After The Shambles Of A PNAC Middle East Policy, It's Time To Confront An Alternative - Interview With "Sandstorm" Author Leon Hadar
With the public increasingly calling for a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, and the PNAC dreams of Iraq being a beachhead for democracy and profit opportunities in the Islamic world going down the dumper of body count fig leafs, Iraq specifically and foreign policy generally will be issues in both the 2006 and 2008 elections. Even though 55% of those polled in the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll favor bringing our troops home rather than leaving them in Iraq until peace and stability are established, Democrats have not offered a coherent alternative to Bush’s Iraq policy, and have even refrained from openly calling for the troops to come home, aside from Russ Feingold’s motion in the Senate. In fact, few Democrats have been as direct as Chuck Hagel in calling the Iraq debacle for what it is, and no Democrat has begun the task of outlining a new vision for our role in the region.
Yet foreign policy will be an issue in future elections, and voters will want to know what the Democrats will do differently. For example, should the United States continue on with a Middle East policy that seemingly has more to do with profit opportunities, controlling oil supplies, helping Israel and Saudi Arabia, and writing a blank check to the military to uphold those policies? Or should the policies themselves be changed so that the focus is on our national interests and fighting terror, building the military to carry out those assignments, and using soft power and regional alliances to bring about security in that part of the world?
With both political parties beholden to the Israeli and Saudi lobbies in this country, any major change in our Middle East policies seems remote. But as the cost of the Iraq war and its failures rise, along with the profit margins of both Big Oil and the Saudi royal family, there will be an opportunity for one political party to talk about the need for a reassessment of our true national interests in the Middle East. Since the Bush family is joined at the hip with their Saudi benefactors, and since PNAC has made American foreign policy a mirror of Likud’s foreign policy, the Democrats will have that opportunity to ask voters if we should change course in the Middle East, focusing on our needs above all else, and refocus our efforts on building regional alliances and looking for energy supplies and partners closer to home.
In his recent book “Sandstorm”, Leon Hadar discusses the need to change our Middle East policies away from a focus on maintaining hegemony in the region and doing what is good for Israel and Saudi Arabia, towards a new policy of doing what is good for our country. Hadar, a veteran journalist who predicted the pushback by Islamic extremists against our presence in the region over a decade ago, is a foreign policy research fellow at the Cato Institute, and a veteran journalist.
Hadar was nice enough to participate in an email interview, which follows on the extended entry. I strongly recommend his book “Sandstorm” as a provocative argument in support of changing our approach in the region. You may buy this book through the link on the left of this page.
TLC: You have written about American foreign policy in the Middle East for over a decade and your 1992 book “Quagmire” predicted what the United States would encounter by pursuing a hegemonic foreign policy in the region. Tell us about your background and what keeps you immersed in this topic.
Leon Hadar: I suppose that you could describe me as a Washington-based pundit. I’m originally from Israel, where I worked as a journalist, but I am now an American citizen. I’ve been doing analysis of international politics and economic for more than twenty years, mostly as research fellow affiliated with the Cato Institute and with other think tanks and media outlets, including as the United Nations correspondent for the Jerusalem Post (long before that newspaper was transformed into a neocon publication). I’m aware that many of your readers don’t share Cato’s views on the economy, but the institute’s positions on foreign policy has been anti-interventionist and has been very critical of the global crusades launched by both Democrats and Republicans. Cato was strongly opposed to the 1991 war against Iraq and my earlier book, “Quagmire”, that was published in 1992 reflected that position and expressed concerns that U.S. attempt to achieve hegemony, either through the “empire lite” policies pursued by Bush I and Clinton or the neoconservative imperial agenda are going to harm long-term U.S. interests and result in anti-American sentiments in the Arab and Moslem world and create tensions with traditional allies. My articles on U.S. foreign policy have appeared in leading U.S. newspapers and publications, including the New York Times, LA Times. Washington Post, Foreign Affairs magazine, etc. and I’ve been interviewed by the major broadcast networks. My recent book has received a lot of attention, but I’m still hoping to get more of a “buzz.” It has less to do whether the book sells, and more with whether people are talking about it. So, please, talk about it, and you should also buy it….
