Shibley Telhami Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East: Conversation 
  with Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, University 
  of Maryland, College Park; 11/8/01 by Harry Kreisler.

 

Page 4 of 6

The U.S. Role in the Middle East

Let's see where we can go with what you put on the table. You mentioned that, as part of this evolving sense of your own identity and the role that you would play, you came to focus more on intentions and motivations. Let's get a handle on that by talking about the U.S. role in the Middle East. You've emphasized how that role changed about the time that you were taking that [high school] exam. Talk a little about that. What is it? Is it that the region is so complex that the U.S. is limited in its understanding? Or is it just caught between a rock and a hard place, on the one hand supporting Israel, on the other hand supporting conservative regimes, and needing the oil?

If you look at the American foreign policy toward the Middle East, there's no question in my mind that it, too, has been driven by the need to create some harmony between competing interests. If you've read any textbook on American policy toward the Middle East, it will give you three interests. It will say, contain the Soviet Union, protect the flow of oil to the West at reasonable prices, and [honor] the commitment to Israel. They would include these three. We know that these three were not always harmonious. We know that 1973 was the most obvious clash and conflict between them, when there was an Arab oil embargo following the '73 war. Since at least the mid-seventies, the United States has been driven by the need to reconcile these interests through an Arab - Israeli peace process. The assumption of American foreign policy since the mid-seventies has been that only through reducing the tension between Israel and the Arab states will the U.S. reduce the tension between its competing interests, between its interest in the Arab world on the one hand and its interest and commitment to Israel on the other. That unless that tension is resolved, the tension of the American interest is not going to be resolved. And so it has made, in a way, the Arab - Israeli peacemaking an interest of the United States of America, as a way of mitigating the broader interest over the long term.

If you look historically, you can make an argument that the U.S, despite the fact that it's had these interests, has not had to worry about them as much. The U.S. is strong enough and rich enough that, even when there are crises like the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which was clearly a major crisis, it could address it. But in those kind of crises, not the ones that the U.S. has faced historically, the biggest question in terms of what motivates the U.S. domestically has been on what is the source of the commitment to Israel. That really has been the core question. And here you have different competing views. For a long time, there was a view which said that the commitment to Israel is a corollary to the U.S. strategic interest, that, essentially, the U.S. sees Israel as an instrument in its broader strategic interest, containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War and then later, maintaining the flow of oil, reducing terrorism, etc.

The truth of the matter is that theory just doesn't work, because Israel was, at various stages, very useful strategically, and other stages it was not viewed to be strategically very important. Even more important, probably, during much of the Cold War, the bureaucracies -- the Executive bureaucracy, the Defense Department, and the State Department -- did not view Israel to be a strategic asset, and some of them viewed it to be a detriment. So that just doesn't do it. That explanation simply cannot explain the degree of commitment, which has been significant from 1948, from the day Israel was established, when Truman recognized the state. [Israel] has had tremendous support, even though we've had episodes of confrontation. But if you look at the political aid, the economic aid, the strategic support, it's been on the up throughout. And so that needs a different explanation.

Where does the motive come from? This is an interesting issue, I think, that is worth exploring. We have a lot of theories, and theories about moral commitment, which have their own problems. One can look at it and say, "Well, yes there is [a moral commitment], but why did Truman, for example, have a moral commitment, but not all these other advisors who were advising him to the contrary?" Why? Is it just an accidental fact that you had one moral individual who happened to be the President of the United States? There are a lot of issues like that.

In my judgment, it's about politics in America. It's about politics in America, and the track that I have taken for the book that I'm doing about the demographics of national interest in the American political system is about the passion in particular issues. It's not really about public opinion broadly; it's about how passionate people feel about issues. You have to ask the question, who cares most deeply about a given issue, to be able to get an answer as to who plays a role.

I've done a survey, for example, among the American public, several of them since the 1980s, asking the question, "How deeply," for example, "do you care about the Arab - Israeli issue?" Well, as you can imagine, those who care very deeply about it are a very small segment of the population. It's usually about 10 percent who will place it in the top five issues, and the rest don't care that much about it. The opinions of those who care very deeply about it feel differently, they're not identical to the opinions of the majority of the public. But their opinions coincide much more with policy.

