Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic is emblematic of liberals’ flawed thinking about the Middle East. He writes that Libya is a “seventh-tier” national security issue for the United States. He lists Afghanistan/Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Al-Qaeda in th Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and Tunisia and “Israeli-Arab” peace ahead of Libya. On the last two he writes:
The Arab upheavals of 2011 suggest that most Arabs are mainly concerned with their own debased economic and political state, rather than the oppression of Palestinians. Nevertheless, forward motion on at least an interim deal between Palestinians and Israel would lower the temperature in the Middle East to a significant degree, and ignoring the problem will only make it worse, both for Palestinians and for Israelis, and for the U.S. as well. . . .
Libya. As an urgent humanitarian problem, Libya ranks up there with Bahrain, Yemen, Haiti, and the Ivory Coast, perhaps even ahead of them. It is atrocious, what this lunatic is doing to his own people. Like most Americans, I would dearly love to see Muammar Qaddafi removed from power, though I have no idea what would replace him (I fear, of course, that what would replace him would be a hostile, al Qaeda-leaning regime, unlike Qaddafi’s in recent years). But Libya poses no threat to the national security of the United States. There are good reasons for the U.S. to join the fight against Qaddafi (and not just the humanitarian reason, but because removing him would give hope to citizens of other despotic countries, including Syria), but not at the expense of the six problems outlined above.
This is misguided in multiple respects.
For starters, the argument that “forward motion on at least an interim deal between Palestinians and Israel would lower the temperature in the Middle East to a significant degree” is belied by the facts and the history. The turmoil in the region surrounding Israel has nothing to do with Israel. Gaddafi wouldn’t stop killing Libyans if there were an “interim deal.” Yemen’s regime would still be on the verge of collapse. Moreover, it’s not like the Obama administration hasn’t tried — and failed. The Palestinian Authority is not prepared and not capable of making a deal. Right now Hamas is busy cracking down on peaceful protesters, as media and human rights groups have reported. Human Rights Watch (usually a dependable vilifier of Israel) over the weekend put out a statement:
Hamas police violently dispersed several peaceful demonstrations in Gaza beginning March 15, 2011, including sealing off access to public squares and universities and beating trapped demonstrators.
“It is a dismal reflection on Hamas that it is violently cracking down on peaceful demonstrators calling for political reconciliation,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This is just the latest instance of Hamas assaulting Palestinians’ fundamental freedoms.”
It’s going to be a good long time until Palestinians are ready for peace with each other, let alone with Israel. And in case you had any doubts, we have this report today:
Rumors are circulating in the Palestinian areas that UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency) is planning to introduce Holocaust education into the Palestinian UNRWA-run schools. Following these rumors, two Palestinian dailies have publicized strong opposition to teaching Palestinian children about the Holocaust:
But Goldberg’s mistake is more fundamental than simply unwarranted faith in the Palestinians’ readiness for peace. What he does not appreciate is that our credibility and influence to work on all the other problems in the region and in Afghanistan as well will be influenced by what we do or don’t do in Libya. Hamid Karzai wants to see if we have staying power. Opposition groups in Bahrain want to see our level of tolerance for autocratic regimes. And most of all, Iran is looking for every opening and opportunity to assert its reach. Even the Obama team has realized this, according to the Wall Street Journal:
White House concerns that Iran’s hand is being strengthened by recent events in the Middle East is central to its response to the turmoil, say U.S., European, and Arab officials. . . .
“Everything the U.S. is doing to respond in the Middle East is colored by how this could hurt or help Iran,” said a European official who has met with senior U.S. officials in recent weeks. “This might be an overreaction, but it’s how people are viewing things.”
Frankly, that is not overreaction; it is the first sign that the administration understands that others are watching how we respond to each of these hot spots. What we do in one place affects how we are perceived everywhere.