Revisiting one of my favorite satirical plays, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic, I was prompted to note a parallel between Sir Fretful Plagiary’s anxious protestations against the charge that he is a talentless playwright (and a plagiarist, as well), and the anxiety of the Bush administration’s stance on the Middle East, especially about its relationship with Israel. Lacking any first-hand knowledge of plot, dialogue, and dramaturgy, Sir Fretful rebuffs every criticism of his play by critics who are equally ignorant of dramaturgy, and leaves the stage in furious dudgeon, while his critics, Sneer and Dangle, snicker at his mortification.
Lacking any guiding principle, except that of pragmatism (if that can be called a guiding principle) and the court of “world opinion,” the U.S. cannot decide whether to confront Iran, Syria, and their client terrorist groups (Hamas and Hezbollah) and stand without reservation behind Israel and its right to exist, or to force Israel to make concessions with the Palestinians in order to end the ceaseless conflict and tension in the Middle East. Israel, too, has lost its self-confidence; it was U.S. pressure on Israel that it fight Hezbollah on its own terms last July, and as a consequence Israel lost the war in Lebanon.
On November 10th, in London, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain gave a speech in which he verbalized what President Bush dare not say in public. His theme, centered on the ongoing chaos in Iraq and the U.S.’s inability to “stabilize” a country whose inhabitants are at each other’s throats in a struggle for religious and political supremacy, was “constructive engagement.”
It could only mean that while Bush has sworn never to deal directly with Hamas or any other terrorist group, he has effectively signaled to willingness to negotiate with them through third parties.
“A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work and where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found.” (The Daily Telegraph, November 14).
The essential point of his speech was that the U.S. should work to form a diplomatic coalition of the “moderate” Arab states to bring about the desired goal. The chief members of that coalition would be Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Never mind that there are no “moderate” Arab states on the question of Israel, and that the Daily Telegraph headline of the story which contained Blair’s speech was “Iran Plotting to groom bin Laden’s successor.”
The thorny problem facing Bush, Blair, and others is: How to bring the antagonists together (Saudi Arabia and Iran are, on Islamic religious terms, mortal enemies) to achieve a lasting solution? That is, how to give the Arabs and Iranians everything they want except the eradication of Israel, and also secure Israel’s shrinking borders?
The simplest solution to bringing peace to the Mideast would be to blast into oblivion the “roots where global terrorism are to be found” – that is, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. But to Bush, Blair and others, that is an unacceptable solution. It might, after all, enrage world opinion, especially Muslim opinion. So the solution they will settle on is to cobble together the antagonists in an alliance to work out a compromise.
In the Heraclitean, “realist” universe of professional pragmatists, there are no absolutes. Nor, apparently, should there be. And since they reject the necessity of absolutes – for example, of acknowledging that Hamas and Hezbollah are gangs of killers that should never be brought into any civilized discourse – all they can do is brood and agonize, interminably ponder the crisis, and fret over and over again: “What to do?” and settle for an indefinable “middle course” that itself is an elusive non-absolute solution.
The conflict is insoluble because the U.S. lacks the courage to acknowledge the existence of evil. Evil, presumably, can be cajoled into becoming a “good” through “constructive engagement.”
An article by Steven Erlanger of The New York Times in the International Herald Tribune (November 14), underscores Israel’s fretful dilemma and U.S.’s fretful vacillation.
“Many Israelis feel that the free world under the leadership of the U.S. is facing a similar situation to Europe in the 1930s, when they watched the rearming of the Nazi Reich,” Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Israeli Parliament’s foreign and defense committee, is quoted in Erlanger’s article. “No one could predict the global catastrophe ten years later, and Iran may be the same.”
“Bush says his stance over Iran is unchanged: He will never accept a nuclear-armed Iranian state. Yet Israelis have been increasingly anxious about the Bush approach to Iran, seeing recently a tendency to delay confrontation through further negotiations. They worry that because of Iran’s ability to further inflame Iraq, Bush is hesitant to take any steps that could lead to confrontation. And Israelis are worried about what concessions an administration seeking to build an anti-Iran alliance in the Arab world might ask of them on the Palestinian question in order to bolster that alliance.”
The midterm elections were watched closely and anxiously by Israel and its Islamic enemies. Islamists abroad and in the U.S. hailed the Democratic sweep of Congress as a victory, especially since a Democrat and Muslim, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, was elected to the House, and also because the Republicans even boast of an “anti-Israel” representative, Darrell Issa of California, who is booster for Hezbollah.
“No Israeli knows if the next American president will be as tough on Iran or as loyal to Israel as Bush. If Bush does not act, Israelis say, by the time the next president takes office in January 2009, Iran will be well on its way to a bomb, and Washington may not back Israeli responses.”
It is news to me that Bush has been “tough” on Iran. “Tough” on Iran, in rational, practical terms, means destroying Iran’s nuclear fuel-producing facilities and removing its theocratic government, and letting the Iranians sort out the mess, just as the U.S. should have removed Saddam and left the Iraqis to butcher each other. Bush’s notion of “tough” is to lapse into a state of denial, coached by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other champions of compromise.
Erlanger cites Yossi Alpher, a former Israel-Palestinian negotiator, who said that if Bush succeeds in beginning talks with Iran, “we need to ensure that the U.S. doesn’t sell us down the river…. [I]f the world solves it diplomatically, will it be at our expense?”
He can bet on it. History has taught us that postponing moral crises will only result in the crises blowing up in our faces. In the gnawing, fretful world of unprincipled diplomacy, nothing is surer than failure, betrayal, and catastrophe.