When Ehud Olmert tells the world that President Bush's invasion of Iraq has made the Middle East safer, at least he can fall back on the excuse that sarcasm is a mainstay of Israeli discourse. But when Olmert says Israel won't talk to Syria as long as President Bush won't, Israelis ought to be worried. More worried, still, when Condi Rice comes hawking fantasies about Israel concluding peace with the Palestinians while Hamas is swept away by Mahmoud Abbas (or is it Mohammed Dahlan?) playing a Palestinian Pinochet, while the likes of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt somehow contrive to reverse the train wreck of Iraq and scare Iran back into its shell.
Olmert appears to be outsourcing Israel's strategic decision-making to a White House that has repeatedly demonstrated a catastrophic failure to grasp the realities of the region. Betting Israel's security on the ability of the Bush crowd to transform the strategic landscape in the Middle East is rather like leaving a party in the backseat of an SUV whose driver is cradling a bottle of tequila and slurring his words as he rebuffs offers by more sober friends to take the wheel.
Warning signs have been there for months: When Olmert stumbled into Lebanon last summer, he may have been expecting Washington to play the role of the big brother who would drag him, still swinging, off Hassan Nasrallah, having demonstrated his "deterrent" power without getting himself into too much trouble. Instead, he found Washington impatiently egging him on, demanding that he destroy Nasrallah to prove a point to the Shiite leader's own big brother, and holding back anyone else who tried to break up the fight. As neocon cheerleaders like Charles Krauthammer made plain, the administration was disappointed at Olmert's wimpish performance.
Clearly, the game changed when the United States blundered into Iraq, believing it could transform the region through the application of its overwhelming military force. Sober minds in Washington have concluded that Iraq is lost, but Bush is having none of it - as he made clear last week, he intends not only to up the level of force, but also to begin directing it at Syria and Iran. Those in Israel tempted to welcome this development may be suffering from the same geopolitical psychosis as President Bush: the belief that military force translates automatically into power. If anything, 2006 highlighted the fact that America's overwhelming military advantages have failed to tip the region's political balance in its favor; on the contrary, resorting to military force over the past four years has actually been accompanied by a precipitous decline in America's ability to influence events in the region and beyond, much less impose its will.
As a character in the great gangster movie Miller's Crossing put it, "You run this town because people think you run it." Ergo, when people realize that you don't, then you no longer do.
The failure to impose Pax Americana on Iraq or even Afghanistan has therefore had profound consequences throughout the region. The Iraq Study Group recognized that the United States is simply in no position to dictate terms to its rivals and enemies in the region, and instead advocated pursuing a new stability based on recognition of the real balance of power, rather than the fantasy one concocted by the White House. But Bush remains in denial, pressing ahead with short-sighted, aggressive strategies that will only compound and accelerate the demise of U.S. influence in the region.
Washington's rejection of any talks between Israel and Syria has nothing to do with Israel's security; it is based on U.S. power plays in relation to Iraq and Lebanon, games the United States looks unlikely to win.
And Israelis know that the result of toppling Bashar Assad would be to extend Iraq's "Jihadistan" province of Anbar all the way to Israel's northern border. On the Palestinian front, Israel's security establishment knows that the fundamental flaw in the U.S. effort to topple the Hamas government is that such efforts will actually strengthen Hamas politically and further weaken an already decrepit Fatah. Washington has looked on skeptically at Abbas' efforts to form a government of national unity, and it has prepared for what it appears to assume is the eventuality that these will fail and he'll get on with the business of destroying the Islamists - which is what the Bush administration prefers.
Rice's attempts at social engineering in the Palestinian Authority are giddily detached from reality, and when they fail - as the United States has failed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon - it is Palestinians and Israelis who will pay the price. Moreover, throughout the region it has become clear that even U.S. clients such as Saudi Arabia simply ignore the American line when it doesn't make sense - for example, in engaging with Hamas. Even the Iraqi government has made clear that it has no interest in backing U.S. efforts to confront what Washington calls Iranian "meddling" in Iraq.
So, the idea that the Bush administration is implementing a policy capable of turning the regional dynamic against Iran is equally deluded: No matter how much tacit support they garner from Cairo, Amman and Riyadh for an air strike to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, where would the success of such a strike get Israel or the United States? The lesson of Iraq is that wars of choice based on the suspicion of an opponent's motives and capabilities can produce catastrophic unintended consequences - consequences that will likely be felt more painfully in Israel than in the United States. Military solutions to the region's problems have, quite simply, exhausted themselves. Yet, the Bush administration has resisted recognizing that reality, preferring strategies whose implementation only serves to accelerate the demise of Washington's influence in the region. The irony is that Israel's security establishment is well aware of the folly of many of these U.S. policies. But still, they stay in the back seat.
Even if Washington is unwilling to engage with the realities of the region, Israel has plenty of incentive to independently and directly engage the powers that be in Damascus, Beirut, Tehran, Gaza and Ramallah, along the lines revealed by Haaretz last week in relation to Syria. The reason is simple: It's a safe bet that Assad, Nasrallah, Ali Khamenei and Hamas will be there long after Bush, Rice and their fantasy are wheeled off the stage.
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME. His personal views can be found on his web site Rootless Cosmopolitan.
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