2006-09-08,3:21 PM

Bush Insider Describes U.S. Middle East Policy as a Disaster, Not Rooted in Reality

By Kevin Zeese

A Bush Administration insider, Flint Leverett, who served in the CIA, State Department and Bush White House, had some harsh things to say about the direction of foreign policy in the Middle East on September 5 at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC.

In a virtual indictment of Mid-East policy, Leverett described how America’s standing is in decline in the region, not only US popularity but how America is perceived. The United States is more and more seen as ineffective and unable to accomplish its objectives. The decline of the United States is occurring at a disturbing pace.

While he noted competition for China, which is in need of fossil fuels to continue its economic expansion as one cause, the real reason for the decline is because of policy choices made by the Bush administration and approved by both parties in Congress. None of these choices were inevitable, there were always competing alternatives. But President Bush made choices that were “not rooted in reality” but rather in “ideology” and “experimentation.” The results he describes as “devastating.” While he says “recovery is possible” it will require shifts in policy based on an accurate assessment of what is occurring in the region.

Leverett describes himself as someone who wanted to see President Bush succeed. He voted for him in 2000 and especially after 9/11 he wanted to make sure the Bush administration foreign policy was a success. But, by the Spring of 2003 he felt compelled to leave the administration because of the choices it had made overturning a diplomatic blueprint he and others had developed in the State Department before the Iraq attack. They had developed a four point diplomatic strategy:

1. Focus on Al Qaeda and its affiliates – destroy them in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

2. Engage Iran and Syria diplomatically. Both countries had offered assistance after 9/11 to challenge Al Qaeda. Leverett argued to engage both countries, accept their assistance and broaden the negotiation to resolve other issues in the Middle East. Leverett saw this as building on the successful model with Libya where negotiation began in the Clinton Administration and was continued by the Bush Administration. This was a model for Syria and Iran – tell them what changes we wanted to see in their policy and what rewards they would receive as a result of making such changes.

3. Develop a credible plan for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is the core political issue in the region. It is critical for the United States, and Israel, to be credible on resolving the occupation of Palestinian territories.

4. Bolster U.S. partnerships with other governments in the region, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Leverett described this strategy as being rooted in realist logic with an emphasis on stability. An overarching goal of the policy was to marginalize radicals and empower moderates in the region. This is not a new approach to the Middle East, indeed it has guided all presidents since the era of Henry Kissinger, 30 years ago. This model has produced some important breakthroughs in the region, e.g. the Camp David Accords, which took Egypt out of the conflict with Israel and prevented a future conflict between Israel and all the Arab nations together. Camp David removed the potential of a generalized Arab-Israeli war.

Initially after 9/11 the Bush Administration got off to a good start, according to Leverett. The world was with the United States on Afghanistan and its focus on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The U.S. worked with the neighbors of Afghanistan, including Iran, to install the Karzai government. Bush spoke of the need for a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, in a speech before the UN. This specific call for a Palestinian state was a positive breakthrough.

So, when Leverett went to the White House he was optimistic that he would be implementing the strategy that had been developed at the State Department with his participation. It turned out that this was “his fantasy” as President Bush chose diametrically opposite approaches on each issue. Bush decided:

- Not to positively engage Iran and Syria to show them the rewards for rooting out terrorism, instead Iran became part of the ‘axis of evil’ despite its help in Afghanistan challenging Al Qaeda.

- Al Qaeda was no longer the focus of the Administration. They removed Special Forces and CIA military from Afghanistan who were focused on Al Qaeda in order to have them prepare the Iraqi battlefield. These forces who spoke the native language and were well equipped were replaced by ill-equipped troops, e.g., troops that spoke Spanish and Russian. This is why the leadership of Al Qaeda survives today.

- And, they refused to engage on Israel-Palestine and let Ariel Sharon set the policy. This period was also a turning point for the Palestinian issue. Colin Powell had the rugged pulled out from him by the White House. The Bush Administration took its lead on the Israel-Palestine issue from Arial Sharon. For example, the “Road Map” was supposed to come out before 2002. This had been promised to everyone but at the end of the year Sharon called early elections in Israel. He asked the Bush Administration to hold off announcement of the Road Map because there were issues in it which Sharon disagreed with and he did not want it coming out during his re-election campaign. Leverett told Condoleezza Rice that delay would be a terrible mistake that we could not recover from. Rice expressed concern that releasing the strategy would be intruding into Israeli electoral politics. Leverett responded that not releasing the strategy is intruding into Israeli politics on the side of one candidate. Rice was not moved.

Then he described how the democratization issue began to develop as a kind of panacea of the region. In fact, democracy cannot be installed effectively if the social and economic circumstances do not support it. Leverett believes that our experience in the region since then demonstrate the experiment of democratization can do more harm than good for U.S. policy. According to Leverett the democracy experiments are failing and further, there is no evidence that democracy reduces terrorism, in fact it is likely to lead to government’s that are more anti-American.

