A hapless U.S. follows from the front

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Gaza cease-fire this week was Egypt taking the lead role in mediating that agreement that ended the fighting, while the United States softly shuffled to the side. Unlike Libya, when the U.S. said it was “leading from behind,” in this case, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s last-minute entry into the picture, the U.S. was more like “following from the front.” Washington remains influential in the Middle East but is no longer the maestro leading the diplomatic orchestra; instead it must now coordinate its policies more practically with other players in the region, especially Egypt and Turkey. Clinton had much to be thankful for on Thanksgiving Thursday, when she could get out of the Middle East after spending a few days in the region more or less looking hapless. She showed what it means to be a lame duck – in her own capacity and reflecting America’s foreign policy in the region.

I felt a little sorry for Clinton, because she seemed essentially to engage in diplomatic tourism while hopping around various capitals that she visited for a few hours each – if this is Tuesday morning we must be in West Jerusalem, if it’s Wednesday afternoon this must be Ramallah, and now it’s Thursday so we must be in Cairo. She met everyone except Hamas officials, and went everywhere except Gaza. Her attempt to show that the United States was deeply involved in working out a cease-fire agreement was all very unconvincing, and slightly sad. She seemed tired and aimless, like her country’s Middle Eastern policies. The U.S. surely did play a role behind the scenes, with Israel especially, but it seemed largely in response to the Egyptian initiative.

American diplomacy to promote a permanent Arab-Israeli peace has failed repeatedly over the past several decades, mainly for two reasons: Washington refuses to come to terms with the reality of how power is shifting throughout the region (Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he should strengthen Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, repeating the American penchant to dance with mirages), and because Washington has shown itself to be neither serious nor fair in pushing for a just and lasting Arab-Israeli peace.

Clinton reminded us of this again in her flying visit last week, when her comments repeatedly captured the obvious official American bias for the Israeli position, pinning most of the blame for the fighting on Hamas and other Palestinians in Gaza. Israel gets bolstered security, the Palestinians get improved conditions, was one of her statements. In another, she said that for the cease-fire to hold, the rocket attacks from Gaza must end, once again emphasizing Palestinian militancy while ignoring the Israelis’ aggressions and crimes against the people of Gaza that spawned resistance among Palestinians in the first place.

A great power that repeatedly parrots the Israeli line on good and evil while also making believe that it can mediate an Arab-Israeli peace settlement is not a great power at all in the important arenas of integrity, efficacy and credibility. This came through in Clinton’s body language this week, as she repeated old clichés that no longer capture anyone’s attention, while playing a supporting role to the Egyptians and others who were in control.

University of Texas international relations professor Michael Brenner captured this moment nicely in a Web comment last week when he wrote that the biggest loser of all may be the United States, for several reasons, including: “the aggravation of a conflict that ... repeatedly exposes the contradictions in an American strategy that pretends to the role of mediator; that aims at sustaining an Israeli/Sunni/anti-Persian alliance [and] that pretends to place democracy promotion above all; that pretends to itself that the normal laws of international politics don’t apply to the United States of America.

“The erratic and crude nature of American diplomacy in the Middle East also is exposed – once again ... For four days, the White House did little but cheer on Netanyahu. Then, when matters seemed to being getting out of hand, Hillary Clinton was pivoted back to the Middle East. The Mursi brokered cease-fire will now be declared a triumph for us, and her, that confirms our indispensability. The fact that we refused even to talk with one of the parties, Hamas, and therefore could not in fact have mediated will be overlooked by a press corps that too often seems on the payroll of State’s and the White House’s public affairs offices. As a consequence of our fecklessness, our standing in the region – and beyond – will continue its downward spiral. Hypocrisy is the word that increasing comes to most minds in the Islamic world.”

We should welcome the fact that the U.S. is now “following from the front” in Middle Eastern diplomacy. I hope this continues if regional players relaunch diplomacy for a permanent, comprehensive, and, above all, a fair Arab-Israeli peace agreement.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 24, 2012, on page 7.




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