- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

RESTORING THE BALANCE: A MIDDLE EAST STRATEGY FOR THE NEXT PRESIDENT
By Richard Haass and Martin Indyk
A Project of the Saban Center at Brookings and the Council on Foreign Relations, $24, 232 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF

“Restoring the Balance” is, without doubt, a politically important book. It is written by a broad swathe of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment and it spells out clearly, comprehensively and cogently what the grand strategy of the Obama administration toward the Middle East should be. It also lays out systematically clear policy recommendations for dealing with all the major nations in the region.

The book, however, is even more important than that. It clearly documents how the Democratic foreign policy establishment, while determined not to repeat the disastrous failures of the Bush administration, will instead repeat the worst of them and even make them vastly worse.

Not the least of the many disastrous legacies of George W. Bush and his team was to do so badly that they allowed the Democrats to persuade themselves that the Clinton years were by contrast an era of wisdom and triumph. They were nothing of the sort: Clinton national security officials were complacently blind and incompetent in failing to react to the rising threat of al Qaeda and its publicly expressed determination to carry out major attacks within the United States. In the Israel-Palestinian peace process, Clinton officials — most especially U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross — allowed Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to inculcate his people with genocidal hatred through the PA broadcasting media and schools and build up the lethal arsenal Palestinian guerrilla groups then used to slaughter more than 1,000 Israeli civilians during the second Palestinian intifada. And at the same time, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Ross did nothing to rein in breakneck Israeli expansion of existing settlements, thereby guaranteeing Palestinian intransigence.

This book, written mainly by Democratic luminaries from the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, repeatedly mistakes bland assertion and wishful thinking for fact. It advocates a strong U.S. diplomatic commitment to a serious dialogue with Iran. But it never acknowledges the extraordinary eschatological principles and beliefs under which the Islamic Republic actually runs. When a nation’s leaders are fervently committed to developing nuclear weapons to wipe the state of Israel off the earth and to annihilate the Great Satan — as they style the United States — any negotiations with them would have to be conducted with a degree of skepticism and caution nowhere evidenced here.

There are some few rays of realism. Richard Haass and Martin Indyk are at least to be commended for recommending that Israel, Jordan and Egypt should not be pressured by the United States into too sweeping or premature negotiations with Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, in Gaza. Since Hamas’ leaders continue to openly predict and seek the annihilation of Israel and even the destruction of Rome as the capital city of the Catholic Church, such caution is well justified.

With all the emphasis on Iran and Israel, Saudi Arabia as usual gets short shrift. There is no chapter separately devoted to it and the usual pabulum about improving dialogue and expanding the relationship is immediately undermined by the same kind of liberal-reflexive clarion calls to expand democracy and pursue human rights in the Desert Kingdom that the Bush administration was so fond of demanding.

As I documented in my own recent book “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East,” it was precisely such an obsession with expanding human rights and promoting democracy that led another Democratic president — Jimmy Carter — to fatally undermine the Shah of Iran and leave the way open for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution and the problems we face today.

It should go without saying that there is absolutely no discussion of how the current economic crisis, the worst in at least 70 years, is going to slash U.S. prestige, policy options and military capabilities in the area. Nor is there any discussion whatsoever of the very real danger that a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will rapidly be followed by extreme Islamist forces backed by Iran taking over there.

In conclusion, this book is essential reading, but not remotely for the reasons its authors imagine.

Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International. He has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting and has covered the Middle East for 30 years. He is the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East,” 1998.

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