The birth of American diplomatic cynicism

The Providence Journal

If you’re having trouble understanding why America has been sitting on its hands while Israel devastates Lebanon and Hezbollah fires missiles at Haifa, I refer you to the fall of 1990, when American diplomacy attained a new level of cynicism in its dealings with the Arab world.

The summer of that year was the time of "coalition building" before the first Gulf War, when George Bush the First was rounding up local military support for the impending effort to drive Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait. This was entirely unnecessary from a tactical standpoint, but for P.R. purposes, the George H.W. Bush administration thought it would be useful to send Arabs into battle against other Arabs and thus diminish the suspicion that ousting Saddam was just another spat over oil.

How noble it sounded at the time: a grand alliance worthy of World War II, all in the name of freeing what that President Bush pretended was a tiny beacon of liberty, snuffed out by the evil Hitler impersonator to the north.

Well, it was hard enough to argue that Kuwait was authentically free or democratic, but Bush and his sales manager, Secretary of State James Baker, were also trying to peddle an even more absurd proposition: that Syria, then run by the ruthless killer Hafez Assad _ a tyrant in nearly every respect the equal of his rival Ba’athist Saddam _ made a suitable partner in this magnificent enterprise of liberation and human rights.

To acquire Assad’s support, John Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of state and former ambassador to Lebanon, was dispatched to Damascus, where he met with the Syrian president, on Aug. 13. Kelly told me last week that he "was pushing on an open door," since Assad detested Saddam and had "already probably told the Saudis he would send troops," in exchange for "generous compensation" (a sum in the billions of dollars, according to U.S. News and World Report).

On Aug. 21, 1990, in a statement redolent of irony, Syria announced it was contributing soldiers to defend Saudi Arabia from invasion, because "the Gulf region should not be left to the foreigners." Then, on Oct. 13, Assad’s army _ already occupying large parts of Lebanon since 1976 _ attacked areas in and around Beirut to overthrow the nominal president of Lebanon, the anti-Syrian Christian Gen. Michel Aoun.

For the United States, the quid pro quo was understood. On Oct. 16, Nora Boustany reported in The Washington Post that the Bush administration had tacitly agreed to the Syrian coup de grace that had removed Aoun and installed a more complaisant Christian, Elias Hrawi, as the new, also nominal, Lebanese president.

An aide to Hrawi, wrote Boustany, said that the United States had essentially told Hrawi and the Syrians: "We will not give you a green light, but you are a legitimate government we recognize, and we understand any step you may have to take. If you succeed, we will congratulate you. If the battle is prolonged, we will have to express our regret over the continued violence in Lebanon. If you fail, we will not condemn the action but call on the Lebanese to resort to dialogue to sort out their differences."

And what about Israel, then occupying the southern edge of Lebanon? "Israel will not interfere as long as Syria does not approach south Lebanon or threaten Israel’s security interests."

I cite these passages because they are such crystalline illustrations of realpolitik: the true language of American "diplomacy."

For the record, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler issued a classic nondenial denial, insisting that the United States had not given "a green light" to Syria. When asked if America had given a red light, she said, "We did not give them any lights."

Maybe not, but such unprincipled scheming is typical not of a peace-loving republic but of the old British Empire, which in fact is the role the United States selected for itself when Her Majesty’s Government began its humiliating withdrawal from colonial domination of the Middle East, in 1947. A neo-imperial foreign policy is bad enough for its hypocrisy, aimed as it is at maintaining the old European game of divide and rule. But even worse is that it backfires so often, and so unexpectedly. When a government loses the habit of meaning what it says _ or of saying anything with meaning _ all kinds of hell are liable to break loose.

An example is when U.S. Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie met with our then ally Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990, in Baghdad. Saddam was up in arms about what he called illegal cross-border oil drilling by the Kuwaitis. Glaspie told Saddam that "we have no opinions on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." Perhaps assuming, quite plausibly, that he had a "green light" from his chief sponsor, Saddam invaded Kuwait eight days later.

But in realpolitik, one tyrant’s "green light" is another tyrant’s misunderstanding. Upon Glaspie’s return to the United States, she told The New York Times, "(O)bviously, I didn’t think, and nobody else did, that the Iraqis were going to take all of Kuwait." So would just a little bit of Kuwait have been all right?

I’m not suggesting that U.S. cynicism is the exclusive cause of the fighting. Real politics (as opposed to realpolitik) inside Lebanon and Israel are also feeding the carnage. But America’s "passionate attachment" to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to divide-and-rule, does makes it harder to stop the bloodshed, since almost no U.S. politician dares challenge either Israel’s claim of moral superiority or the financial power of the Saudi royal family _ which somehow never uses its leverage to help the Palestinians. (It’s so much easier for rich Arabs to blame the Israelis for everything than to share the wealth.)

And given history like the 1990 alliance with Syria, not to mention today’s occupation of Iraq, how can anyone consider the United States an honest broker in a potential cease-fire?

Following President Aoun’s removal, Lebanon became a virtual colony of Syria. Meanwhile, Hrawi, Aoun’s successor, disarmed most of the militias in Lebanon except Hezbollah _ the one most useful to his masters in Damascus. Yet Secretary of State Baker could shamelessly say, back in 1990, that "our policy cannot and never will be amoral" when he was pressed on Syria’s atrocious human-rights record.

Now we’re left with the Syrian Assad’s successor, his son Bashar (a killer in his "cruel tyrant" of a father’s mold but "not as skillful" a politician, says former diplomat Kelly) and Bush’s son George (a straightforward fool) to deal with the mess.

Kelly still believes that the United States could be a broker, "for lack of anyone else" with sufficient power. But to succeed, he told me, the George W. Bush administration would "need credibility with more than one party" _ Israel, whose "massive retaliation" is "excessive and counterproductive."

It isn’t only, said Kelly, that "collective punishment doesn’t work." Israel had also kidnapped Lebanese citizens _ "bad guys," to be sure _ with the stated intention of holding them for "trade bait" in future prisoner exchanges. Moreover, said Kelly, "to hit the Christian-owned Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. is stupid, since it was so anti-Hezbollah."

I think Kelly is too optimistic about America’s standing in the world. Like the British and French colonial officers who created the modern Middle East (to better exploit its oil and land), the American Raj prefers permanent instability and just the right amount of communal warfare.

A sad thing for Kelly _ who by coincidence flew out of Beirut at 2 a.m. the morning the Israelis started bombing. "It’s amazing how well the city was rebuilt," he said. "They had an elected government, the Syrian army was gone, and then Hezbollah blew everything up, (miscalculating) that they could get a prisoner swap with Israel."

Yes, they did. But America provided a lot of the gunpowder.

(John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.)