In the aftermath of the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, pundits recalled another doomed Pentagon chief, Robert McNamara. After all, both were high-profile secretaries of defense who presided over controversial wars and were replaced by pragmatic figures as those wars began to appear unwinnable.
But another historical analogy is more applicable to George W. Bush’s decision to retire Rumsfeld: the firing of Alexander Haig by Ronald Reagan in 1982 against the backdrop of another bloody Middle East crisis, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
At the time, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and National Security Adviser William Clark accused Haig of giving Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon a green light to attack the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon. Haig’s replacement, George Shultz, whom Israel’s supporters suspected of having close ties to Saudi Arabia, followed the advice of “Arabists” in the State Department and initiated an Arab-Israeli peace plan. Haig’s resignation and his replacement by Shultz were thus perceived as a major blow to Israel’s position in Washington. America’s earlier policy of punishing Soviet allies in the Middle East by focusing on Israel as a “strategic asset” and treating with benign neglect its creeping annexation of the West Bank and Gaza was replaced by a renewed commitment to co-operate with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to revive the peace process. In addition to pressing the Israelis to stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, Shultz took the historic step of granting recognition to the PLO, thus creating the conditions for the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference and the ensuing Oslo Accords.
Viewed through the lens of the Haig analogy, Rumsfeld’s toppling could be seen as a change in the top national-security apparatus with the potential to transform American policy in the Middle East and adjust our relationship with Israel. More than any other senior administration official, with the exception of Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld embraced the neoconservative agenda of his top aides, with its emphasis on ousting Saddam Hussein as part of a campaign to remake the Middle East in a way that would be more hospitable to Israeli interests.
His successor, Robert Gates, is closely associated with the neocons’ nemesis—the administration of George H.W. Bush, in particular with the members of its foreign-policy team, including National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker. Gates also co-chaired with
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, a Council on Foreign Relations task force charged with recommending a U.S. policy for dealing with Iran. It called for direct American engagement with Iran and the use of fewer sticks and more carrots to convince the regime to stop enriching uranium and co-operate with the U.S. to end the insurgency in Iraq. Gates and Brzezinski also recommended discarding regime overthrow as a policy option and advocated the establishment of a Palestinian state as quickly as possible. They called on Washington to pressure Israel not to take any military action against the Iranian nuclear facilities because such actions would undermine American national interests.
Before joining the Bush administration, Gates was part of the Iraq Study Group chaired by Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. The committee has recommended new strategies for the war in Iraq, including entering into negotiations with Iran and Syria and renewing America’s effort to bring about negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as between Israel and Syria. If Shultz and the Reaganites succeeded in breaking down the American taboo on engagement with the PLO, can Gates and the post-Rumsfeld Bushies open the road to direct U.S. negotiations with Iran?
Israel’s 1982 operation to decimate the PLO in Lebanon led to American recognition of the Palestinian group, and the U.S. campaign to achieve regime change in Iraq and Iran could end up producing a détente between Washington and Tehran. Such is the irony of history. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon destabilized that country and energized its Shi’ite community in an anti-American and pro-Iranian direction, forcing Washington to rely on the moderate Arab states to repair its position in the Middle East. Likewise, the U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein helped strengthen the position of Iran and its Shi’ite allies, including those in Baghdad. Since the U.S. doesn’t have the military power or political will to achieve regime change in Iran, it recognizes that it now needs to engage Tehran in order to stabilize Iraq and the Middle East.
Indeed, the need to engage Iran along the lines proposed by the Gates-Brzezinski task force and the Baker-Hamilton group has become conventional wisdom among the realists in Washington, who are in the process of retaking control of U.S. foreign policy from the bankrupt neocons. None of the mainstream realpolitik types think that Washington should tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons. Instead, they call for using diplomatic power to prevent or at least slow Iran’s drive to acquire the bomb.
Bush administration officials insist that they are willing to negotiate directly with Iran, but they are also setting a pre-condition on such talks—Iranian suspension of uranium enrichment—and threatening to punish Tehran if it refuses to comply. Iran and most UN members contend that it should not be prevented from exercising its right as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Hence, Moscow and Beijing have rejected American proposals to impose sanctions on Iran, and there are no indications that France, Germany, or Britain will support a U.S. military attack on Iranian nuclear installations.
The Bush administration seems stuck in military and diplomatic deadends. A military strike would be ineffective because it would probably fail to completely destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities and would further alienate America’s allies. At the same time, Tehran rejects the Bush administration’s prerequisite for direct talks. The Iranian regime certainly has no incentive to accept the terms set by Washington since it recognizes that the Bush administration faces enormous constraints on its ability to punish “rogue states.” Moreover, Iran realizes that it has the power to sabotage the stabilization of Iraq and threaten U.S. interests in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. This seems to return the global superpower and the regional power to square one: the United States and Iran have no choice but to talk directly as part of a give-and-take diplomatic process that could produce a package deal. Washington would recognize the reality of Iran as a leading power in the Middle East, and Iran would submit to IAEA inspections, help the U.S. stabilize Iraq, and remain neutral if Israel and Palestine begin to negotiate a peace agreement. This is the kind of deal that Washington’s neo-realists could help achieve, especially if they can integrate it into a wider Middle East peace plan involving Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria.
