Talking to Bush
Arab leaders and opinion makers should come to terms with America's position of dominance and address sympathetic segments of American public opinion, writes Ibrahim Nafie
On my way to Washington to interview US President George W Bush, I was more conscious than ever of the seething climate in the Arab world. I too, of course, was outraged at the torture of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of American soldiers, the horrifying televised pictures which triggered new peaks of anti- American fury in a region already boiling over events in Palestine and Iraq.
US policy towards the Middle East has me, along with many others, completely baffled. The Bush administration has unleashed a multi-pronged assault on the Arab world, in blatant contravention of universally held principles of international conduct. This administration must realise that it is alienating Arab public opinion, as well as its Arab allies in the region, with its pro-Israeli policies, its actions in Iraq and its scheme for a "Greater Middle East".
With such sentiments in mind, I had a fairly clear idea of where the interview with the US president should head. Its primary objective would be to probe Bush's outlook on the critical issues facing this region, his forthcoming policy plans in light of recent developments and on the impact he believes his administration's policies will have. It would simultaneously attempt to cast into relief how his perceptions and expectations correspond to the analyses of foreign and Arab observers. The Al-Ahram interview accomplished these objectives, succeeding in supplying a useful body of information that will assist Arab decision-makers in formulating the policies and agendas that will best promote our interests.
On this subject, it cannot be stressed enough how much the Arabs need to reconsider their handling of US policies. It is time we wake up to the fact that the cacophony of tirades, diatribes and mutual recriminations we use to play to the gallery only plays into the hands of our enemies. The decisions taken by the president of the largest power in the world affect everyone, and these must, therefore, be dealt with soberly and responsibly.
One cannot help but to be struck by how poorly the Arabs understand American society, the mechanisms of its decision-making processes and the available channels for addressing public opinion there. Although we are admittedly encumbered by the post-11 September climate, the Arabs have not invested the full resources they have at their disposal in "engaging" influential forces in American society, especially those that share our concerns over the perils of American policy in the Middle East. There is a large and growing segment of American public opinion that opposes the US's blind support of Israel and views it as harmful to American interests. There is an even greater tide of opposition to the American occupation of Iraq, which is certain to gain momentum as a result of the shame and outrage stirred by images of the torture of Iraqi detainees.
We must reach out to these forces. More importantly, we must do so in a sensible way, instead of falling back on the demagoguery that leaves them prey to the campaigns of pro-Israeli organisations and the ultra right, as was the fate of Cynthia McKinney and Earl Hilliard. In declaring their support for Palestinian rights, these democratic congressional candidates were exposed to a vicious campaign of vilification that led to their defeat in the 2002 primary elections.
As we take a closer look at the workings of American society, the actions being undertaken by The Council for the National Interest give us a gauge of the currents in American public opinion on the Middle East and insights into possible avenues we can tap. This council, headed by Eugene Bird, believes that US interests in the Middle East are being jeopardised by Washington's overt or tacit support for Israeli aggression, settlement construction, land appropriations and other provocative violations of international law and resolutions. It has therefore drafted a legislative bill and is campaigning to secure the necessary support to bring it before Congress
The "Israel Accountability and Security Act of 2004," as it is called, calls upon Israel to "take serious and permanent steps to dismantle all existing settlements that lie outside of the 1967 border", "to immediately and unconditionally halt the construction of the so-called 'Separation Wall' in the West Bank and take serious and permanent steps to dismantle those sections of the wall that lie in the Occupied Territory", "to immediately and unconditionally end its policy of home demolition in the West Bank and Gaza Strip", and "to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme and enter into a regional Middle East Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons". In addition, it calls upon Israel to enter into "serious and unconditional" negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA), Syria and Lebanon. In the event that Israel refuses to comply with these conditions, the draft bill stipulates that the US would impose sanctions ranging from prohibiting the export of defence equipment to Israel to withholding economic aid (which currently amounts to $3 billion a year) and reducing US diplomatic relations.
Interestingly, a poll conducted by Zogby International for the council showed that 56 per cent of Americans agreed that Congress should pass an Israeli accountability act. Of course, even if the petition the council is circulating succeeds in gaining enough support to bring this act before Congress, there would still be an uphill battle to get it passed; all the more so given the current configuration of congressional opinion and lobbying groups. However, its very existence, along with the Zogby poll result, demonstrates that there are opportunities available to the Arabs to promote their concerns among the American public. It remains for them to summon the resolve to capitalise on these opportunities in the most effective manner and mobilise the necessary resources towards that end.
Returning now to the interview with President Bush, one of our concerns was to convey to him the anger his recent exchange of letters with Ariel Sharon stirred in Arab public opinion. The assurances he gave the Israeli prime minister conflict in text and spirit with the principles of international legality and the pertinent UN resolutions. His argument that "realities on the ground must be taken into account," in particular, flies in the face of those international provisions prohibiting the acquisition of land by force of arms as well as prohibiting alterations of such "realities" in occupied territories. The Arab sense of affront was all the more acute because Bush's assurances to Sharon constituted a blatant retraction on his pledge to realise the creation of an independent, geographically contiguous Palestinian state by 2005, and because they undermine the roadmap, of which the US is a co-sponsor, under which final status issues must be resolved through negotiations.
I believe Al-Ahram succeeded in driving this message home, and Bush's responses were accordingly conciliatory if not always to our liking. At the same time, they give Arabs some substance on which to plan their moves for the forthcoming phase. On the Palestinian issue, for example, Bush said that the deadline for founding a Palestinian state by 2005 is no longer realistic. Such a statement should galvanise us into action. One possibility is for Arab governments and the Arab League to mount a concerted campaign either to pressure Washington into retracting this statement or to agree to a new deadline as close as possible to the old one.
On the other hand, Bush did reaffirm his commitment to the roadmap. This should encourage the Arabs not to take any action that would lend legitimacy to Bush's assurances to Sharon, instead doing their utmost to get the roadmap back on track. In this regard, it would be useful to study and develop appropriate responses to the causes Bush cited as obstructive to progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state. That some of these causes pertain to conditions in the PA and the Palestinian factions should compel the Palestinians to get their house in order, draw up a clear and concrete agenda and clarify the ways in which Arab governments can support them in the advance of their cause.
On the question of Iraq, the Al-Ahram delegation succeeded in compelling the US president to apologise for the crimes of torture and degradation perpetrated against Iraqi detainees. Indeed, he reiterated his sorrow over this incident six times, as was reported in the US and international press. Unfortunately, he was not as explicit on the crucial question of the duration of the US occupation. American forces would remain in Iraq "for as long as necessary", he said. Clearly the Arabs must work together and along with other international powers to exact a commitment from Washington to withdraw its forces as soon as possible and to transfer the powers of the interim authority to the UN. That the US has turned again to the Security Council for a new resolution on Iraq presents the Arabs with the opportunity, in their summit to be convened in Tunis on 22 May, to adopt a collective stance on the substance of this resolution, so as to ensure the largest possible scope for the UN and the Arab League in the administration of Iraqi affairs in the interim period.
The Arabs still have plenty of opportunity to formulate and pursue a range of effective policies and agendas for the advancement of legitimate Arab rights and to halt the general tide of deterioration. We have relayed to the US president Arab views and sentiments and we have transmitted back the perceptions of the president of that nation that is Israel's most powerful source of support, that is currently occupying Iraq and that is pressing upon us a blueprint for reform of its own devising. It remains for the Arabs to absorb the facts, to adopt an objective and rational frame of mind in responding to them and to desist from the fits of apoplexy that afflict some whenever they hear an appeal to deal with the facts and ground their policies in realistic considerations.