Obama, Hagel, State Department stuck in 1970’s

Lining up to buy gas in New York City, 1973

Lining up to buy gas in New York City, 1973

The very first post that I wrote in this blog back in 2006 was about the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group and its non-sequitur assertion of the “linkage theory.” You will recall that the war in Iraq was going badly at the time, with Sunni and Shiite ‘insurgents’ killing large numbers of each other’s people as well as American soldiers. Here’s part of what they said:

Iraq cannot be addressed effectively in isolation from other major regional issues, interests, and unresolved conflicts. To put it simply, all key issues in the Middle East—the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism—are inextricably linked. In addition to supporting stability in Iraq, a comprehensive diplomatic offensive—the New Diplomatic Offensive—should address these key regional issues. By doing so, it would help marginalize extremists and terrorists, promote U.S. values and interests, and improve America’s global image…

The United States will not be able to achieve its goals in the Middle East unless the United States deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment by the United States to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace on all fronts: Lebanon, Syria, and President Bush’s June 2002 commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

This was followed by a series of specific recommendations to “solve” the conflict, by forcing Israel to give up all territory it took control of in 1967, including the Golan, Judea and Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem. Of course this didn’t happen, and the bleeding in Iraq was stanched by the ‘surge’, the temporary deployment of additional troops plus the strategy of buying the support of indigenous Sunni elements in Iraq.

The opportunistic invocation of the linkage theory during the Iraq war crisis was yet another example of its persistence, despite the fact that even before the “Arab Spring” there was no reason to believe that it was true. Today it has been further falsified by events, as Jeffrey Goldberg made clear recently in a discussion of Chuck Hagel, another linkage theory advocate:

Come with me on a quick tour of the greater Middle East. The Syrian civil war? Unrelated to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. The slow disintegration of Yemen? Unrelated. Chaos and violence in Libya? Unrelated. Chaos and fundamentalism in Egypt? The creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank would not have stopped the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, nor would it have stopped the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Terrorism in Algeria? Unrelated. The Iranian nuclear program? How would the creation of a Palestinian state have persuaded the Iranian regime to cease its pursuit of nuclear weapons? Someone please explain. Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq? The unrest in Bahrain? Pakistani havens for al-Qaeda affiliates? All unrelated.

I’ll add that with regard to Iran, the theory is not only wrong, it is backwards — rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict influencing Iran to misbehave, Iran exacerbates the conflict by financing Palestinian terrorists!

As recently as 2010, President Obama professed belief in some form of the linkage theory, and Goldberg correctly asks,

Hagel wants to lead the U.S. Defense Department. I would like to know if he still believes in linkage. More important, I would like to know if Obama is still captive to this same, flawed concept.

The linkage theory was always a good excuse to pressure Israel, because it was an appeal to American interests, not Arab or Palestinian ones. This was especially useful between 1973 and the 1990’s when Arabs and Palestinians had a very poor image in the US, being associated with astronomical oil prices and terrorism. Since Oslo, it’s become more acceptable to say things like the following (from Obama’s notorious 2009 Cairo speech):

On the other hand [compared to the Holocaust!], it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.

Suddenly, it’s all about caring for the Palestinians. But why are the Palestinians in particular so deserving of help compared to other groups around the world, many of whom are much worse off?

Since 1967 and especially since 1973, US policy has consistently aimed to drive Israel back to 1949 lines. The arguments publicly made for this policy are intended to convince, but I don’t believe are actually the driving force behind it. There is of course the professional dislike of the Jewish state found in the State Department, going back to 1948 and Secretary Marshall and before. But I think there is something more concrete, too.

After the 1973 war, the Arab members of OPEC announced an embargo of oil to the US and other countries they deemed to have supported Israel:

Implementation of the embargo, and the changing nature of oil contracts, set off an upward spiral in oil prices that had global implications. The price of oil per barrel doubled, then quadrupled, leading to increased costs for consumers world-wide and to the potential for budgetary collapse in less stable economies. Since the embargo coincided with a devaluation of the dollar, a global recession appeared imminent. U.S. allies in Europe and Japan had stockpiled oil supplies and thus had a short term cushion, but the longer term possibility of high oil prices and recession created a strong rift within the Atlantic alliance. European nations and Japan sought to disassociate themselves from the U.S. Middle East policy. The United States, which faced growing oil consumption and dwindling domestic reserves and was more reliant on imported oil than ever before, had to negotiate an end to the embargo from a weaker international position. To complicate the situation, OPEC had linked an end to the embargo to successful U.S. efforts to create peace in the Middle East.

