Middle East for Dumbbells
March 19, 2002
By Bernard Weiner
Confounded and dumbfounded by recent Bush Administration
moves, once again I decided to consult that invaluable reference
series, this one titled "The Middle East for Dumbbells." I
find their concise, no-BS answers help me through the confusing
Q. Why does Bush keep moving toward attacking Iraq,
when nearly everyone except his tight circle of advisors (we'll
call them the Wolfpack, named for superhawk Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz), keeps warning him against such
a military adventure?
A. Those who oppose Bush policy here, or Bush policy
anywhere, must be fellow-travelers with evil terrorists, the
Wolfpack reasoning goes. Bush & his advisors believe they
know what's best for the world, what's best for the U.S.,
no need for Congress to get involved with all that messy democracy
stuff like debates and hearings and suchlike. Oh, Bush "consults"
with U.S. allies, in the region and elsewhere, but when they
express doubts as to the wisdom of the Iraq operation, he
just ignores them. Bush will do what he wants to do anyway,
maybe even postpone the Iraq attack for awhile and come at
Saddam Hussein a little later.
As for why Bush wants to attack Iraq:
* Saddam Hussein is a VERY bad character and there are few
in the Middle East, or elswhere in the world, who would mourn
his demise. (That's said in private; in public, Arab leaders
think he serves a political function and, as a secular leader,
may even be a buffer between their countries and a more Islamicist
* Poppa Bush didn't remove Saddam when he had the chance
at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War, and it's been a
sore point in the Bush family, and in U.S. military circles,
* Iraq, which was hiding weapons programs from the U.N.,
finally engineered the inspectors' departure, so nobody knows
what Saddam's been up to for the past several years. It would
be folly to think he's just been playing pinochle. He's most
likely developed more weapons of mass destruction (WMD) --
biological, chemical and maybe even nuclear -- and might well
be provoked into using them at some point down the road, especially
against Israel. Might as well take him out now, the reasoning
goes, before he gets the chance to set them off.
* Suppose the U.S. doesn't attack now, the reasoning goes,
and a year or two from now, Saddam dispatches nuclear- or
biologically-tipped missiles at us or our friends? We could
have taken them out at the time, we didn't, goodbye Bush.
* Oil. Did you really expect something else? There's Iraq's
oil, which, presumably would be in friendlier hands, but there's
also the warning, delivered not so subtly, to other oil-producing
countries in the region.
So something will be going down, probably sooner than later.
So what if Arab & Muslim support for the U.S. "war on terrorism"
evaporates? So what if Iraq sends scores of SCUD missiles,
armed with biological or chemical weapons, at Israel or U.S.
troops? The Wolfpack wants to attack Iraq and that's that
-- maybe even testing out some of its tactical nuclear weaponry
in the process -- and there's no force in the world strong
enough to stop them.
Q. Speaking of Israel, why hasn't the U.S. been more
involved in trying to arrange a peace between the Jews and
A. Bush watched the previous administration devote
so much time and energy in trying to arrange a peace there,
only to see it blow up in Clinton's face. Bush is convinced
that this is one hot potato to stay away from, let the parties
kill each other until they're so demoralized and wasted that
a younger generation of leaders will come to the fore and
demand peace negotiations and invite the U.S. in to help them
arrange it. In addition, Bush was more interested in the war
he started (the one supposedly against 9/11terrorists) and
not someone else's, and figured he could get away with doing
nothing about Palestine/Israel. Let Sharon bloody the nose
of the PLO and other groups; the U.S. will make noises every
now and again about Israel going too far, but essentially
keep American hands off.
Now Bush is learning that unless that Mideast problem is
solved, the Arab/Muslim coaliton supporting the early phase
of the "war on terrorism" will break apart -- which translates
to no Arab support for the coming attack on Iraq. Now Bush
and his Wolfpack have no problems with going it alone, but
they risk too much -- endangering the very concept of perpetual
war, the concept that, they feel, will keep Bush and the conservative
hard-right in power -- and so have at least to pretend to
be doing something about the Israelis and Palestinians.
Q. OK, suppose the Arab world and even Arafat and
Sharon buy into the Saudi prince's peace plan: a viable Palestinian
independent state, Israel returns to pre-1967 borders (including
abandoning its settlements in Palestinian land), Arab neighbors
recognize Israel's right to exit. Wouldn't this work?
A. No. The whole plan is based on two incorrect foundations:
1) that the parties really want peace; and 2) that determinative
power rests in the nation-state.
If we've learned anything in the past several years, it is
that real power is often found outside nation-state governmental
institutions. Examples: transnational corporations often have
more power than traditional government structures; terrorists
often have more power than political institutions. Suppose
all the Arab neighbors and Arafat agree to the Saudi plan,
so what? The real power on the ground belongs to Hamas, Hizbollah,
rightwing Israeli settlers, etc. -- i.e., non-governmental
forces -- and they just want to see the other side disappear.
