. She has acted in the context of a “Middle Eastern Paradigm”—now out of date—that bundles together solid support for Israel, the cultivation of a club of oil-rich client states, and instinctive opposition to the influence of any other great power in the region. Hadar finds this, to some extent, forgivable. The Soviets used to be a real problem, and the Europeans did not want to pay to protect the oil. But the Gulf War (1991) set up an American dominance in the region and over its huge oil reserves that exceeded anything conceived of previously. It was—for technical, not moral, reasons—a step too far. But the United States got away with taking it at the time, thanks to a bravura performance by the competent realists in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. The aftermath, however, exposed the United States not just to Arab resentment and suspicion but to the envy and suspicion of all the other powers.
Hadar is a realist who does not believe that balance-of-power mechanisms have ceased to operate in the world merely because the United States has the best weapons. He points out that Washington is skating on very thin economic ice and argues that it has provoked a covert alliance against its apparently unilateral control of the oil of the Middle East. He explains that oil is not just a matter of company profits: It is regional power, global leverage over powerful states, and the lifeblood of the dollar’s global survival as the dominant reserve currency. Like the pound sterling after 1919—when Britain asserted an almost unqualified command of the Middle East—the dollar is overused for reasons of commercial inertia and is likely to be overvalued on account of being propped up by its “petro-dollar” status. This enables the United States to behave as though she were still the unrivaled industrial giant she was in 1945, which she is not.
Hadar is not a moralist. He thinks that public-opinion debates about whether deposing tyrants and holding elections and fighting terrorism are “justified” are largely beside the point. The crucial question is whether other powers feel that their interests are secured or damaged by these enterprises. Hadar claims that the tension between American interests in the Middle East and everyone else’s, which was already serious before 2001, became acute and critical with the neoconservative seizure of power and initiative after September 11.
The official justifications for the liberation of Kuwait, the attack on the Taliban, and the deposition of Saddam Hussein are, in varying degrees, convincing or not; yet, whether good or bad, sincere or dishonest, the actions they supported were imprudent or worse to the extent that they did not include and defer to the interests and aspirations of a world whose economic power and military potential exceeds that of the United States. The American indulgence of unconcealed Israeli ambitions on the Palestinian West Bank has been wholly unlicensed by the international community. It is, for that reason alone, perilous for Israel. On this account, the failure to resolve the Israel-Palestine problem goes beyond its surface expression (Zionist ambition versus Arab rejectionism); it is the consequence of the refusal of the international community to support U.S. policy in the Middle East, a refusal that has intensified since it first took shape in the 1970’s.
Hadar is a thoughtful Israeli, worried that his country will be stranded by an American policy that is troublesome and likely to fail in the long term. He cannot see beneficial results occurring from the occupation of Iraq. Hadar likes to assess things nonideologically. The neoconservatives, he thinks, are better understood as overexcited Americans than as agents of Israeli influence, Americanists rather than Zionists. Yet the loyalty of the neocons is more to a conceptual Americanism than to the actual one; a long-term symbiosis of policy and mentality between a macrocosmic Americanism and a microcosmic Zionism has existed for many years.
America has long possessed, without really needing it, unique access to the oil of Saudi Arabia. She has long insulated Israel from international opinion and pressure. Now she disposes—for the moment—of Iraq and Afghanistan, and threatens Syria and Iran. Washington has, in Hadar’s expression, “tilted the kaleidoscope”—demolished the status quo—in the Middle East in the rash hope of getting something better, naively confident that military power can always prevent something worse. Hadar’s list of well-touted moments of opportunity in the Middle East since 1967 is chilling: All of them have been rapidly followed by disillusionment, and often by something worse.
There is a very broad geopolitical point being made here. If the United States (or some other outside power) is unable to tolerate a Middle Eastern successor to the Ottoman Empire, she will need to be willing to tolerate chronic instability and not indulge in fantasies of reform. This is not an odious racial charge that Arab societies cannot be reformed. It is a plausible, almost scientific, judgment that the Middle East will remain highly unstable, and therefore beyond amendment, until an indigenous regional power—or perhaps an indigenous alliance—arises that will be strong enough to create stability, to defend local interests against external powers, and to make deals with important economic partners, chiefly the European Union and neighboring powers, such as India, China, and Russia. American dominance in the Middle East is an artificial military imposition, a house of cards.