TLC: The core argument of your book is that the United States needs to re-evaluate its Middle East foreign policy, and shift its approach in the Middle East away from a bipartisan, decades-old fixation with the rival twins, Israel and Saudi Arabia, towards a Middle East policy of “constructive disengagement.” Before talking about what “constructive disengagement” means, describe for us the Middle East paradigm that the United States has operated under since the end of the Second World War, and the basic geo-economic and geo-strategic assumptions underpinning those core policies.
Hadar: The U.S. Middle East Paradigm had evolved during the Cold War and its core policy argument was that the United States should remain engaged diplomatically and militarily in the region. It had three main components:
Geo-strategy: As part of a strategy to contain the Soviet Union and its allies in the region, the United States replaced Great Britain and France – militarily and economically weakened in the aftermath of WWII – in the role of protecting the interests of the Western alliance in the Middle East. The Soviet Union was an aggressive global power with a huge economic and military force and a crusading ideological disposition that was perceived to be a threatening to America and the West in the Cold War as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had been in WWII. Hence the willingness on the part of the United States to pay the high costs of the containment strategy in the Middle East and worldwide.
Geo-economics: Since the end of World War II, the United States assumed the responsibility of protecting the free access of the Western economies, including those of North America, Western Europe, and Northeast Asia (Japan and South Korea) to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf through a costly partnership with Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other oil producing states in the region. The American readiness to provide its allies with a free ride in the form of protecting their energy resources can be explained in the context of the Cold War strategy.
Idealism: Since Israel was established in the aftermath of the European Holocaust in 1948, the United States has underscored its historic and moral commitment to ensure the survival of a democratic Jewish commonwealth in the Middle East by helping Israel to maintain its margin of security as it coped with hostile Arab neighbors. While this commitment reflected a certain elements of idealism in U.S. foreign policy, as opposed to basic geo-strategic and geo-economic interests, and responded as well to domestic political pressure, it eventually became an integral part of the U.S. Cold War-era policy in the Middle East, that is, of its MEP. One important outcome of that policy has been the need for the United States to juggle its commitments to Israel and to the pro-Arab oil-producing states, while simultaneously trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
TLC: You state that this Middle East paradigm was based on the questionable assumptions that the United States itself needed access to Persian Gulf oil, and that America derived geo-economic and geo-strategic benefits from our engagement in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Yet you challenge both these assumptions. Tell us why.
Hadar: My argument is that during the Cold War the United States was willing to pay the high costs of involvement because of the geo-strategic and geo-economic interests that had to do with the need to maintain the Western alliance as well as a willingness to protect Israel’s survival. I stress, however, that contrary to conventional wisdom that United States has never been “dependent” on the oil resources from the Middle East. The United States has received most of its energy from domestic production and from North and South America (mainly Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela). It’s the Europeans and the Japanese that receive most of their oil from the Middle East. Similarly, I note that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the United States could never “make peace” in the Middle East but can only act as facilitator when the Arabs and Israelis were ready to make peace on their own, and that the two sides exploited American interests in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict by extracting “payments” from Washington in the form of economic and military aid. In any case, my main argument is that while the costs of the Middle East Paradigm where justified during the Cold War, the paradigm should have been reassessed when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed. First, in terms of geo-strategy, there was no more a global power threatening Western interests. Secondly, in terms of geo-economics, the time has come to end Europe’s free riding on American power and encourage the Europeans to pay the costs of maintaining order in the Middle East. And finally, as far as Israel was concerned, I believe that the main threat to Israel’s existence lies in continuing control over the Palestinians and that, if anything, Israel’s long-term interests are endangered by becoming an American dependency and bastion in the Middle East.
TLC: As you see it, what exactly would an American constructive disengagement look like?
Hadar: The United States should take steps to reduce its military and diplomatic involvement in the Middle East. It should cease to be the “balancer of last resort” in the Middle East and begin shifting security responsibilities to the Europeans whose interests are affected more directly by developments in the Middle East, which is their strategic backyard. At the same time, the United States should create incentives for regional players to start constructing their own independent balance of power systems.