Their veto is violence.
The Palestinian extremists won't agree for a moment to any
arrangement that limits Palestinian plans to drive Israel
into the sea. Add to that Ariel Sharon's bloodlust on the
other side -- his desire to destroy the Palestinian political
and actual infrastructure -- and it's clear that there can
be no meaningful negotiations right now because neither side
really wants peace. They simply want their enemy to vanish
in a puff of smoke. The Wolfpack may be right: the insane
revenge-violence may continue until, after many tens of thousands
are slaughtered, a new generation of leaders says enough is
enough and begins to think about heading toward the peace
But there may be one more chance. If the U.S., as the only
world superpower, were to work with the U.N. and/or organize
a global coalition for Mideast peace, and help arrange a way
for both sides to back down, with armed peace monitors inbetween
the warring parties, maybe, just maybe, there might be reason
to hope. But it's clear that Bush & the Wolfpack have no vision
on this matter, no desire to come up with a vision (which
must include altering U.S. policy in the region to lower the
level of tensions), and instead continue their meaningless
sending of envoys to the area to arrange...what? another piece
of paper signed, another set of promises made. As soon as
the envoys depart, the violence ratchets up another notch,
because both sides know that America is not seriously engaged
and therefore there are no unbearable penalties to acting
There's no guarantee that deep and serious U.S. engagement
right now would send both sides moving, however slowly and
vaguely, toward an eventual peace treaty. But if the U.S.
continues to do the little or the nothing that passes for
American Mideast policy these days, Bush & the Wolfpack are
going to have a lot of blood on their hands as the Israeli/Palestinian
war grows in intensity.
Q. But how can Jews and Arabs ever sit down at the
same table and talk peace after the decades of slaughter,
suspicion and hatred?
A. One way might be to lower everyone's expectations.
The object is not to get the enemies to trust each other,
or like each other, or to revise their opinion that they're
dealing with anything other than bloodthirsty zealots. (If
peace is ever achieved, those attitudinal changes might come
later, as byproducts of a treaty.) The object here is to get
each side to say to the other:
"We're here, we're not going away, you're here, you're not
going away; we wish you would disappear, or that we could
make you disappear, but we realize realistically that it's
not going to happen. Military slaughter simply doesn't get
either of us to where we want to be. Each of us wants security,
and to raise our children and grandchildren in peace. So,
what can we do to bring that security and peace about? What
compromises might you have to make, what compromises might
we have to make, to begin to bring us to that point?"
If both sides can come to a public realization -- as they
almost did a decade ago -- that the other side is here to
stay and their just demands must be taken into account, and
that military slaughter does not lead to what they want, then
they can move on to the necessary-compromises stage. Israel
withdraws from the Occupied Territories, abandons its settlements,
recognizes a viable Palestinian state, reins in its extremist,
Arab-hating terrorists; the Palestinians formally recognize
Israel, rein in their extremist, Jew-hating terrorists. Both
sides, probably under some international arrangement, share
jurisdiction over Jerusalem.
Is this THE solution? Probably not. But it's a starting point,
and the U.S. simply must take the lead in making sure something
like these ideas begins to alter the agenda and discussion
in the Middle East. To do nothing serious, to simply let bombers
and tanks and suicide-diplomacy rule the day, is to condone
Q. But isn't Bush trying to do something like you're
suggesting in the Middle East? Why not give the guy some credit?
A. To Bush, the Middle East is a sideshow, and is
liable to suck in the U.S. dangerously; the real war is the
one against terrorists around the globe, because that one
can, and will, go on forever -- or at least for the next seven
years, which coincides, in Bush's mind, with the length of
his imperial term. But since the Middle East seems to be of
great concern to everyone else, he's going through the motions
of serious diplomacy. But there will be no changes in essential
U.S. policy, and, most likely, in a few days the combatants
will be back slaughtering each other at a record pace.
Q. You're not part of the "Dummies" publishing operation,
A. Clearly, you're no dummy. You realize what needs
to be done to change the existing policies of the Bush Administration,
and thus help bring peace and progress to the Middle East.
But none of that will happen unless you organize, organize,
organize to send Bush and his advisors the Big Message in
When the Republicans lose the House and the Senate, and thus
have their far-right domestic agenda blocked, they may see
the electoral handwriting on the wall for 2004 and begin pulling
in their horns in both domestic and foreign areas, behaving
like more rational, moderate politicians.
In short, in addition to whatever else you're doing, join
the call for an Independent Prosecutor in the Enron influence-peddling
scandal and support Democrat candidates, even if sometimes
you have to hold your nose to do so. Everything -- peace in
the Middle East, the conduct of the "war on terrorism," the
future of Constitutional democracy and civil liberties in
this country -- depends on the election results in November.
We all can have a part in determining America's political
future by our action, or inaction.
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught politics and international
relations at various U.S. universities; a poet and playwright,
he was with the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly two decades.