Needless to say, the US promised to give the Arabs what they wanted, and the embargo was lifted. But since then, we have kept our promise to our Arab ‘allies’, even as they have less and less influence on the price and supply of oil. Saudi lobbying and influence (directly and via oil companies) have effectively held our feet to the fire.

Now that the US is closer to energy independence, importing less oil now than at any time since 1987 (and more of that from Canada than anywhere else), the Saudis do not have anywhere near the leverage that they had in 1973.

Why don’t our policies reflect this?

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2 Responses to “Obama, Hagel, State Department stuck in 1970’s”

  1. Robman says:

    Your closing question opens a huge can of worms.

    I don’t have the time right now – and this venue may not allow me the space – to do justice to your question.

    Briefly, I would say that the “lesson” many of the Vietnam generation carrried with them from that time, is that American interests are best served by an isolationist foreign policy. If we ‘get involved’ in this or that regional conflict, we will only get ourselves into trouble.

    A corollary to this way of thinking is that regional problems that impact us are in no small part due to our various interventions; WE are the reason there is a problem in the first place, why people are mad at us.

    This in turn reflects what I would call a kind of “left wing national chauvinism”. In this worldview, because America is the richest and most powerful country in the world by far, it naturally follows that everything that happens in the world – particulary anything bad – is due to something America did or didn’t do.

    So, for example, if the Iranians are all mad at us, calling us the “Great Satan”, etc., that’s because we buggered an election or something like that back in the 50s, and so they are understandably seeking revenge on us for this (never mind that we overthrew the deomcratically elected leader of Chile and installed an oppressive dictator there as recently as the 70s; funny how the Chileans of today are perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones, not carrying out any sort of campaign of terror against us or or allies, and happy to sell us all the wine and salmon we care to buy).

    Supported by the Saudi lobby, among other similar interests, this line of thinking is encouraged among elites here. And it isn’t so hard to understand as a psychological dynamic: If WE are the ones who are at fault, if it is up to US to change our behavior and then everything will be just dandy, that is a lot easier to do than confronting some outside actor and getting THEM to change.

    In other words, it is a highly rationalized form of cowardice.

    And that has defined large segments of our foreign policy elites, along with virtually all of our academic community, since the time of Vietnam. Our defeat in Vietnam appeared to vindicate their world view, and they have perpetrated it with succeeding generations via their lock on academia, and even our popular culture and news media.

    So, what is easier to do in the near term? Confronting an enemy, Iran, which would require the expenditure of blood and treasure of another war, or sacrificing our ally, Israel, on the altar of appeasement? The path of least resistance, in the short term, that is the coward’s path.

    And of course, this isn’t simply about Iran. For example, the Saudis would actually have been pleased as punch if Obama had done something about them. But the larger problem is our war against Islamist fundamentalist-inspired terrorism. And that is something that emanates from Saudia and much of the rest of the Arab/Moslem world of SW Asia/NE Africa. To confront this decisively, we’ll have to call their bluff and attack them directly. We’d win but it would cost us in the near term. Hardly anyone in a position of responsibility nowadays wants to do that. It is so much easier to accept the Arab whining at face value, and go on with putting the squeeze on those intransigent Israelis, who stubbornly refuse to commit suicide.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    Obama’s prematurely ballyhooed trip to Israel is really a regional tour which will include many of the usual suspects, including ‘the West Bank’. It does then sound like a preparation for renewed ‘peace talks’. It is scheduled for the spring. But the spring is supposedly when Iran’s nuclear problem will pass the red line, or one of the red lines (Since there already have been so many). So it may be as Robman suggests that the trip is a way of ducking the Iranian issue. But this of course is speculation.
    I always wonder how any leader feels after a ‘regional tour’ in which one learns from such great American allies as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that the reason for every problem in the world is ‘Israeli oppression of the Palestinians’. To be a true friend of Israel requires real courage and the ability to know that the one who is right is already a ‘majority of one’.