George Soros Suggests No Nonsense Middle East Strategy

George Soros has published a significant truth-telling article in the Boston Globe this morning, "Blinded by a Concept," about some of the shortcomings of America's foreign policy and Israel's mistakes in its recent incursions into Lebanon and Gaza.

Soros's article convinces because it ticks through the challenges US policy faces in an unstable Middle East with surgical precision not only as to what started the current set of crises but which also sent Israel's security situation off the rails. Both America and Israel really did fail to set Mahmoud Abbas up for success, and that key mistake has generated enormous consequences that have cost lives and harmed fundamental security in the region.

While Soros provides three key weaknesses of the "war-on-terror" as an organizing principle of foreign policy -- much like RAND strategist James Dobbins did recently at a meeting I helped organize -- let me start at the third in his article. Soros makes a point about fine-tuning our approach to divergent groups and factions if for no other reason than to be effective. Recently, Flynt Leverett in an important American Prospect cover story makes precisely the same point.

Soros writes:

A third weakness is that the war-on-terror concept lumps together different political movements that use terrorist tactics. It fails to distinguish among Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, or the Sunni insurrection and the Mahdi militia in Iraq. Yet all these terrorist manifestations, being different, require different responses. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah can be treated merely as targets in the war on terror because both have deep roots in their societies; yet there are profound differences between them.

Looking back, it is easy to see where Israeli policy went wrong. When Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Israel should have gone out of its way to strengthen him and his reformist team. When Israel withdrew from Gaza, the former head of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, negotiated a six-point plan on behalf of the Quartet for the Middle East (Russia, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations). It included opening crossings between Gaza and the West Bank, allowing an airport and seaport in Gaza, opening the border with Egypt; and transferring the greenhouses abandoned by Israeli settlers into Arab hands. None of the six points was implemented. This contributed to Hamas's electoral victory. The Bush administration, having pushed Israel to allow the Palestinians to hold elections, then backed Israel's refusal to deal with a Hamas government. The effect was to impose further hardship on the Palestinians.

Nevertheless, Abbas was able to forge an agreement with the political arm of Hamas for the formation of a unity government. It was to foil this agreement that the military branch of Hamas, run from Damascus, engaged in the provocation that brought a heavy-handed response from Israel -- which in turn incited Hezbollah to further provocation, opening a second front.

That is how extremists play off against each other to destroy any chance of political progress.

Israel has been a participant in this game, and President Bush bought into this flawed policy, uncritically supporting Israel. Events have shown that this policy leads to the escalation of violence. The process has advanced to the point where Israel's unquestioned military superiority is no longer sufficient to overcome the negative consequences of its policy. Israel is now more endangered in its existence than it was at the time of the Oslo Agreement on peace.

I highly recommend that those who want to think about how metaphors of war and conflict can be dangerously exploited, read Soros's book, The Age of Fallibility: Consequences of the War on Terror.

I have invited George Soros to speak about his book at a public meeting of the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program in Washington, and he has accepted.

For those of you interested in receiving an invitation, be sure to email me. The meeting will be taking place on the late afternoon of September 13 at the offices of the New America Foundation. We will have books there for sale -- and Soros has agreed to sign books and to engage in a "quality discussion" about fallibility and our current conflicts.

-- Steve Clemons is Senior Fellow and Director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note.