I am not one of those who believes democracy will come soon either to Iraq or to the entity to be called Palestine (when—and if—the Palestinians finally grasp that they cannot have both a state and a warrant to kill Israelis). There is no reason to believe either of these polities will succeed in the democratic experiment that has failed or, to be more precise, has not been seriously tried in the Arab world. But there are improvements short of democracy: police who are not routinely brutal, government that isn't routinely corrupt, and courts that are not satraps of politics. And the Bush administration deserves credit for making clear that it will not merely enable friendlier but just as murderous successor regimes in Baghdad and Ramallah.
It is not the pursuit of good government, however, that has put this country on a collision course with the leadership in Palestine and Iraq. Our motives are more fundamental than that: The U.S. government has made a decision that it will not permit either mass terror by Baghdad or random terror by the many Palestinian militias to set the norms of how others, in the region and beyond, live or die. This is the critical principle underlying our Iraqi policy and our Palestinian policy. It is, at root, a statement about how we define civilization and how we defend it from its unconventionally armed discontents.
And how exactly has this prerogative come to the United States? Iraq has been in violation of the international weapons-inspection regime for four years. Baghdad has again and again engaged in farcical negotiations about the inspectors' return, and many of our allies have willingly participated in the farce. But in reality, such offers are simply a ruse to buy Saddam Hussein time to do what inspections are supposed to prevent: building weapons of mass death. And since no international body is willing to accept the consequences of this fraud, the responsibility falls to the United States. Our obligation is an extension of the one we assumed at the end of the Gulf war, when the United States guaranteed the lives of the Kurds and Shia, whose kin Saddam had murdered in large numbers. Before World War II no one, neither the Jews nor the Czechs nor the Chinese, were protected from their tormentors. But, had their lives mattered to the Allies, the United States and Britain might not have waited so long to take up arms and, thus, would have begun the war on a stronger footing. Morally, at least, the analogy holds for today. By defending the Kurds, who have experienced Saddam's gas firsthand, we are also defending ourselves.
As for the Palestinians, their leaders (and those of the Arab states) have been entreating us for decades to press the Israelis on their behalf, and we have done so. But not until this summer has an American president set even minimal conditions on our mediation. What President Bush has decided is that the United States cannot be an honest mediator so long as one of the parties to the conflict consists of mendacious murderers. If they want the United States to be their facilitator, they must abide by American terms. Otherwise, they're on their own.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE not to contrast America's new determination to incapacitate Saddam Hussein and Yasir Arafat with Bill Clinton's failed stewardship of these two dockets. Before he even entered the Oval Office, Clinton mused that it wouldn't take much to welcome the regime in Baghdad back into the family of nations. It was a colossal blunder, and then-Vice President Al Gore was quickly dispatched to explain that the president hadn't really meant what he said. But it wasn't just Clinton. At the State Department there was Warren Christopher, a languid gentleman easily persuaded that the ruthless foreign leaders with which he dealt were as languid as he. The National Security Council (NSC) was run by Anthony Lake, the Berkshire farmer who believed everyone was as well- intentioned as he thought himself to be. He was succeeded at the NSC by Sandy Berger, a trade lawyer who saw every conflict as an opportunity to devise another purchase-and-sale agreement. Christopher's successor at Foggy Bottom, Madeleine Albright, proved little better, dramatically failing to establish her intellectual authority even over a crowd filled with undergraduates at Ohio State.
This was prelapsarian foreign policy. When it came to Israel and its abutters, the Clintonites uttered the words "peace process" sanctimoniously, as if in some lordly benediction. But in the end, the peace process came to embody a highly ironic strategy. The more hideous the instances of Palestinian terror, the more Israel was expected to make truly perilous accommodations--until Ehud Barak, under Clintonite pressure, offered the most perilous accommodations of all, and they were still not enough.
George W. Bush has been far shrewder. But the more interesting and more salient contrast is not with his predecessor but with his father. This is a true filial drama. The son, once depicted by even some of his own supporters as a patsy for his father, is actually rebuffing the elder's abundant biases about the Middle East. And, in now making Saddam his target, George W. is in effect conceding that George H.W. allowed decisive victory to slip from our hands eleven years ago.
The justification, you'll remember, was that Saddam--and his tiny minority of Tikriti Sunnis--must remain in power to preserve the stability of Iraq. Almost no one asked then, and almost no one asks now, why Iraq's stability is such an obvious good. It certainly does little for the Kurds or the majority Shia. (The West's false equation of Iraqi stability with Sunni domination is an old story that dates back to British plenipotentiary Gertrude Bell's establishment of the Hashemite Sunni monarchy 80 years ago.) And who in the region has a desperate interest in seeing the Iraqi Shia kept down? The Saudis, who fear the example they may set for their Shia brethren across the border. James Baker served as paladin for the Saudi royals while Poppy's secretary of state and with The Carlyle Group as transfer agent, and he now serves as banker and counselor to Riyadh. Baker, more than any American not on the Supreme Court, put W. in the White House. And so for the president now to defy him and the Saudis is a kind of declaration of independence.
Baker's New York Times op-ed last week, then, can be read as a public throwing-in of the towel. Yes, he wants a Security Council resolution warranting military action and is willing to tarry to get one. Yes, he'd prefer Arab governments to join an international coalition like the one that prevented a march on Baghdad in 1991. But, costly though he thinks it will be in blood and treasure, Baker nonetheless declared for all to see, "The only realistic way to effect regime change in Iraq is through the application of military force, including sufficient ground troops." Baker's apostasy from the Republican establishment's "go easy on Iraq" faction is devastating to them.
