On 14 October, the American Enterprise Institute hosted one of its most important, and timely, conferences to address the subject of ‘Rethinking the Middle East.’ Comments by many of the most experienced and thoughtful policy-practitioners in the field demonstrated that not only was there an urgent need to rethink the premises and prescriptions of American policy regarding the region; some basic thinking about first principles is also in order. These observations demand all the more immediate consideration in light of the danger that the Arafat-Netanyahu summit meeting now underway at the Wye Plantation is rooted in mistaken assumptions, motivated by dubious impulses and virtually certain to jeopardize any prospects for real peace and stability in the volatile Mideast region.
Richard Perle Lays About Him
Among the many high points of this symposium was a luncheon address by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle. Drawing upon decades of first-hand experience at high-levels of the legislative and executive branches, Secretary Perle — who is currently a Resident Fellow at AEI — sharply criticized the present Administration’s Middle East policies. He also urged that those informing and executing those policies be held accountable.
Toward this end, Mr. Perle called for: a congressional review of U.S. Middle East policy and an audit of the conduct of the Central Intelligence Agency’s bureaucracy responsible for the Near East; the resignation of its director, Stephen Richter; and an investigation into whether Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has lied about her role in blocking UNSCOM efforts to penetrate Saddam Hussein’s vast weapons of mass destruction-concealment program and, if so, her resignation, as well. Highlights of Mr. Perle’s remarks included the following:
- "Are the resources of our government adequate to the challenge of dealing effectively with the region. The short answer is ‘No’, emphatically ‘No.’"
- "But because I believe you cannot separate institutions charged with implementing policy from the policies themselves…I am even less favorably inclined toward the policies than I am toward the institutions that are presently struggling with implementing them. A bad, weak, indecisive and vacillating policy would put impossible demands on event he most effective and energetic set of implementing institutions."
- "If the [CIA] is incapable of judging itself with a degree of objectivity, then the task [of investigating the bases of policy] becomes almost impossible and one is forced to look at the effects of intelligence operations and whether they have been successful of not."
- "I began to realize [back at the time of the fall of the Shah of Iran] that we had a problem with [the Near East division] of the CIA….When you look at events following the failure to understand what we were getting into when Khomeini came to power; remember that rise was greeted with enthusiasm in parts of the U.S. government who were improperly advised as to the implications. When you look at the failure to anticipate Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; when you look at the failure to understand the extent of Saddam’s progress in acquiring weapons of mass destruction — when you look at the record, it is chronic and it is unbroken and it is one failure after another."
- "As far as I can tell…there has been no real audit of the performance of Middle East operations at the CIA, either on the analytical or operational side."
- "[Of the many bad ideas currently emanating from the CIA’s Near East apparatus], the most important…is the belief that the only way to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s governance is by organizing a coup d’etat against him. Well, I’ve got news for you. So much better that every effort has failed, in many cases with significant losses of life. And despite numerous failures, the most recent of which is still very much alive in the memory of a great many people, we continue to pursue that course." Saddam is a lot better at resisting coups than we are at perpetrating them.
- "Not only is the institution wedded to the idea that we are capable of encouraging a coup that might bring Saddam down, but it is so committed to that view that it has resisted all alternative suggestions, including what I believe to be the most obvious, which is that we get behind the opposition to Saddam Hussein. And in fact, not only has the institution been unwilling to support an effort to get behind the opposition to Saddam Hussein, but I think it is fair to say that it has worked actively against any such suggestion. I’m afraid that, despite the valiant effort by a great many in Congress, the Administration will resist, continue to resist, in every way putting those resources [the money from legislation adopted to help support the Iraqi National Congress-led opposition to Saddam]."
- "I believe we do not now have an intelligence establishment that is capable of giving us a reasonably objective account [of its Iraq policy]….I submit that the policy we are carrying out is one of avoiding inspections at critical times and in critical places."
- "The head of the Near East division at the CIA — unless he’s got a story to tell that I’ve never heard, and none of my investigations have revealed, that justifies his continuation in that job — should be removed on grounds of incompetence and a lack of the fundamental qualifications to hold that position. The Director of Central Intelligence should explain why he’s been there all this time, despite a record of one failure after another."
- "A select committee of the Congress should be established to conduct a thorough investigation of our institutions conducting operations in the region. It is high time the Congress…inquire into the last 20 years, and they might even start with the last 12 months."
