Commentary: U.S. Mideast record not comforting close to the action
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–After doubtful claims of success in Iraq, and clearer failure in Afghanistan, the United States is tackling the problematical task of picking the good guys in Yemen.
Maybe not the good guys. Hopefully the best guys, or those who score least bad on the score of unreliability. Or more likely, those who are said to be reliable by Americans who may understand what is going on in that place.
Here as elsewhere, however, there is disagreement among the Americans who claim to know what can be done.
A few snippets that describe some of the problems:
“Opponents (of American military aid among American officials) . . . fear American weapons could be used against political enemies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and provoke a backlash that could further destabilize the volatile, impoverished country.
The debate is unfolding as the administration reassesses how and when to use American missiles against suspected terrorists in Yemen following a botched strike in May. That attack, the fourth since December by the American military, killed a provincial deputy governor and set off tribal unrest.
Administration officials acknowledge that they are still trying to find the right balance between American strikes, military aid and development assistance — not only in Yemen, but in Pakistan, Somalia and other countries where Islamic extremist groups are operating.
Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in a policy talk last week that American-backed assaults by Yemeni forces on Al Qaeda may ‘deny it the time and space it needs to organize, plan and train for operations.’ But in the long term, he added, countering extremism in Yemen ‘must involve the development of credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.'”
“Credible institutions that can deliver real economic and social progress.” Sound familiar?
Again we see the problems of the world’s leader, having to work through locals in distant places, with languages, tribal, family, and personal rivalries, and ways of doing things that challenge understanding by outsiders.
What else is possible? my American friends may be asking themselves. Bad people from those places did 9-11 and are probably planning other attacks on us. We do the best we can.
That may sound good enough from where you are, but here in French Hill, 200 meters from Isaweea, one is not sure that the Palestinians chosen as reliable by Americans can lead Palestine to its place in the Promised Land. Their rivals in Gaza fired 12 rockets toward Israeli civilians yesterday, and those people have friends in the West Bank. Is it they who are stealing cars from French Hill for export to Palestine where they are sold as is or broken up for parts, with some of the parts sold to low-end Israeli garages?
Further up the chain of hostility are Palestinians in the West Bank who attack Jews. Not well known, or not known at all, is the capacity of people like that to challenge Mahmoud Abbas and his coterie.
Lovers of democracy should remember that Abbas’ term as President of the Palestine National Authority ended in January 2009. It has not been convenient for the Palestinians to implement the various dates for polling they have set since then.
Few Israelis worry about the lack of democratic niceties in Palestine. However, the failure of the regime to gauge its popular support is a cause for concern. Surveys done by Palestinians are no more encouraging. They show a fluid public opinion, with a willingness to engage in violence competing with a desire for peace.
The surveys published by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research do not even ask about peoples’ willingness to accept anything other than the conventional mantras of refugee rights or what Palestinians claim as their old borders.
Can Israelis do any more than hope for the best, as they do what they must to satisfy their American supporters?
The IDF is making only modest responses to those rocket attacks from Gaza. Perhaps the political leadership does not want to weaken Abbas, or provoking him to say nasty things, with pictures of dead Gazans. That may change if the people sending the rockets get lucky and kill Israelis.
Meanwhile, there is no hurry to provide the concessions urged by Americans, Europeans, and the United Nations General Secretary. Given the capacity of the Abbas regime to unravel, it is best not to hasten agreements that will not hold with whatever comes next.
When Americans fail far from their country, they can say, “Gee whiz. Sorry. We tried our best.”
That might work in America when expressed about Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, but the prospect must be better for those of us who see places like Isaweea across a nearby street.
Among the topics of Jewish quarrels is whether it is proper to wish an “easy fast” on Yom Kippur. Against that is the claim that the fast must be painful enough to force one to contemplate the sins of the past year.
Whatever you say, and whatever you do, I wish you all the best for the coming year.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University