The Democrats’ sweeping victory in the recent midterm elections has sent political shock waves around the world, especially in the Middle East—the focal point of President Bush’s foreign policy on which the November election was largely a referendum. Judging by the jovial mood with which the region greeted American voters’ desire for change, it seems that Arabs in general have reached the oversimplified conclusion that Democrats serve the interests of Middle East peace better than Republicans. For example, the postelection analysis of Arab political writer Sami Moubayed quotes even a Syrian Ba’ath Party leader who longs for “The America of Jimmy Carter and the one of Bill Clinton.”
Clinton? While George W. Bush’s wholesale adoption of dangerous neoconservative fantasies has certainly proved a dismal failure, those who long for the “good old days” of Clinton’s peacemaking efforts need to refresh their memories with regard to the record. It is entirely likely that history will mark a pivotal turning point, vis-à-vis the peace process, at Clinton’s victory in the 1992 presidential election, when third-party candidate H. Ross Perot took 19 percent of the popular vote and arguably deprived incumbent President George H.W. Bush of another four years to finish implementing his comprehensive Middle East vision. In retrospect, this appears a tragedy for the region, which has been locked in a downward spiral since George H.W. Bush left office almost 14 years ago.
Instead, Bill Clinton ascended in 1993—not the Armani-clad, 21st-century global sophisticate, but the international neophyte who arrived in Washington wearing plaid short-sleeved shirts and a digital wristwatch. Clinton clearly lacked the experience of his predecessor, a seasoned diplomat and former CIA chief. Bush’s resumé boasted several foreign-policy triumphs, especially the assembling of the coalition of more than 30 nations, including many Arab countries, that drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait in the Gulf War.
Bush’s true international genius, though, lay in his astute recognition of the war’s aftermath. He knew that the routing of any Arab army by a Western power would have humiliating effects on the Arab psyche and disastrous long-term consequences, including the appeal of Islamic extremism. So Bush Senior wisely sought to offer the Arab leaders who backed him against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein a redemption of Arab dignity in the eyes of their people: a comprehensive “land for peace” proposal, allowing the Arabs a chance to stand together in making accords with Israel, bury the conflict definitively, and at last bring peace to the Middle East.
To garner the necessary commitments, Secretary of State James A. Baker III busily shuttled between Israel and her Arab neighbors Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, constructing the framework for such unprecedented negotiations. The Madrid Peace Conference convened in October 1991, only eight months after the Gulf War ended, with a clear vision of regional peace unseen since.
By 1992, however, the Madrid plan had lost momentum as Bush’s reelection looked increasingly tenuous. Clinton prevailed that November and immediately sought a separate legacy for himself as a trailblazing peacemaker. He abandoned the comprehensive Madrid solution and chose to handle each Arab nation’s dealings with Israel disjointedly.
Clinton started by secretly whisking Palestinian negotiators off to Oslo to engage their Israeli counterparts. The subsequent 1993 White House handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat introduced Palestinian sovereignty on the path to a two-state solution. Having then destroyed, like a bull in a china shop, the Arab unity that Bush and Baker had delicately cultivated, Clinton next checked off an Israel-Jordan peace treaty on his to-do list. Several years later, he finally got around to contemptuous Syria, which had bitterly resisted Clinton’s divide-and-conquer approach.
Ostensibly, his multitrack strategy seemed promising. But for all the accolades which the mainstream media heaped on Clinton for his supposedly tireless peacemaking efforts, what did he really accomplish? In the twilight of his tenure, Clinton’s efforts to reach an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians infamously failed—despite the charming photos of Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-democratically elected Palestinian President Arafat interacting like old college buddies at Camp David—largely because the deal Clinton constructed had more holes than Swiss cheese. Even with just a few weeks left in the White House, he continued to urge the two leaders to return to Washington, presumably so that they could sign a treaty on a timeline best suited not to the millions of people it would affect, but to Clinton’s own legacy and ego.
On the Syrian track, Clinton demonstrated equally irresponsible behavior. Shortly before his death, Syrian President Hafez Assad traveled to Geneva to meet his American counterpart after lengthy preparatory negotiating sessions, only to snub the final proposal after discovering that Clinton had misled him on the extent of Barak’s willingness to make concessions. Considering that Clinton actually told his negotiating team to “find me a way to fudge” the details of the final arrangements for the Golan Heights, as author Clinton Swisher reveals in his book, The Truth About the Camp David Accords, the failed outcome hardly comes as a surprise.
In terms of Middle East peace, the impudently careless Clinton left the White House practically empty-handed. The United States had switched from George H.W. Bush’s comprehensive peace strategy to a divisive nation-focused tactic under Clinton—implemented in a shifty and dishonorable manner at that—and the results were horrendous. The Middle East looked a lot worse in 2001 than it had eight years earlier, regardless of the altruistic international reputation that the Democrats seem to enjoy.
Justly levying such criticism on Clinton, however, is certainly not the same as suggesting that all Republicans make good foreign policy, for after Clinton came George W. Bush. Every bit the international novice as his predecessor, Bush dramatically changed American policy once again by bringing into prominent advisory roles certain disaffected liberals commonly called neoconservatives, whose mission was to control the Middle East by exacerbating division among and within Arab countries.
Bush’s advisors rejected his father’s holistic view of the region and even Clinton’s segregated nation-based approach to peacemaking. Their method, known as taefi in Arabic, stoked conflicts between competing subnational religious and ethnic groups as the Shiites, Druze, Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Maro-nites, etc. Given the neocons’ objectives, their scheme had convincing historical precedent: The Ottoman Turks successfully ruled the Middle East for centuries with a sectarian administrative system of millets.
However, the Ottomans won at divide-and-conquer playing in their own backyard and, frankly, because they knew what they were doing. The neocons do not. They sold their ill-conceived plot to the American public wrapped in flowery rhetoric about democracy. But controlling the Middle East by exploiting sectarian rivalries requires substantially more than trite platitudes and shallow analyses rubber-stamped by untrustworthy exiled Arab yes-men, such as the Department of Defense’s former Iraqi pet, Ahmed Chalabi. Thus, their policy has precipitated the glorious “new” Middle East that we see today, with Iraq descended into civil war, Iran swaggering with impunity, democratic elections having either endorsed dictatorship (Hosni Mubarak’s landslide in Egypt) or legitimized terrorism (Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s big electoral wins in Lebanon and Palestine), and provocative Syria smugly gloating after correctly predicting America’s failure on all of the above.
Rank-and-file Republicans should have resisted the neocons’ foreign-policy ploy anyway, given our difficult experience with taefi politics in America’s urban environments, where black, Hispanic, Asian, and other ethnic groups vie for power. Typically, GOP candidates would be lucky to earn 30 percent of the vote in such locales. This does not exactly demonstrate mastery of sectarian politics, even in U.S. cities where people speak English and pray on Sunday. Whence, therefore, came the arrogance to expect a winning taefi strategy in an infinitely more complex environment such as the Middle East?
Sooner or later, especially in the aftermath of their bruising defeat this November, the Republican base is going to realize just how badly they have been led astray. Looking toward 2008, therefore, the wily neocons may abandon the faltering GOP and look for a new home among the Democrats. There is no reason to believe that the hawkish likes of Hillary Clinton, emboldened by the midterm electoral outcome, would not take Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and other neocons into her inner circle. Woe to that Ba’athist who longed for Bill Clinton, because his Swiss-cheese-and-fudge approach could quite possibly return—only this time, with a vengeance. If it does, woe to America as well.