BEIRUT -- American secretaries of state have been coming to the Middle East to create all sorts of complex alliances against Iran for most of my happy adult life, and every time this show passes through our region I learn again the meaning of the phrase “lack of credibility.” Hillary Clinton is the latest to undertake this mission, and like her predecessors her comments often are difficult to take seriously.
We are told that her trip to the region has two main aims: strengthen Arab resolve to join the United States and others in imposing harsh new sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear development program, and harness Arab support for resumed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. These important issues also represent two critical diplomatic arenas where the United States has both taken the lead and also achieved zero results. Either the actors involved -- Arabs, Israelis, Iranians -- are all chronically or even chromosomally dysfunctional (for which there is some evidence) or the United States is a particularly inept party to assume leadership in these endeavors.
The weakness in both cases, I suspect, has to do with the United States trying to define diplomatic outcomes that suit its own strategic objectives and political biases (especially pro-Israeli domestic sentiments in the US). So Washington pushes, pulls, cajoles and threatens all the players with various diplomatic instruments, except the one that will work most efficiently in both the Iranian and Arab-Israeli cases: serious negotiations with the principal parties, based on applying the letter of the law, and responding equally to the bottom-line rights, concerns and demands of all sides.
Two Clinton statements during her Gulf trip this week are particularly revealing of why the United States continues to fail in its missions in our region. The first was her expression of concern that Iran is turning into a military dictatorship: “We see that the Government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted, and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship."
Half a century of American foreign policy flatly contradicts this sentiment (which is why Mrs. Clinton heard soft chuckles and a few muffled guffaws as she spoke). The United States has adored military dictatorships in the Arab world, especially states dominated by the shadowy world of intelligence services. This has become even more obvious since Sept. 11, 2001, when the US has intensified cooperation with intelligence services in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other terror groups.
Washington’s closest allies in the Middle East are military and police states where men with guns rule, and citizens are confined to shopping, buying cell phones, and watching soap operas on satellite television. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, Libya, the entire Gulf region, and others are devoted first and foremost to maintaining domestic order and regime incumbency through efficient multiple security agencies, for which they earn the friendship and cooperation of the United States. When citizens in these and other countries agitate for more democratic and human rights, the US is peculiarly inactive and quiet.
If Iran is indeed becoming a military dictatorship, this probably qualifies it for American hugs and aid, rather than sanctions and threats. Mrs. Clinton badly needs some more credible talking points than opposing military dictatorships. (Extra credit question for hard-core foreign policy analysts: Why is it that when Turkey slipped out of military rule into civilian democratic governance it became more critical of the United States and Israel?)
The second intriguing statement during her Gulf visit was about Iran’s neighbors having three options for dealing with the “threat” from Iran: “They can just give in to the threat; or they can seek their own capabilities, including nuclear; or they ally themselves with a country like the United States that is willing to help defend them…I think the third is by far the preferable option.”
This sounds reasonable, but it is not an accurate description of the actual options the Arab Gulf states have. It is mostly a description of how American and Israeli strategic concerns and slightly hysterical biases are projected onto the Arab Gulf states’ worldviews. These Arab states in fact have a fourth option, which is to negotiate seriously a modus vivendi with Iran that removes the “threat” from their perceptions of Iran by affirming the core rights and strategic needs of both sides, thus removing mutual threat perceptions.
This is exactly the same option the United States used when it negotiated détente and the Helsinki accords with the Soviet Union for decades (and whose results ultimately caused the collapse of Communism). Why the United States does not use the same sensible approach to the perceived threat from Iran is hard to explain, other perhaps than two reasons: The United States would have to deal with Iran (and other defiant Middle Easterners) through negotiations rather than haughty neo-colonialism, and, Israel would have to submit to nuclear inspections and stop its aggressive behavior.