Thursday, October 28, 2004

Taking Your Eye Off the Ball

I read The New York Review of Books for the now-scarce reviews and scholarly articles, not the knee-jerk NYC-fashionable lefty politics, but this week's multi-authored "The Election and America's Future" is riveting stuff.

I do have one suggestion: skip Norman Mailer's vitriol and zero in on the two Englishmen, Alan Ryan and Ian Buruma, and one American, Brian Urquhart. Each manages to touch on much more acute problems those suggested by typical antiwar rhetoric. Buruma writes both lucidly and with feeling on the wane of his (and the world's) "Americophilia," the love of Americans and all things American. More and more, Buruma writes,

I hear the clich├ęs of my own Americophilia being spouted in ways that sound false, as though I'm listening to a favorite tune being distorted by a faulty player. The rhetoric of freedom, fighting tyranny, and liberating the enslaved peoples of the world speaks louder than ever. But too often it is laced with a fear of foreigners, with a nasty edge of chauvinism and a surly belligerence. The US has always had mood swings from active intervention abroad to sour isolation. What appears to be the current mood in Washington is a peculiar mixture of both: a desire to fix the world alone, whether the world likes it or not.
The loss of American prestige in the world may be the inevitable consequence of being the world's only military and economic superpower, but the policies of the last four years have certainly given the countermyth of America -- the religious, uncouth, greedy, warmongering provincials -- new life, not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. I don't know what we can do to supplement this loss -- it might just be, after many temptations and close calls, our country's final fall from grace.

Ryan's and Urquhart's essays might be even more timely. Ryan conveniently summarizes the strongest cases against the Bush administration in a single pithy paragraph:
The claim that reelecting President Bush will make the world safer—any part of the world, including the United States—would be laughable if the Iraqi civilian death toll was not 15,000 and rising, if peace for Israelis and Palestinians was not further away than ever, and if international cooperation on everything from global warming to fighting AIDS had not been deeply damaged by the last four years of a know-nothing presidency. If it is a joke, it is in the worst possible taste.
Urquhart also gets right to the point, adeptly shifting the problem of international terrorism in the name of Islam away from the overfocalized (if not overhyped) Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The real crisis in the middle East was not and may still no longer be Iraq, or even Iran or Saudi Arabia, but Israel and Palestine. Urquhart writes:
Allowing that situation to sink further into violence and despair while publicly favoring one side over the other has made the prospect of peace far more remote for both Israelis and Palestinians. It has also provided a powerful anti-American boost for the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism that are now our most immediate threat.
Later, Urquhart quotes Richard Clarke:
Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals' values, we did exactly what al-Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We delivered to al-Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable and made it difficult for friendly Islamic governments to be seen working closely with us.
In his op-ed in the Oct. 25 Times, former Carter official Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a similar Iraq-Israel-Arab-Europe connection, and even offers a potential solution:
A grand American-European strategy would have three major prongs. The first would be a joint statement by the United States and the European Union outlining the basic principles of a formula for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, with the details left to negotiations between the parties. Its key elements should include no right of return; no automatic acceptance of the 1967 lines but equivalent territorial compensation for any changes; suburban settlements on the edges of the 1967 lines incorporated into Israel, but those more than a few miles inside the West Bank vacated to make room for the resettlement of some of the Palestinian refugees; a united Jerusalem serving as the capitals of the two states; and a demilitarized Palestinian state with some international peacekeeping presence.
The second and third "prongs" are European involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq and opening talks with Iran to get them to give up their nuclear ambitions, but the securing of a lasting peace in Israel is the fuel that makes the machine go.

However -- and this is a big however -- with Yasser Arafat near death and headed out of his compound for the first time in more than two years, Palestine may be ready to descend into a level of chaos we still lack the imagine to comprehend. The political and security situation there has steadily deteriorated without a word on the subject from the Bush administration; for the Kerry camp, anything even involving the word Israel is a political hot potato too hot to touch. The American public, too, has by large stopped paying attention to Palestine, resigned to continued --- what?

It's enough to make one wonder when Kerry talks about the Bush administration having taken its eye off the ball to go after Iraq if we've all managed to lose the big picture. And also: if Kerry wins and Arafat dies on November 2 -- what will happen?

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