Monday, June 10, 2002

I like Friedman's new column about the conflict between the different "sides" of the Bush administration, and the need for the U.S. to start throwing its weight around in order to solve this conflict. Conservatives often complain that liberals accuse the U.S. of isolationism when it does nothing and playing "globo-cop" when it actually acts, but that's not quite accurate: the problem liberals usually have is that the U.S. acts unilaterally and usually only for its short-term (or most simplistic) domestic interests. Too often the governments avoids either benefiting its long term interests or the interests of its allies if it looks like it would require a degree of foreign involvement and risk beyond the absolute minimum possible. War or no, however, that particular strategy won't work in the Middle East, and the sort of "foreign policy" that many conservatives have been supporting lately (squashing Iraq) shows little sign of actually changing anything.

There is another factor in why the U.S. is accused of being ham-handed in its foreign policy, however, and it's also the only issue I disagree with Mr. Friedman on: the status of Yassir Arafat. Friedman asserts that "[t]he right way to shrink, or eliminate, Mr. Arafat is for Palestinians to do it themselves, and the only way they are going to do it is if they see him standing in the way of a real opportunity". For some reason, a lot of American commentators seem to think that if only certain conditions can come true, then any given group will naturally come around to their way of thinking and do what they wish.

Sadly, politics and statecraft is not yet as predictable as "a+b+c=the people get fed up, bad leader gone". Many Americans may think this is commonplace due to their own experiences and their identification with the Roman Republic (who also threw out their kings). As much as some pundits like to think that you only need to set up the right conditions and the desired conclusion will naturally follow, it simply isn't that easy. This happened in Iraq: the United States kept on thinking that sooner or later the people would overthrow him, missing the obvious point that "the people" only rarely overthrow a dictator who holds all the cards, and may even support him if he's seen to be a better choice or a closer ally than another, more ominous threat.

So it is with Arafat: despite the grievances that many Palestinians have, I don't see any reason why they should dump him simply because the Americans are really, really, really hoping they are. Without an alternative there is only chaos, and most of the alternatives probably seem worse to the Palestinians, even the ones that the United States would support. (And, of course, this ignores the xenophobia that taints the region; the United States' and Israel's opposition to Arafat goes a long way towards explaining his popularity and longevity).

This, then, is one of the biggest problems with American foreign policy: this expectation that American conditions (a monarchic or despotic leader and an oppressed population) will lead to American results (a successful revolution and a stable democratic government), and the belief that it is an intrinsic and punishable flaw in a population which doesn't follow this pattern (again, witness Iraq). Friedman's point is valid: it takes more than annoyance at a leader to get results.. sometimes, raw power politics is needed. He needs to remember, however, that Israel and the United States' dislike for Yassir Arafat will not necessarily lead to a Palestinian rejection of Mr. Arafat. Much as they'd like to hope, it's by no means certain.

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