Distributed April 2002
Copyright ©2002 by William O. Beeman

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 745 Words

William O. Beeman

Bush must overcome hesitations and commit troops to Middle East

The only hope of breaking the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock lies in outside intervention. Whereas many nations may influence Palestinian actions, the United States is the only nation with any leverage over Israel. This makes some form of American intervention in the Palestinian conflict inevitable, despite substantial domestic political risk.

President George W. Bush appears to have bitten the bullet and decided that the United States must get involved to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Washington is reluctant to take the necessary next step – the commitment of military forces. Right now, the United States is not culturally able to support this action.

Thus far, U.S. involvement has been minimal – the assignment of Gen. Anthony Zinni, and now Secretary of State Colin Powell – to the task. This is far from enough. The conflict in the Middle East has proceeded beyond the point of no return. Both sides are awash in an unceasing river of blood, locked in a zombie-like death march – a struggle that Israel will likely lose, as have all dominant territorial occupiers in the last century.

Talking will accomplish nothing at this point. The only hope of breaking this deadlock lies in outside intervention. Whereas many nations may influence Palestinian actions, the United States is the only nation with any leverage over Israel. This makes some form of American intervention in the Palestinian conflict inevitable. This kind of intervention is also culturally appropriate. In the Middle East, when two parties feud, it is essential that a third party forcibly compel them to come to a truce. In this way neither side loses honor, since they have not compromised their convictions.

Sadly, commentators on American culture since the time of the Revolution give us good reason to believe that we do not have the guts to do what is needed to solve the conflict. In order to summon the political and cultural will to bring peace to the region, we are going to have to make fundamental changes in our own culture.

We are an isolationist nation, and have been from the start. Our reluctance to be involved with other cultural traditions is the subject of amusement worldwide. Every military intervention we have undertaken abroad since our founding as a nation has been quickly abandoned or domesticated. In Europe and Asia, where peacekeeping forces remain from World War II and the Korean War, most Americans live in base compounds that resemble manicured American suburbs, in splendid isolation from the native populations. Intervention in the Palestinian conflict would involve a new, open-ended American presence abroad, where troops would interact daily with both sides. The Bush administration correctly understands that the American people will not easily tolerate such a situation.

The idea of prolonged American troop involvement goes against another American tendency – the desire to see conflict as a task or job that is quickly completed and then abandoned. Our tendency for short-term involvement has some good qualities – Americans rarely hold grudges against other nations, for example – but it means that we forget the conditions that bring about conflicts to begin with. Thus we rarely learn the lessons of history and repeat mistakes again and again. We made a wonderful start at solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s with the Camp David accords, but having achieved that agreement, we abandoned the process. Despite some heroic efforts by the Clinton administration, matters had deteriorated until Israel and Palestine reached the present impasse. Had we continued the intense work that Carter had begun, the world would be different today.

Finally, we are cussedly independent as a nation. The best, most credible military intervention in the West Bank would involve an internationalized military effort. Yet, even more than foreign engagement, the United States fears committing its military to the leadership of a foreign power. Washington doesn’t want to allow even one army dishwasher to serve under a foreign general.

Changing the American mindset to allow for the kind of action that is needed to have a real, permanent effect in the Middle East conflict involves political risks. The late house speaker, Tip O’Neill, quipped, “All politics is local.” Nowhere is this more apt than in this conflict. A decision by George W. Bush to commit U.S. troops to a long-term foreign mission under cooperative international leadership would, in the eyes of most Republican political strategists, endanger control of the White House. However, what are leaders for, if not to make these tough, necessary decisions?

America’s leaders need to take this risk, for the good of the United States and for the good of the world. Moreover, such an action might not be political suicide after all. Frequently, the American electorate rewards such leadership and is itself transformed by such ennobling actions.

William O. Beeman teaches anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 30 years. He is also editor of a new edition of And Keep Your Powder Dry, the definitive work on American national character by the late anthropologist Margaret Mead.

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