The costs of photo-op foreign policy
October 24, 2000
by Alan W. Dowd
If US presidential contenders George W. Bush and Al Gore want a preview of the next four years, they need look no further than the chaos of the Middle East, where Bill Clinton’s photo op foreign policy has left the United States and its Israeli allies in an extremely vulnerable position.
The twin crises of October 12, when a crazed mob lynched two Israeli reservists, and a pair of terrorists nearly sunk the USS Cole, brought this new vulnerability into chilling focus.
But the dangers for America and Israel extend far beyond what happened in the port of Aden and Ramallah. And tragically, Washington bears much of the blame.
Before Mr. Clinton’s arrival in Washington, the Middle East was on its way to stability, which is the first stop on the path to peace.
The lopsided defeat of Iraq had crippled one of the region’s main troublemakers and discredited Arab radicalism. A decade of war and isolation had weakened and even moderated Iran. The collapse of the Soviet Union had dried up the main funding streams of Syrian and Palestinian terrorists. And America had reasserted itself as the region’s lynchpin of stability, a fact underscored by the Gulf War and America’s willingness to stay after the guns fell silent.
But instead of doing the hard work of stabilizing the region, Mr. Clinton tried to take a shortcut to Middle East peace by creating an illusion of peace: First, he literally pushed Yitzhak Rabin into shaking hands with a man who called for Israel’s liquidation. He then sequestered Rabin’s successors in marathon negotiations that raised expectations and forced them to acquiesce just to save face. Next, he cajoled Israel to surrender Jericho, Gaza, and much of the West Bank.
And through it all, he pressured Israel to “take risks for peace.” Even the cease-fire summit in Egypt, which began and ended with open warfare in the streets, was more about illusion and perception than reality.
And so today, we reap the first fruits not only of Palestinian intransigence, but of a president’s myopia. But there’s more to come.
In Iraq, for example, the president has relied not on photo ops, but pin prick bombing raids to build his legacy. His so called “low grade war” against Saddam consists of daily air attacks on radar posts, SAM sites, and other strategically irrelevant facilities on the extreme periphery of Saddam’s power. The raids, which continue to this day, are so ubiquitous that they’re no longer even reported in the press.
Yet Saddam’s nuclear weapons program and tentacles of power have survived the barrage, making the raids a strategic failure. Indeed, the attacks have done nothing to weaken Saddam. Instead, they have driven a wedge between America and its allies, driven UN weapons inspectors out of Iraq, and driven the Iraqi people into Saddam’s corner. Saddam is arguably stronger today than he was at the end of the Gulf War.
Another figure who’s stronger despite — or perhaps because of — the president's all style, no substance policy is Osama bin Laden, who emerged from Mr. Clinton’s cruise-missile attacks in 1998 as a mythic hero among Islamic radicals. The attacks achieved no strategic aims — witness the suicide bombing of the USS Cole, which is covered with bin-Laden’s bloody fingerprints — and the only short term objective they realized was embittering the Third World’s restive populace.
But perhaps the grimmest side effect of Mr. Clinton’s image-driven foreign policy comes not from the Middle East but the Far East. After watching Mr. Clinton pummel Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, and Sudan for half a decade, North Korea and China are redoubling their efforts to develop long range weapons that can reach out and strike America.
And this technological push is having a ripple effect on the Middle East. In the last two years, while North Korea tested ICBMs and China miniaturized its arsenal of warheads, Iran took notes and bought up their hand me downs. According to US State Department non-proliferation specialist Robert Einhorn, Tehran’s “pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile delivery systems continues unabated, and has even accelerated in the last few years.”
Iran has already brought Israel into its widening scope of terror. And thanks to the technology Tehran is gleaning from Pyongyang and Beijing, Iran is working on newer missiles, which will extend Tehran’s reach another 10,000 km and add Washington and New York to the same target list that now includes Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In October 1938, during another time of troubles, Winston Churchill grieved over what his nation had done and left undone to open the door to war. “When I think of the immense resources which have been neglected or squandered,” Churchill sighed, “I cannot believe that a parallel exists in the whole of history.” Perhaps it does now.
This article also appeared in The Jerusalem Post on October 24, 2000.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. He is a frequent contributor to The World & I, The American Enterprise, National Review Online, and The American Legion Magazine, where he publishes policy commentaries and a monthly column covering national security and military issues.