Lame duck season
Bush says he wants to talk, but no one knows about what, writes Gamil Mattar*
Arab and European nations praised Bush's call to "get talks moving" on the Middle East. In spite of the ostensible resolve that characterised this initiative, if we are to take the advance work and surrounding fanfare at face value, and the immediate enthusiastic response from officials in many world capitals, one can still not help but to wring one's hands.
Would the call that Bush issued in his "international" press conference best be described as an appeal or a decree? When I put this question to various people, I received conflicting and often hesitant and equivocal answers. Apparently, the question caught them off guard. In all events, the Arabs, as usual, and some Europeans behaved as though they had received orders from on high and barely blinked an eye when Bush, without consulting anyone, appointed Condoleezza Rice to steer the talks.
I asked whether this appeal or decree would set into motion a multilateral meeting or an international conference. Eventually, it gelled that what Bush had in mind was something in between: not an international conference at a regional or international level, but something just more than a multilateral meeting. Equally unclear is when and where this event is to take place. It could be as early as this autumn or as late as next spring. Possible venues are Washington, Sharm El-Sheikh and Jerusalem, but certainly not Brussels or Moscow.
Other commentators raised a very legitimate question: What points will participants discuss? They repeated this query until they went hoarse. Then it finally dawned on them that there is no agenda. No specific time or place, plus no designated level or scope of participation, plus no clear agenda, equals a certain insincerity of intent. But hope springs eternal in some quarters.
Among the Bush entourage, the hope is to disseminate the impression that this administration is dedicated to solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a dedication that has been conspicuously lacking since the moment Bush took office.
For Israel the hope is not to see an international conference of any sort, for fear that the Europeans and Russians might begin to think -- even for the space of a single conference -- that they have a right to take part in solving the conflict or interfering in some way. So it is counting on Bush to keep a cap on things, now that Bush has taken the advice of Tony Blair, who hopes for some movement to smooth the rugged and hostile terrain that awaits him in the Middle East, and similar advice from Rice, who must be the most distraught member of Washington's ruling clique after having observed the dismal failure of every design she has engineered since she first took it upon her shoulders to instruct Bush in the arts and sciences of international relations and foreign policy.
The Europeans have never made it a secret that their most cherished wish, as far as international policy is concerned, is for the US to bring them on board as effective contributors to a Middle East peace conference. Nor have they concealed the deep anxiety that prevails among political and religious officials over the seething anger in nearby Arab and Islamic countries. This anxiety is behind their eagerness not to let pass any opportunity for a conference on the Middle East, whether in the framework of Euro-Med, or the Greater Middle East, or the Quartet. On one of these occasions, they believe, they'll be able to slip by the obstructions laid by Israel and its supporters in Washington and secure a solid footing in the arena of Middle East conflict resolution. I must confess that Solana surprised me twice since Bush proclaimed his call. First, he did not issue an immediate response, which suggests that the call sparked some controversy within the EU Commission. Second, he waited until the EU foreign ministers met to proclaim the EU's support, but with the qualification that "the idea of a conference has always been on the agenda of the International Quartet, even if the time, agenda and participants of such a conference have not yet been announced." Such a carefully worded statement is laden with significance, not the least of which is the lack of confidence in the seriousness and viability of the Bush initiative and, perhaps, a mistrust of the motives behind it.
The Arabs' perpetual hope -- or at least the hope they perpetually declare -- is that, one day, the American president will awake to the realisation that Washington's staunchly pro-Israeli policy is wreaking incredible damage on American interests and that the time has come to summon the resolve to promote a just and lasting settlement to the Arab- Israeli conflict in accordance with relevant UN resolutions. True, time and various circumstances have taken their toll on this hope. But even in its more modest formulas, it is to Israel one of the most irksome facets of Arab behaviour. The hope is renewed with every change in the American presidency and acquires fresh impetus with every failure in US policy and with every international conference. It could almost be said to a form of resistance open to Arab governments that are not strong enough to resist in any other way, because it defies the conviction of those who have put themselves in charge of diffusing the Palestinian cause and entrenching Israel's regional hegemony that Arab leaders should not so much as dare to entertain dreams that reside outside of the realm of the possible, which has some very strict limitations.
It is little wonder, therefore, that Israel was so quick to slap down the notion, which had been originally publicised and presumed, that Tony Blair would act as an intermediary between the Arabs and Israel. That would risk taking matters beyond the boundaries of what Israel and the US have planned for this stage, which is to isolate Gaza, eliminate Hamas, crush all forms of resistance and impose on the Palestinians, Arabs and international community a Palestinian leadership that subordinates itself to Israel in word and deed, in exchange for some reciprocal perks and pats on the back, partly in the form of financial and military support.
The Bush initiative is a sign of the onset of a familiar season: the approaching end of a president's term. With this administration, the season has come a little earlier than usual, for reasons we know all too well, and, for the same reasons, we should probably prepare ourselves for developments in the coming months that will not necessarily be to our liking.
Never before in modern US history has a crisis in the executive and a national or constitutional crisis struck at the same time. Nixon had Watergate and Clinton had Lewinsky-gate, but the constitutional order was strong. Today, the Bush clique is mired in scandal at a time when the US is facing its worst constitutional crisis in two or more centuries. It is a combination that is fraught with surprises: political, military and otherwise.
Never before in modern US history has a secretary of state with such a sterling academic reputation had to return to her alma mater with her tail between her legs. But it appears that this is how Rice will be returning to Stanford, unless she can do something about it. Even Henry Kissinger can still boast of his laurels for having extricated American forces from Vietnam without having to sign an official declaration of defeat. Rice, by contrast, has so far failed to salvage anything from Iraq. Still, history may eventually have pity on her. After all, she had to serve perhaps the most stubborn, ideologically zealous and religiously fanatic of presidents in history in one of the most imperialistically ambitious, militarily hawkish and arrogant and racist administrations the US has ever had. In all events, Condi has little time left to score an accomplishment.
Israel, meanwhile, holds the record as perhaps the only country to have benefited from Bush and America's crises. It benefited from 11 September and the subsequent hate campaigns against Arab Americans and students of Arab or Muslim origin; the intensification of animosities between various nationalities, ethnic groups and religious sects; and, of course, the so-called war against terrorism, even though terrorism claimed a far heavier toll in many other countries, such as Russia, Spain, some Arab countries, Britain, India, Kenya, Tanzania and Indonesia. Israel, too, was perhaps the only country to benefit from the war against Iraq and the dissolution of that state, and from the psychological and political siege against Iran. Now it is undoubtedly praying that Cheney succeeds in crowning America's disasters with a full fledged war against Iran, or that it receives permission to act against Iran on its own, with the blessings from Washington and some of Israel's or Iran's neighbours.
In times of crisis, countries variously puff a lot of hot air or act very irrationally and recklessly, as the US did after 11 September, precipitating an even worse crisis, such as the calamity of Iraq. When people in power are in a corner, they, too, can be desperate, and desperation appears to be the primary impulse behind Bush's decision to get talks moving on the Middle East.
* The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.