And devastating in particular to Brent Scowcroft, who has been trying hard to convene a reunion of Bushies who opposed going to war against Iraq the first time. Scowcroft has the distinction of having been wrong about virtually everything important in foreign policy over the last decade and a half. He was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev and his resilience. He was wrong about Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, generally. And now he is wrong, once again, about Iraq. The New York Sun recently performed a valuable service by reminding us of the tawdry details of Scowcroft's career that color his present effort: He runs a big business that deals with, among others, shortsighted countries and companies that prefer Saddam to whatever might come next.
Scowcroft's pivotal ally within the administration is Secretary of State Colin Powell, who also has a less-than-stellar track record on the major conflicts of the post-cold-war age. (After Scowcroft made his anti-war comments on CBS's "Face the Nation" on August 4, Powell called to thank him.) Within the Bush administration, Powell is where the "do little to Saddam Hussein" and the "do a lot for Yasir Arafat" positions meet. Were he not so valuable domestically, and would his departure not so rattle our allies, my guess is that his job would be little more secure than Harvey Pitt's.
THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY, needless to say, is no better. In fact, it's far worse. Almost to a person its leaders opposed the Gulf war and, were Gore not an exception, I suspect that he and Clinton would not have won the White House in 1992. And today's Democrats are showing that bad habits die hard. So, although not openly opposing the next Gulf war, they are calling for "national dialogue"—a dialogue in which, truth be told, they have precious little to say.
The party is little better when it comes to the Palestinians. It's true that only Jesse Jackson has visited Arafat recently. (Jackson was also on his way to Gaza for an audience with Sheik Yassin, the Hamas headman, but even he felt the need to turn back once Hamas claimed credit for the Hebrew University bombing.) But the Democrats have institutional bonds to the Arafat crowd. Clinton had more meetings with the Palestinian chairman than with any other foreign leader, and many top Democrats probably still have delicatessen pictures with Yasir hanging in their offices. At first the Bush administration seemed to be pursuing the same dangerous liaison. Until, that is, the president and the advisers to whom he listens changed the plot. The Democrats then faulted Bush for distancing himself from the conflict, as if the sheer frequency of presidential statements about ending the cycle of violence would actually stop it. This was, in fact, the theme of virtually every potential Democratic presidential candidate. Only Joe Lieberman has produced a concrete new suggestion. He proposes that the United States admit more Palestinian refugees to siphon off the pressure of want in the West Bank and Gaza. But that would merely add magnitudes to the anti-Americanism that already resides within this country's shores. And so no other prominent Democrat seconded the motion.
The pro-Democratic press is equally dismissive of the president's new policy. In The New Yorker, former TNR Editor Hendrik Hertzberg wrote, "The Bush administration still seems unwilling to exert itself to deflect the two sides from their headlong rush toward the abyss." In the same week, Martin Indyk, a key part of the Middle East apparat during the Clinton years, asked on The New York Times' op-ed page, "Does the Bush administration know what it's doing in the Middle East?" He answered his own question: No, of course not. Their policy is "erratic," full of "contradictions" and "mixed messages." But better a slightly erratic policy than a consistently wrong one.
What the Democrats and much of the press refuse to admit is that the Bush administration has fundamentally changed the assumptions underlying American policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. The first and most basic change is that Palestinian terrorism will not be rewarded with forced Israeli concessions. This puts an end to the incentive system that encouraged atrocity after atrocity. The second change is that, to secure U.S. help of any kind, the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) will be obliged to practice financial transparency- -which will either end its corruption and links to terrorism or make them plain for all to see. The third is that cease-fires must bind all the Palestinians and not just Israel. Even the militias close to the P.A. are balking at this last burden. So if the P.A. cannot produce a comprehensive end to the killing, it must pursue and incarcerate those many militiamen and women, pious and secular, intent on maintaining murder as a political instrument. And if it can't, or won't, the conclusion will be obvious: that the P.A., under whatever leadership, is not a vehicle that can assure its own constituents and Israel reasonable security.
Bush has countenanced the Ariel Sharon hard-line strategy: No quarter for terror. And though it is difficult for the peace processors to concede, the first real signs of Palestinian accommodation to the simple reality of Israel's existence have come in the wake of Sharon's pummeling. Almost every certified wise head proclaimed that Sharon's obsession with Arafat would only strengthen the terrorist's hand. This clich is now proven nonsense.
But related clichs are alive and well. And so last Saturday, Bill Keller wrote in The New York Times, "Some months ago I suggested that the road to Baghdad leads through Jerusalem, meaning that a more evenhanded good-faith American effort to get peace on track there would help our credibility with the Arab world when we take on Iraq." The assumptions behind this platitude governed American policy for close to a decade, and they have proven false, since American good-faith efforts produced ever-more violent and rejectionist Palestinians. The road to Jerusalem more likely leads through Baghdad than the reverse. Once the Palestinians see that the United States will no longer tolerate their hero Saddam Hussein, depressed though they may be, they may also come finally to grasp that Israel is here to stay and that accommodating to this reality is the one thing that can bring them the generous peace they require.
This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine. This article originally appeared in the September 9, 2002 issue of the magazine.