Anatol Lieven Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

American Nationalism: Conversation with Anatol Lieven, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, May 6, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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The Middle East

The Bush administration has made the Middle East the focus of its agenda, and the place, it appears, where it aspires to bring its messianic nationalism and transform the whole region. Let's break apart why you think they're doing this. Is it oil? Was oil in their equation? And secondarily, how does Israel fit into this equation?

There are three reasons, two older and one newer. The newer one is, of course, the threat from terrorism. And the Bush administration is not wrong to concentrate on the Middle East and to identify this as the part of the world, at least if you say the greater Middle East, the Muslim world as the part of the world from which now come the truly mortal threats to the lives and safety of ordinary Americans and the American state. That's true: 9/11 dramatized that. There is no threat today from the Russian state, and if we're moderately sensible and can restrain the Taiwanese, differences with China should be manageable. And if we can keep China on our side, it should be possible from keeping North Korea from doing anything mad. So it's true, it is really the greater Middle East that is the threat to America. So from that point of view, they are right to concentrate on the greater Middle East.

But, of course, the way that they've done it has tremendous problems. I would say that there are two fundamental contradictions. One is between democratization and American empire, and American empire in the Middle East, which is partly, thought not exclusively, historically derived from the need to control access to Middle Eastern oil, which in turn is seen an vital to the American economy and to the world economy in general.

This is becoming a cliché among progressives in America, but that doesn't make it any less true: it would be colossally to the interests of the United States and the world in general if the U.S. and other industrial economies could really reduce their dependence on oil in general, not just Middle Eastern oil, because it does tie us to this region. Because of the kind of regimes that we have to support in order to maintain access to oil, that does bring us crashing, once again, into this agenda of trying to democratize and develop the Middle East.

The other factor, of course, is Israel, which is not an imperial agenda. It may have been during the Cold War when Israel was seen as a critical ally against the imperial rival of the United States, namely the Soviet Union. But since the end of the Cold War, Israel rather obviously has become not a strategic ally, but a tremendous strategic liability. Whenever there is a major conflict in the Middle East, if Israel were a strategic ally you would want Israel to participate. In fact, because Israel is so bitterly unpopular with the Muslim world in general, both in the first Iraq war and in this one, Israel has had to be begged by the United States to go away, sit quiet and do nothing. Well, that's a pretty funny kind of strategic ally, frankly! If whenever there was a serious crisis in the world America went to Britain and said, "Please, don't help us. Tony Blair, don't say anything. Don't participate because you're so unpopular," Britain would not be an ally of the United States, it would be a liability.

Whatever you want to call it, the bond with Israel does not come from imperial or geopolitical sources. It does come from very old cultural traditions, beliefs in America, American Old Testament Protestantism, analogies between America and Israel which go back -- well, they don't just go back to the first white settler in North America, they go back beyond that, to the Protestant culture of England from which the settlers were drawn. In our own time, this is still reflected very strongly among Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists in the United States. It's come back, this specific form of alignment with Israel.

So this has become not imperial, but a kind of ethnocultural religious civilizational bond in which Israel and America become almost a confederation. They are intimately linked, and America, for that reason, cannot distance itself from Israel, and therefore cannot seriously influence Israel. But the impact of that on the Muslim world and the war against terrorism, and hopes of democratizing the Middle East are simply catastrophic.

Let's be specific here. You're saying that the turn of the screw that's negative is not necessarily the existence of the state of Israel, but rather its policies in the occupied territories, its unwillingness to establish borders at the 1967 borders, but instead create a mini-empire within the occupied territories.

Yes. The existence in the state of Israel must be accepted by everybody, and must be defended if there is to be any chance of peace. It's quite true that those elements of the Arab world which still dream of destroying Israel must give up these hopes, because without that, there can never be stability in the Middle East. Any attempt to destroy Israel would set off a catastrophe, probably a nuclear catastrophe, which would wreck the whole region.

American support for Israel within the borders of 1967 is entirely legitimate, and I share it to the full. The problem is, of course, that since 1967, as you say, Israel has gone out not just to occupy militarily the Palestinian territories. Once again that was entirely justifiable, the military occupation, until Israel was recognized by a legitimate Palestinian authority, and also by neighboring Arab states. No problem with the military occupation, in my view. The problem is the planting of settlements, which is categorically forbidden under the Geneva Convention, and which also, quite obviously, made the search for a peace settlement infinitely more difficult.

For example, two years ago, Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia put forward a peace plan which was accepted by the great majority of Arab states, which explicitly offered fully to recognize Israel, to sign a peace treaty with Israel within the borders of 1967. Now, this is what Israel in the past always said was all that it wanted. But because of the settlements, because Israel has now expanded far beyond the borders of 1967, it wasn't possible for Israel or the United States even to discuss this peace offer. It was immediately swept off the table.

I cannot understand how honest people in America can, on the one hand, talk about the need to reach out to the Arab world and the Muslim world, the need to respect ordinary Arabs, the need to seek allies among Muslims in the war against terrorism, and then treat the Arab world like this. It is a glaring contradiction, and a tragic one, with profoundly tragic consequences, not just for America and the West, but also for Israel itself -- as so many unquestionable Israel patriots, highly decorated ex-solders and security officials, are now saying. I'm not talking now about supporting the Palestinians; I'm saying that we ought to be supporting those Israeli liberals who represent ideals and beliefs which in any other case in the world, the United States would be backing. But because of this curious confederal relationship, it seems that we find ourselves unable to do so.

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