July 30, 2014

Why What General Patraeus Said Is Wrong About the Middle East (Or Is It Just Being Misinterpreted?)


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General David Petraeus is a smart guy, one of the smartest in the U.S. government at present. But he’s no Middle East expert. Let’s examine two remarks he made in his congressional testimony. Before we do, though, promise me you will read paragraph 17 because there’s a very explosive point made there you won’t find anywhere else. Agreed? OK, let’s go.

Please note, by the way, that what he actually said is far milder than earlier leaks claimed. In addition, of course, Petraeus has to support White House policy, whatever he really thinks or knows. The Defense Department’s recent Quadrennial review, also written to please the White House, contained not one mention of Iran’s drive to get nuclear weapons or the threat of revolutionary Islamism.  And he also has advisors who tell him the wrong stuff.

Statement One:

“A credible U.S. effort on Arab-Israeli issues that provides regional governments and populations a way to achieve a comprehensive settlement of the disputes would undercut Iran’s policy of militant ‘resistance,’ which the Iranian regime and insurgent groups have been free to exploit.”

On the surface this makes a lot of sense. But let’s examine it closely. Let’s assume there is a comprehensive settlement to which the Palestinian Authority (PA) agrees. It isn’t going to happen but this is for demonstration purposes.

In order to get an agreement, the PA would have to make some concessions, let’s keep them to the minimum for our discussion. At a minimum, it would have to say that the conflict is at an end, recognize Israel, renounce Palestinian claims to all of Israel, and agree to settle all Palestinian refugees in Palestine. In addition, it might have to make some small territorial swaps, not get every square inch of east Jerusalem, and agree to some limits on its military forces.

What would happen?

First, none of this would apply to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Hamas, Hizballah, Syria, Iran, Muslim Brotherhoods, and many others would renounce this as treason. Hamas would continue to attack Israel; its forces in the West Bank would stage cross-border raids into Israel and try to seize power in the West Bank.

Would the kind of people who are now prone to support revolutionary Islamism then say: “What a fair settlement. This settles all our grievances. Thank you, America for being so wonderful!”

While to many Western observers such a reaction would seem logical this is not what would happen. The Western onlooker is assuming a pragmatic, facts-based response rather than an ideological response based on massive disinformation by governments, media, religious leaders, and political movements.

They would say, paraphrasing the words of an ancient Chinese military theorist: The enemy retreats, we advance. They are weak and fearful. The day of victory is near! They would denounce the puppet Palestinian state as a Western lackey. They would redouble their efforts to sabotage the settlement.

Moreover, it would change nothing regarding their goal of overthrowing their own governments.

What about the U.S. effort being “credible?” Credible to whom? It might be credible to the New York Times but will it be credible to al-Safir in Lebanon, to pick a newspaper at random? No matter how hard the United States tries it will not satisfy the criteria of those who profoundly mistrust America as inevitably infidel, imperialist, or both. It might be credible to an upper middle class intellectual in Cairo who has been educated in the West but will it be credible to the masses who believe in conspiracy theories?

Would people in Egypt or Jordan not support the Muslim Brotherhoods there, to give only one example, because there was a “credible” peace process? Would anyone in Iraq or Afghanistan behave differently at all, distracted by their struggle to gain or hold power and to fight communal rivals because of such a “credible” process? The idea is absurd.

And if what Petraeus says on this point is true, why aren’t the regimes-and the PA, too–doing everything in their power day and night to bring about such a settlement? Why do they just keep repeating: You owe us, it’s all your fault. Solve the problem?

Why didn’t, say, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip trigger a rush by Arab regimes to help establish and maintain a stable, moderate regime there?

PARAGRAPH 17
BUT WAIT! There’s something remarkable here. Why should we assume–as most people remarking on the testimony have–that a “credible” effort means pressuring Israel for concessions? Actually, if there’s going to be a credible effort it requires pressuring the PA, which has been the main force opposing a serious peace process. Remember it was the PA who wrecked the peace process in 2000, and it was the PA which refused to negotiate for 14 months. Maybe there is no credible process because the current U.S. government has never once publicly criticized the PA! So, how about this: In order to have a credible effort, the U.S. government must tell the PA to stop incitement to murder Israelis, to start preparing their people for a two-state solution, to agree to compromises of its own. That’s the most important step to having a credible effort. Petreus never said that it is Israel which is blocking such an effort. And it isn’t Israel. Of course, Petraeus never said it was Israel’s fault. Perhaps he knows that. After all, if Israel doesn’t build one more apartment in east Jerusalem–something the PLO agreed it could do in 1993 as part of the framework for negotiations, something the U.S. government accepted last November–nothing would change.

Here’s Petraeus’s second statement:

“Additionally, progress on the Israel-Syria peace track could disrupt Iran’s lines of support to Hamas and Hizballah.”

Why would this be so? What does Hamas care about the Israel-Syria track? Why should Iran give less support to Hizballah as a result? After all, Hizballah is trying to take over Lebanon, not the Golan Heights.

Presumably, the subtext here is that Syria would be so happy to be making progress that it would subvert Iran’s relationship to Hamas and Hizballah. But why should Damascus undercut its relationship with Tehran just to have talks with Israel? Shouldn’t we remember the 1991-2000 period when there was “progress on the Israel-Syria peace track” and yet it had no effect on Syria’s relationship with Iran or the two Islamist revolutionary movements?

The truth is that Syria knows it can give support to these groups and hold negotiations with Israel. True, Syria would not foment an attack by Hizballah on Israel that would set off a war (which it did foment in 2006) but it isn’t doing that any way. Hizballah is busy trying to take over Lebanon. The best guarantee that Hizballah won’t attack Israel at least for a while is the drubbing it received at Israel’s hands in 2006, even though Hizballah will never admit that.

Let’s suppose there would be intensive Israel-Syria talks. Would that reduce by one dollar or by one gun the support Iran is giving to Hamas and Hizballah? Of course not.

Of course, to be fair to Petraeus, he only said “could” disrupt not would disrupt.

Oh and another “Paragraph 17″:

Might not progress on the Israel-Syria track require a tougher U.S. stand on Syria so that Damascus would understand that it cannot back Hizballah (disrupting Lebanon) and Hamas (helping to make any Israel-Palestinian peace process impossible) while still getting U.S. concessions. How about, U.S. to Syria: If you ever want to get the Golan Heights back you better change your policy!

So perhaps Petraeus could be interpreted in a totally different way.

Yet the telling thing about the kind of points made by Petraeus–at least as they are generally interpreted–is that they are ridiculously easy to puncture. That shouldn’t be surprising. These claims have been made repeatedly for decades and have always proven wrong. I wonder if he knows that also.

Like so much said about the Middle East, the two statements by Petraeus analyzed above–at least as they are generally interpreted (yes, the repetition is on purpose) might make sense to someone who wandered off the street into the middle of the movie and who hadn’t seen the first hour. Moreover, since there is close to a monopoly in the universities and mass media, where contrary arguments like those I’ve made above virtually never appear, it is even easier to reach such wrong conclusions.


About Barry Rubin

Prof. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia at http://pajamasmedia.com/barryrubin/. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)