A tragedy of errors drives US policy in the Middle East

22 June 2007

It has been a terrible summer so far for US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The first public, high-level meeting between US and Iranian officials in Baghdad last month was overshadowed by Vice-President Cheney’s belligerent earlier statements delivered from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf and a new anti-Israel outburst by President Ahmadinejad.

In Gaza, Hamas fighters have crushed their rivals from Fatah. The violence also led to the end of the Palestinian coalition that Rice hoped would resume negotiations with Israel. That is two dead policy initiatives in less than four weeks.



The secretary of state’s capabilities have been called into question by an interview published on the Wall Street Journal website on 11 June in which Rice said that Iran had ‘a political system I don’t understand very well.’ She then went on to admit that her entire department was no better informed. ‘We don’t really have people who know Iran inside our own system,’ she said. ‘The last generation of Foreign Service officers who served in Iran are now retired.’



‘We don’t have Farsi speakers any longer in the service. I mean, we really are not well positioned,’ Rice continued in the witless manner of someone trying to dig themselves out of a hole. ‘We are also operating from something of a disadvantage in that we don’t really have very good veracity or a feel for the place.’



So this is the depressing news: one of the most influential figures in the White House is attempting to lead US policy to Iran in a fog of ignorance. Isn’t there a law barring useless people from jobs that can lead to people’s deaths?



There was perhaps a whiff of presidential politicking in the Journal’s handling of Rice’s botched interview. She is being tipped as a possible presidential candidate. Republican moderates are backing Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney and are eager to kill off a Rice challenge before it has begun. Using her own words to show Rice’s defects is an effective way of achieving that goal.



The former New York mayor is making his own brainless contribution to the debate about US Middle East policy in emails sent to readers of the Jerusalem Post’s website. I need only quote its first sentence: ‘As a longtime friend and staunch supporter of Israel during my entire public life, I want to share with you my deep concern for the Jewish state and ask for your support as I campaign to become the next president of the United States.’



Politicians who wrap themselves in their country’s flag are called scoundrels. But what do you call one like Giuliani who wraps himself in another’s?



He is not alone. American politicians of every political stripe are conflating domestic and international policy to raise campaign funds and win votes. It sometimes seems almost every reasonable American aspiration depends upon unquestioning support for Israel and the war against terror.



America’s allies used to fear a US retreat into isolationism. That was in part the excuse used to defend Britain’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If London had not backed Washington, the argument went, America would have retreated from world affairs leaving its friends exposed and vulnerable.



But there now seems to be the opposite problem. Popular and influential American politicians, like US senator Joe Liebermann, are campaigning for more, not fewer, foreign adventures. Every congressman, however humble, has a policy position about Iran and North Korea.



There is no simple explanation for this seachange in US electoral politics. But the old story of politicians seeking external threats at a time of internal divisions may be a factor. The tensions in America between the rich and poor, the majority and ethnic minorities, town and country and the religious and the secular appear to be intensifying. This is expressing itself in bitter polarisation between the two principal parties. Diverting attention to distant enemies

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