When you go into Congress -- and I've done a survey within Congress, too, about their own opinions, members of the House of Representatives -- when you look at the structure of committees, the committees are structured to reflect the interest of the members. To stray away from the Arab - Israeli conflict, if you look at the make-up of the agricultural committee, almost every member of the entire agricultural committee is either a farmer or from a farming state; so would it be a surprise that what would come out of the committee would be in the interest of farmers in the farming states? That would be, therefore, the Congressional view. It's not a surprise: it's a self-selection process. On foreign affairs, if you look at who joined the foreign affairs committees, at least since Vietnam, when the foreign affairs committee has not been popular, you'll find that it's a self-selection process. If you have a constituency that cares about it, you're there. If you don't, you don't.

So in my judgment, when you look at the demographics of American politics, you look at the role of various groups -- Jewish-Americans, Arab-Americans, and in some instances, evangelical Christians, who happen to have their own interest in this particular issue -- you will find there is a bigger answer as to why you have the support. A much bigger answer about the evolution of the commitment over time than you're going to find either in a strategic calculation argument or a moral argument.

You've come back to the question of the distribution of power that guided your work on the Camp David accords, in the sense that you're inquiring about the distribution of power internally within the United States. But then also in your writings, you suggest that one of the problems in resolving the Palestine - Israeli conflict is the mal-distribution [of power], with so much of the power residing with the Israelis. If we complete the circle of what you just said, you're suggesting that the Palestinians don't have a voice in the American political system, and on the ground in Palestine and Israel they're politically weak.

Well, it's actually very interesting that you frame it that way, because it's exactly how I framed it.

I haven't seen [your recent survey] ...

No, you haven't seen that, because this is the stuff that I haven't published. But it is interesting. Yes, I do think that the core to understanding the emerging ideas about interest in the American political mainstream -- the sources of ideas, where do ideas of interest come from -- is to understand the distribution of political power in America. I say political power, not economic power, and I say that deliberately. It's not a Marxist idea.

It's not that economic power is not important; I think it is, and we can talk about it in the context of political power. But, ultimately, it's a system about voting. You have to start by figuring out the relationship between the distribution of political power in a society, and how it transmits itself into American political institutions.

I've been arguing in this book that I'm writing that we have seen a transformation of the American political system over the past half-a-century -- the transformation of the national security state, the secret state that emerged in the Cold War, and the broadening of it in a way that would reflect much more the democratic nature of the American society. In the process, we have had a diversification that transmits itself into institutions. We have the diversification of Congressional committees -- that's the easiest one to see. We have the diversification of the think tanks in America. They have been changed. They used to be dominated by elite groups that were connected to very particular outlooks on life, and they used to have more independence by virtue of having relatively independent sources of money. What has happened in the past several decades is the proliferation of think tanks in America. And those think tanks are much more representative, much more issue-specific. Think tanks that deal with specific issues are, therefore, more linked to funds that reflect much more the interest of those people who have a stake in those issues than these think tanks that study across the American political spectrum -- domestic issues as well as foreign policy issues.

We've [seen] a proliferation of think tanks dealing with the Middle East. In the old days, it used to be that an institute like the Brookings was the key think tank on issues like the Middle East. Today, the Brookings, in which I'm involved, is one of many. Think tanks that are focused strictly on the Middle East have a lot more resources, because they're only focused on that, but they are dependent on money a lot more than in the past. And they're dependent on Congress more. Because what happens in Congress? If you're a member of Congress, you're a chair of a committee, let's say on the Middle East, and you want to invite three experts to testify. You have a position that reflects your own constituents. You are not going to invite someone who's going to make you look like a fool. You're not going to invite someone who's going to defeat your position. You're going to invite someone who's clearly much more in tune with what you have as a position. As a consequence, you go to think tanks that are more reflective of your own views. And therefore, by virtue of going to them, the testimony takes place from think tanks that correspond to your views. When think tanks invite you to speak as a featured speaker to get the press to come, you're likely to go to those think tanks, which you want to support rather than the others. And it chips away very quickly. Who gets quoted more? That's what think tanks want.

So you have a transformation that has been taking place in think tanks in America. I would say you have a transformation that has taken place within the executive branch. We have had a thickening of the government on the top -- an increasing number of political appointees, the diversification of the State Department bureaucracy itself, more demographically, the intervention of interest groups in the appointment process, a lot more than any other time in the past. It's a broader phenomenon of the change in the American political system, of which Middle East policy is only one example, but a very critical example, because it's probably a more intense example than the others. You have, therefore, the grassroots politics, ultimately, transmitting itself into the nature and power of the American institutions. And, therefore, the ideas that emerge, as a consequence, are the ideas that are a product of this particular process.

Next page: Seeking a Resolution to the Israel - Palestine Conflict

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