But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted during his recent meeting with President Bush in Washington that the notion of engaging Iran was akin to appeasing Hitler’s Germany, and pressing Israel to deal with the Palestinians as a way of winning Arab and Muslim hearts had the makings of another Munich. “We have reached the pivotal moment of truth regarding Iran,” Olmert told a group of American Jewish activists in Los Angeles. “Our integrity will remain intact only if we prevent Iran’s devious goals, not if we try our best but fail.” The Israeli PM said that his government regarded Iran’s enrichment experiments as part of a program to develop a nuclear bomb, a development that, he argued, would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and threaten the core interests of America and the West.
Olmert’s view is roughly shared by President Bush, the surviving neocons in the administration, and by leading Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, including presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton and John McCain. In fact, according to Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, President Bush told French President Jacques Chirac during a recent meeting that the possibility of Israel striking Iran’s nuclear installations should not be ruled out and that if such an attack were to take place, he would “understand it.” This was not the first time the president has hinted that he would not veto in advance an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear centers. When Israel struck Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the Reagan administration joined the other members of the UN Security Council in condemning the Israeli action. The “understanding” tone of the comments made by Bush implies that his administration will not follow suit.
Michael Oren, an Israeli historian affiliated with Shalem, a think tank that promotes the Likud agenda, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Olmert came to Washington “in search of a green light” from Bush to launch a preemptive strike against Iran. According to Oren, Olmert discovered that “bogged down in Iraq and hemorrhaging political capital at home,” Bush was unable to undertake a unilateral attack against Iran “or even to endorse an Israeli one.” That was “bad news” for the Israeli PM, who had “hoped to secure a hard-and-fast timetable for interdicting Iran’s nuclear program first by diplomacy and then, if that failed, by force.” Nevertheless, concluded Oren, “the light Mr. Olmert received in Washington was probably not green, but neither was it flashing red.”
American officials continue to maintain in public that Washington will not sanction unilateral Israeli action against Iran, and according to the Jerusalem Post, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told French officials that she would not be willing “to show understanding for a possible Israeli strike against Iran” in the same way that her boss promised. But the mixed signals coming out of Washington, and the fact that top officials have refrained from stating clearly that they would veto a strike, have led to speculation in Europe that there is some political logic behind what looks like confusion among the Bushies. Is it possible that Bush and Cheney, backed by the remaining neoconservative foot soldiers, are hoping that Israel will soon remake the Osirak ’81 production in Iran? Such an Israeli action could serve not only as preemptive action against Iran but also against the battalions of realist forces led by Baker, Hamilton, Gates, and Brzezinski, who threaten what remains of the neocon agenda. Indeed, as Oren put it, the ramifications of an Israeli attack on Iran “are certain to affect America as well.” If Israel attacks Iran, and especially if Israeli jets pass through Iraq’s American-controlled airspace, the perception in the Middle East and elsewhere will be that while Israel ostensibly acted alone, “the U.S. acts with it,” as Oren explained.
But he argues that only conspiracy theorists would arrive at such a conclusion. Consider, however, that U.S. presidents, including Bush, have repeatedly declared their opposition to any move by the government of Taiwan to declare its formal independence from China, recognizing that such a move could trigger a war that would almost certainly involve the United States. Why then aren’t President Bush and his aides announcing that they would not support an Israeli strike on Iran that would almost certainly force the U.S. into another war, further destabilize Iraq, and increase anti-American violence around the globe? One doesn’t have to stand on the grassy knoll to speculate that such developments would not only benefit Israel but could also halt the erosion of neoconservatives’ power and resuscitate their dream of U.S. military hegemony in the Middle East.
Hopes of an Israeli military action breathe life into the neocon geo-strategic corpse that was buried in Iraq and recall similar wishful thinking on the eve of the American decision to green-light the Israeli attack on Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Lebanon last summer. From the office of the vice president to the Pentagon to AEI and The Weekly Standard, officials, wonks, and scribblers fantasized that it was going to be the Six Day War all over again, that Israel would annihilate the Shi’ite militia and Hassan Nasrallah in the same way that it had left the Egyptian military rotting in Sinai and devastated President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1967. This would strike a major blow to Hezbollah’s patrons, Syria and Iran, and would shift the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of Israel and its sponsor, the United States, which would then be able to regain the momentum in Iraq. Before we knew it, we would have another tipping point in Mesopotamia.
The Israeli operation in Lebanon did serve as a tipping point—by transforming Hezbollah into the most popular anti-Israeli and anti-American force in the Middle East and by shifting the balance of power in the region even further in the direction of Iran. Now just six months after Israel’s fiasco in Lebanon and as the American disaster in Iraq continues to unfold, the usual suspects are once again daydreaming that a lame duck American president will approve military action by a politically drained Israeli prime minister against the leading bad guy in the neoconservative script.
A few days of Israeli bombing may or may not retard the Iranian nuclear program, but it would impede any plan by the realists to engage Iran in an effort to stabilize Iraq, start withdrawing U.S. troops, and change the direction of American policy in the Middle East.
Leon Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.