TLC: You point out that our active engagement in the region provides little incentive for the region’s players to solve their own problems and lets the Europeans get a free ride on the backs of the US military, when in fact they have more of a vested interest in maintaining stability there than we do. Expound upon that, and how do you see the Europeans stepping up to the plate in their own self-interest.
Hadar: As noted, for the European Union, the Middle East is what Mexico and Central America are for the United States, their strategic backyard: It’s not only geographic proximity, but also strong economic ties. The Europeans receive most of their oil in the Middle East and they are the largest trade partners of the major economies in the region, including Israel. They also have extensive demographic ties with the region because of the large number of Arab immigrants. By sending clear signals to the Europeans that America is ready to disengage from the Middle East, the United States would provide them with clear incentives to start taking care of their interest in the region.
TLC: The neocons and the Project for a New American Century crowd will be quick to say that any disengagement from the region now by the United States will only allow Islamic extremism to spread and claim a tighter grip on susceptible countries in the region. That of course assumes that our presence in Iraq is acting somehow as a brake against such a contagion now. Does constructive disengagement mean an American withdrawal from the region? For example, given the quagmire we now face in Iraq, shouldn’t the United States move away from the “Axis of Evil” mindset and work directly with Iran on regional stability?
Hadar: It was the willingness to continue and maintain the U.S. military presence in the Middle East after the Cold War had ended, and to expand the U.S. role there to that of a hegemon that created the conditions for 9/11 and anti-American terrorism. Iraq of course just made things even worse. I think that the long-term interests of the U.S. would be served through a rapprochement with Iran not unlike the one we had with the Chinese during the Nixon presidency.
TLC: Given the ideological rigidity that envelopes this administration, and the historical shackling of this country’s foreign policy by both political parties to the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia as you note in your book, what would it take in your view for the foreign policy establishment in this country to consider an alternate Middle East paradigm such as constructive disengagement? Any such change seemingly would have to wait until 2009 at the earliest, correct? Or do you think the four-year anniversary of 9/11 against a backdrop of declining public confidence in the Bush Administration’s approach in the region would create an opening for discussing your suggested approach?
Hadar: You know, unlike in domestic politics, there are no mechanisms in international relations to help formalize changes in the balance of power. No elections take place in the international system that force states, and especially great powers to change their policies. Those policies change only if and when governments lose the power and the will to pursue those policies. It’s international crises and military conflicts, wars that usually become the turning points in international relations since they make it evident a certain power is unable to pursue its costly agenda anymore. I mention in my book the 1956 Suez crisis during which Great Britain and France, who until that time were considered the two major global players in the Middle East, were forced by the United States (and the Soviet Union) to withdraw their troops from Egypt. Britain and France didn’t have anymore the military and economic power to resist that international pressure and their publics, especially in Britain, were not willing to make the commitments necessary for such a costly military intervention. So they lost their hegemonic position in the Middle East, and the United States and the Soviet Union became the two top dogs in the region. Since the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, and especially since the 1991 Iraq War, the first Gulf War, the United States has maintained a hegemonic position in the region. But since 9/11 and the second Gulf War Americans are recognizing the military and economic costs of that hegemonic project in the Middle East. The mess in Iraq, opposition from other global players, rising military costs and oil prices are all part of those costs. And public opinion polls reflect the growing unwillingness on the part of Americans to pay them. My guess is that in the coming years you are going to see more opposition in the Middle East and among global players, including the EU, to the American policies in the region. That combined with potential economic crises --- a collapse in the value of the dollar, a crisis in the housing market, trade tensions with China – will force a change in U.S. policy which will probably take place in a 1956-like crisis. One thing I do to have to emphasize here: The Democratic opposition in this country is certainly been unable to come up with an alternative to the Bush’s policies in the Middle East. I don’t expect them to be the force of change in that regard.
TLC: Thank you for your time.
Hadar: Thank you for interviewing me, and good luck with your great blog!