- "Finally, this investigation should include an effort to reconsider the competing claims of Scott Ritter and the Secretary of State. Within that controversy lies I think, the single most important issue facing us, and also at issue unavoidably is the credibility of the Secretary of State, since her account and Scott Ritter’s accounts are diametrically opposed, or at least that’s how I would read the statements that she’s made."
- "I am inclined on the basis of the record as it has been established to believe Scott Ritter, but I can’t prove that Scott Ritter is right and the Secretary of State is wrong. She denies ever having interfered with inspection plans and he says that she did. We ought to get to the bottom of it, and if it turns out that the Secretary of State discouraged inspections and lied about it, she should resign. It strikes me as embarrassingly similar to others in the administration who redefine history and hide behind words that are given personal meanings."
Among the other notable inputs made in the course of this extraordinary symposium were remarks by:
- Abbas Kelidar, an advisor to the Jordanian government, who decried the lack of a consistent and credible U.S. policy toward the region — which he described as responsibility of the sole "imperial power" in the world today.
- Meyrav Wurmser, Washington representative of the Middle East Media and Research Institute, who described the alarming phenomenon of "post-Zionist" and "post-modernist" thinking taking hold in elite — and potentially wider — circles in Israel.
- Ahmed Chalabi, President of the Iraqi National Congress, who addressed, among other things, growing congressional support for initiatives that would enable the democratic opposition in Iraq finally to bring to an end Saddam Hussein’s despotic rule.
- Reuel Gerecht, author and journalist, who described hopeful changes that may result in a secular and pro-Western Iran — if only the United States refrains from embracing and bailing out the clerics still clinging to power there.
- Jeane Kirkpatrick, former UN Ambassador, who spoke of the dangers posed to an America vulnerable as never before in its history from hostile nations and organizations operating from and in the Middle East — and the danger of responding to such threats with policies of appeasement.
- Douglas Feith, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, and Michael Wihbey of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Policy Studies, who addressed changes in the global energy situation that demand a rethinking of policies otherwise not in U.S. interests that are rationalized by the need to accommodate Arabs seeking to use oil reserves as a means of securing political, strategic and/or economic leverage.
- A panel discussion addressing how perceptions of Middle East policy shape — and are influenced by — the thinking of the academic, American Jewish and U.S. foreign policy establishments. Remarks on this interesting topic were made by: Laurie Mylroie, one of the Nation’s foremost specialists on developments in Iraq; Azar Nafisi, an Iranian now teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Hillel Fradkin of the American Enterprise Institute; Morrie Amitay, long-time director of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee; and Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy.
- Noteworthy concluding remarks concerning the prospects for peace in the Middle East and the need to effect changes in American policies toward the region were made by syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, former Chief of Staff to the Vice President and editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol, former Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton, and former Director of Central Intelligence James Woolsey.
The Bottom Line
The unmistakable sentiment emerging from this AEI conference was that American policy toward the Middle East is seriously and potentially dangerously misguided. Among other things, the immense political priority being given to, as one participant put it, "who controls Ramallah" and the relative inattention — or, at least the lack of competent attention — being given to Iraq, Iran, Islamic extremism and the hemorrhage of weapons of mass destruction technologies to the region against which the U.S. remains undefended needs to be redressed.
Of particular note was the concern expressed by several participants about the Palestinian mini-state likely to emerge (de facto or de jure) from the Wye meeting. The harsh reality is that Israel cannot live with the sort of sovereign state Palestinian ambitions will insist upon — and probably secure in due course. Should it "succeed" in compelling the Israeli relinquishment of a further 13% of territory to the PLO, the Wye meeting will almost surely prove to be not the advertized way station towards a just and durable peace; rather, its legacy will be to have assured the creation of a mortal threat to Israel and to America’s long-term interests in the Middle East.
Those involved in the negotiations this weekend in Wye, and those whose professional responsibilities and/or concern for the national interest compel them to monitor this portentous summit, would be well advised to rethink the Middle East as the American Enterprise Institute’s conference has just done. Copies of the full transcript, which should be required reading for all of the above, will be available shortly and may be obtained by contacting this splendid conference’s organizer at AEI, David Wurmser (202-862-5832).
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