By the time the United States invaded Iraq all of the major elements of the diplomatic strategy had been reversed and the U.S. was charting a new course that was counter to all of our experience in the region.

Leverett decided that because he disagreed so much with the new direction that he should move on and “watch from the sidelines.” The results have been devastating.

The people in the Bush Administration are not stupid, in fact they are smart and experienced. They just have a different view of the world. They see 9/11 as being caused by the stability of the region and thus believe there is a role for creative instability in the region. They are also not people without ideas – they jut have bad ideas. They turned the Kissinger approach on its head – they empowered radicals and weakened moderates, they moved from a policy of stability to a policy of instability. Iraq, was seen as a geo-strategic opportunity to show the region that the U.S. is willing to use force, and militarily attack those who oppose U.S. interests.

As a result of this ‘experimental policy’ the Middle East is not moving in a positive direction. Iraq is a destabilizing influence. Iran has more power and is less moderate. Assad in Syria is more powerful. Radicals in the region – both government and non-government players in the region – are more united. The United States is becoming powerless to correct the destructive trajectory of the region.

One problem is correcting the course in the Middle East is who is going to do it? Leverett does not see anyone in the Administration who has the power to change the direction of the mistaken policy of the Administration. The Democrats have not done their job to be an opposition party on foreign policy. Indeed, according to Leverett, the Democrats have empowered the Bush approach – they have supported the Iraq War; they’ve approved democratization; they merely claim they would administer the same program better. There are some in the Democratic Party who are challenging Bush, but the leadership and majority of Democratic officials mostly follow the Administration. He hopes that the Democrats will present a real choice in the future, but we’ll see whether they do in time.

Regarding Iran, the Bush Administration seems to be focusing on their support for terrorism now because they lost the battle over nuclear development. Leverett sees a need to work with Iran holistically – a grand bargain that deals with many issues of the Middle East. The United States needs to offer a security guarantee to Iran but Iran needs to modify its ties to terrorist groups. This cannot be done piece by piece but must be done as one overarching negotiation. He noted that the Administration has had opportunities for this but they deliberately decided to turn down Iran’s offers. He described an attempt by Iran to reach-out to the United States after the successful invasion of Iraq and before the insurgency took hold. Iran suggested a grand bargain to the United States through the Swiss, the U.S. response was negative. Indeed, they were critical of the Swiss for overstepping their role as a go-between between the U.S. and Iran. Leverett warns that it will get harder and harder to come to a grand bargain the longer we wait. Iran is gaining strength in the region and the price of a grand bargain will get more expensive.

Leverett warns that the U.S. president may be given the choice of giving in to the Iranian government or a military attack against them. The odds of a military strike, he believes, increase as this Administration comes to a close. The U.S. bargaining position gets weaker as time goes by therefore a military strike becomes more likely.

He also sees the way the United States has related to the Palestinians as counterproductive. First, the U.S. pushed to have a democratic election that included Hamas. When Hamas was elected the U.S. decided not to deal with the Palestinian government. Indeed, they decided to try and starve the Palestinian Authority of funds and used their political influence to work with Israel to get other countries to do the same. Leverett does not see this approach doing much for the interests of the United States in the region, nor is it doing much for the security of Israel.

A growing challenge for the United States, according to Leverett, is China. China’s economy is rapidly growing and needs more hydrocarbon energy to continue to grow. The United States cannot make Chinese demands for hydrocarbons go away, nor can we stop their engagement in the region. The United States needs to deal with China – persuade China that their energy needs are not a threat to the U.S. He describes our recent reaction to the attempted purchase of Unocal Corporation as exactly the wrong message. In addition, he believes we could involve China in developing a regional security agreement in the Middle East. Cooperation not competition should be the goal of the U.S. relationship with China.

Flynt Leverett shows how the mainstream foreign policy establishment – intelligence, Foreign Service, military and national security – is opposed to the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. The Bush approach minimizes diplomacy in the Middle East and is dominated by a military approach. However, the occupation of Iraq, which is failing as the insurgency grows stronger, and the failure of Israel to militarily challenge Hezbollah in Lebanon, shows the limits of the Bush approach. Realism may come back to U.S. foreign policy because reality is hitting back hard.

Flynt Leverett is senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a visiting professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He served as senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff during President Bush’s first term. After leaving the Bush administration because of policy disagreements, he was a foreign-policy adviser to Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

His speech was based on an article currently appearing in the American Prospect Magazine, “Illusion and Reality” and can be seen at: http://www.prospect.org/web/page.ww?section=root&name=


The New America Foundation website is New America.net.

Kevin Zeese is Executive Director of DemocracyRising.US and a candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland (www.ZeeseForSenate.org)


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