Most Arabs and Persians feel this, not just the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the still-extant Osama bin Laden. Al Jazeera television is popular because it reports news on the basis of this understanding. The certainty that America stifles Arab power explains the sequence of noisy anti-American politicians: Nasser, Qaddafi, Arafat, Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden. (The list illustrates Hadar’s case against regime change in the Middle East: You can always get something worse in the long run.) Of course, most critics of the United States would not wish Washington to cede the Middle East to Wahabist admirers of Al Qaeda. Yet, all the European powers still hope that Tehran, a legitimate regime by regional standards, could be part of the solution rather than the latest version of the problem and the next excuse for “tilting the kaleidoscope.” What Hadar is saying diplomatically is that Washington is really the problem and needs to be rescued from its present predicament by a scaling back of its ambitions.
Put less politely, international respect for American good sense has collapsed. Washington no longer leads the West. It may be impossible to restore that leadership, however hard the British try, however flexible the next U.S. administration. The intemperate neocon abuse of “Old Europe” will not be forgotten: It is, as Hadar explains, woven into the fabric of American policy and now colors the lenses through which that policy is viewed not just by Berlin and Paris but by London and Madrid. Any opposition to the United States can now rely on a trained reflex in the European public mind. President Bush has achieved an iconic unpopularity unique in the history of European-American relations.
Hadar is not an optimist, but he knows roughly what he wants. He wants an Israel-Palestine deal brokered and imposed by the true international community. He wants a European Union that includes Turkey and is willing to expand further to embrace Israel-Palestine. He wants a post-Zionist Israel that leads in the region only by force of example. The only way of getting these things is through a diminution of uncritical support for Israel and the introduction of the European Union and other major purchasers of Middle Eastern oil into the community of powers that shape a Middle Eastern settlement.
Hadar wants all this, not because he dislikes America—quite the contrary—but because he calculates that America cannot and will not force Israel to evacuate the West Bank and cannot secure the international support that alone can force the Arabs to settle. He might have added that America’s considerable potential for cultural-political influence, currently blocked by American policy, would be unlocked by an American withdrawal from Iraq and the end of American hostility to all non-American initiatives. The highest hope is that American influence, given wings by September 11, might penetrate Islamic ideology and produce a chastened rejection of radical Islam. It is this most necessary project that has been betrayed by the obsession with Iraq and imposed democracy.
Leon Hadar does not offer a mechanism for triggering policy changes in Washington. But recent events—the difficulties in Iraq, the experience of friendlessness (outside the “Anglosphere”), and the Chinese oil contracts with Iran—seem to be having a sobering effect on Washington. It could have been different had the Clinton administration worked on the Israel-Palestine impasse from the first and had the Bush administration looked for a new agenda after September 11, instead of pushing to extend the existing form of American supremacy. Flying solo has narrowed the choice of goals in the contest with religious terrorism: It has meant a frustrating dependence on Pakistan, when the disarmament of a nuclear Pakistan could have been the prize; it has meant mere muttering about Saudi Arabia instead of a hugely influential condemnation of the form of Islam preached there; it has licensed a confrontation with a merely convenient “Axis of Evil,” when the relevant locations of Islamic plotting were known to be elsewhere.
Regime change in Baghdad has failed to make the oil flow. Powers with very simple interests can see the American presence in Iraq as harmful. In 2002, Washington looked forward to tearing up Saddam’s oil contracts with France and Russia. These countries, and no doubt others, are now presumably discussing with equal relish how to tear up Haliburton’s contracts. If Hadar is right, the United States is losing control of her options and even her actions, and her predicament could become much worse.
Withdrawal from an ideologized project is difficult, but new initiatives can crowd out old policy. Attention can be returned to Al Qaeda so as to foster a public examination of its roots in specific places and specific Islamic traditions; Iraq must soon fend for herself; and the right terms for the next initiative on Israel should be checked with Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, Delhi, and Tokyo. This would generate a lot of helpful excitement. The United States can still sell her fantasies of “unipolarity” for a good price. But it is a falling market.
[Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East, by Leon Hadar (New York: Palgrave Macmillan) 203 pp., $24.95]