Diplomacy in the Middle East

Posted: Apr 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Having finished hazardous duty as an armchair military strategist (at least until our troops in the Middle East get a little R&R and get resupplied), I am ready to switch to another well-upholstered station and offer up some thoughts as an armchair diplomatic strategist. In the last few weeks I have taken the dangerous step of chatting up several Mideast experts, including a number of Muslim Middle-Eastern government senior officials. Every Middle East expert has a strong opinion and a blunt-edged axe to grind -- so one goes into such discussions on guard against being manipulated. But my own pre-existing concern was corroborated by the one common theme of all these conversations: How does the United States manage our temporary occupation of Iraq without exacerbating Arab distrust of our motives?

This is about as tricky an operation as trying to perform brain surgery while riding a pogo stick -- there is a very high risk of both killing the patient and falling flat on your face. And yet we are committed to the operation. We are now about two weeks into trying to help Iraq form an at least vaguely representative government capable of more or less managing the country. Not only are there indigenous religious, ethnic, tribal, political, personal and commercial forces in play, but Iran, Turkey, Syria, France, Russia and others have decided to have a go at shaping the form of the emerging government and society. Outside of this competitive arena is a vast Arab and Muslim audience suspiciously watching the United States' effort. Moreover, we are obliged to care what that audience thinks, because we are unlikely to defeat the jihaddist Muslim terrorist threat or gain a Middle-East peace until we have drained the Middle and Central East's malarial swap of Muslim hatred for the United States.

As I understand it, the theory of our government is that we are acting in good faith in Iraq. We plan to leave as soon as the Iraqis can manage their own affairs, and we plan to leave the oil for the Iraqi people. All sane Americans should share that view of ourselves. But most Arabs (sane and otherwise) do not share that perception. And so I arrive at the consensus point of all my recent Middle East interlocutors. The limited open-mindedness of both the Iraqi and other Arab and Muslim people won't last long. Every day we manage Iraq alone, their suspicion deepens. Every time there is some incident of American troops even innocently shooting Iraqis (as happened earlier this week), the doubt begins to turn to certain distrust. Once their distrust has crystallized, even our subsequent departure will not vindicate us in their eyes. They will see it as weakness -- not magnanimity. This is not a uniquely Arab or Muslim condition of mind. Around the world, and certainly here in America, once distrust is born (between black and white, Protestant and Catholic, McCoy and Hatfield), even objective evidence of the despised one's benignity is not readily accepted. We all tend to see what we want to see.

Thus, the sooner we can internationalize the temporary occupation, the better the chances of winning the peace. This would be easy if we trusted the United Nations to do the job. But we correctly do not trust that dysfunctional organization. Rather, we should promptly form an international body of carefully selected countries to assist us in managing the temporary occupation and nation building, while reserving for ourselves the exclusive authority for military security (it always helps to control all the guns on the ground, should reason temporarily fail). By inviting other countries in, we will be obliged not to ignore all their views -- thus we would lose some but not all of our current unbridled discretion. So the invited nations must be carefully selected. Here is a proposed list: the Muslim countries of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Indonesia; from Pacific Asia: Australia and Japan; from the Americas: Mexico, Chile and the United States; and from Europe: Britain, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark and Germany. I include Germany because she wants to return to a united Atlantic strategy (and it further and dangerously isolates France in her quixotic adventure of forming an opposition force to the United States).

Most of these countries are substantial and democratic. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while hardly democracies, were helpful during the war. These countries should be either senior advisors or junior partners to the Pentagon's already established governance mechanism. We should be prepared to accept a fair amount of their advice, and they should be prepared to provide a fair amount of conspicuous manpower on the ground. Something like this proposal represents a good balance between maintaining practical U.S. control and reducing the danger of increased anti-Americanism. We are not the exclusive possessor of wisdom, and we have friends in the world. Let us use both their friendship and their wisdom for our common good.