Washington gets real

Date: 11-17-06

By Aluf Benn (Washington) and Shmuel Rosner (Los Angeles)

Washington. Leaving Iraq

The change in ideas that American policy is now undergoing can be summed up in a few words: "From the end of history to the end of ideology." The belief that the United States is an omnipotent power, and that after defeating the Communist empire of evil, it must spread the gospel of liberal capitalism throughout the world has given way to depression and despair in the wake of the complications in Iraq. Suddenly, the Americans have discovered that there are limits to their power. The national reckoning of conscience has led to a gloomy conclusion: President George W. Bush's adherence to an almost messianic ideology is what led to a damaging and unnecessary adventure.


Experts, diplomats and historians who only a few years ago believed in the power of the United States to transform the Middle East into a paradise of peace and prosperity are now bewailing "the end of American dominance" in the region. As they see it, the double failure of the U.S. army in Iraq and the Israel Defense Forces in Lebanon embodies the depth of the fall, and the rise of the counter-bloc of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

In Washington, they are calling the new game "realism." A policy that is based on a balance of powers and not on "moral clarity" and forcing democracy on the barbarians. This is the significance of the Democratic victory in the elections and the ouster of Donald Rumsfeld from the Defense Department. Robert Gates, who is his replacement, would not have left his pleasant position as a university president in Texas only in order to implement his predecessor's policy.

Gates' role will be exactly like that of Clark Clifford toward the end of Lyndon Johnson's administration; Clifford came to replace Robert McNamara in order to start a process that culminated in the end of "McNamara's war" in Vietnam. Gates does not have much time, nor will he have many tasks. There is only one thicket he will have to untangle or prune: "Rumsfeld's war" in Iraq will not be the way it has been, and when it ends, so will the vision of the Middle East.

This is the reality that greeted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who passed through Washington on his way to the General Assembly (GA) of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) in Los Angeles. Before his meeting with Olmert, Bush hosted far more important visitors at the White House: the members of the Baker-Hamilton committee, which is engaged in formulating recommendations for a new policy in Iraq - and by extension, in the entire Middle East.

James Baker was the architect of the Israeli-Arab peace process 15 years ago, in the days of the first President Bush. To this day he is remembered as the last American envoy who came to "knock heads." Bush junior, who in the past has kept his distance from his father's court, is now calling upon its members to help him. They represent the "realist" camp among the Republicans.

The Baker-Hamilton report, which will be submitted to the president in the near future, is supposed to start the process of withdrawal from Iraq. This is what the American public wants and this is what the experts on strategy and political advisors in Washington are expecting. The committee will recommend leaving only a small staff of advisors and experts in Iraq, handing over to the Iraqis the tasks of policing and bringing the countries of the region into the process as partners. Their interest is clear: If Iraq falls apart, their stability will also be threatened. Behind this formulation there will apparently hide a call, the volume of which is not yet clear, to talk with Syria and Iran.

The withdrawal from Iraq will not be immediate, but it is apparently inevitable. It is not clear whether Bush made this clear to Olmert - who came out with a public warning against a "hasty" American withdrawal and expressed rather strange praise for the war in Iraq "which has contributed to regional security." A number of the senior people at the Foreign Ministry were astounded. He had not consulted with them - this is nothing out of the ordinary - but apparently he had not consulted with anyone else either.

"This was a completely incorrect thing to do," said a diplomat who is very familiar with the American arena. "Olmert did exactly what we have been warning all along not to do. Israel must not be linked to the war in Iraq, because this will immediately feed all the conspiracy theories and harm us in the long term."

Olmert. Hit twice

Two possible hitches threaten prime ministers' visits abroad. One is an unnecessary slip of the tongue that causes image damage; the other is a terror attack. Olmert got hit by both. In the briefing for journalists after his meeting with Bush, he described Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, who resigned from the IDF, as an Israeli hero, and with reference to Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, he made do with "I haven't read the criticism of him." The journalists concluded that Olmert was evading giving support to Halutz and that is what they wrote. The prime minister had to phone the chief of staff next day and promise his backing.

The truth is that Olmert is prone to such complications. A few days after he replaced Ariel Sharon, in January of this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Jerusalem. The journalists, still accustomed to the strict discipline observed by Sharon, who did not deviate from the texts prepared for him, were surprised to see his successor wink at people in the audience and improvise diplomatic statements. "We're going to have a lot of slips of the tongue," they whispered among themselves.

Trips abroad, and especially to Washington, increase the risk of a public blooper: The prime minister, any prime minister, is dazzled by meeting with the leader of the world, tired and jet-lagged and surrounded by dozens of journalists who fly with him and hunt down every scrap of a headline. At Olmert's bureau they swear that he did not intend to hurt the chief of staff. Logic, too, says that Olmert must not quarrel with Halutz, because the chief of staff's resignation would bring the political sword closer to his own neck.

The fatal firing of the Qassam in Sderot caught Olmert in Los Angeles, before a meeting with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Several times, Sharon was forced to cut short visits abroad because of terror attacks. But with respect to image, there is a difference between a terror attack that occurs in the middle of a meeting at the White House and a terror attack that catches you in Hollywood.

The White House. Farewell

The outgoing ambassador to Washington, Danny Ayalon, went to bid good-bye to the America president and the vice president. After four and a half years, they are already old acquaintances. Ayalon, as was reported yesterday in Haaretz, intends to prolong this acquaintance a bit longer. He proposed to Bush the establishment in Israel of an institute in his name. The president gave this his blessing. Now donors must be sought, but Ayalon is convinced that money isn't going to be the problem.

At their meeting on Tuesday, the departing ambassador compared the president, who still has two years left, to Winston Churchill. A popular comparison: This week opposition leader Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu also resorted to the British prime minister when he spoke in Los Angeles, on the previous day, about the Iranian threat. Ayalon told Bush that he, like Churchill, is standing alone in face of an empire of evil that is arming itself. Bush no doubt loved hearing this, as he admires Churchill. Who doesn't?

Like Ayalon, who wants to immortalize Bush in Israel because he believes that there has never been such a friendly president, Olmert too believes that Bush is a true friend of Israel. In his speech at the GA, he had to repeat this twice, because the American Jewish audience did not react with suitably loud applause the first time. Olmert gave up only after he did not succeed the second time.

Iran. Ticking bomb

Most of the 40 minutes that Bush devoted to this one-on-one talk with Olmert were taken up by Iran. It's not clear what was said and what caused Olmert to emerge pleased, "even more so than from previous meetings." In his speech the next day in Los Angeles, Olmert raised the public anxiety level: "We have reached the pivotal moment of truth regarding Iran. It would be an unbearable sin to future generations to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons."

A senior political advisor to the Republican Party who has criss-crossed America in his clients' Congressional election campaigns, estimated this week that the chances of an American attack have dropped to zero. This, in his opinion, is the implication of the Democrats' victory last week. The public does not want to hear about a new military adventure. Only a large terror attack in the United States, or some other shocking event that can be connected to Iran, would make it possible to enlist public opinion for new hostilities. Ambassador Ayalon disagreed with this assessment this week. He believes that Bush will stop Iran, even by force. A good assessment of the president's intentions, but not necessarily of his ability to realize them.

One can guess that this is the message that Olmert received from Bush: I share your anxiety about the Iranian threat, but America is not able and does not want to act alone. In his speech, the prime minister said that Bush's determination "to prevent this most serious of developments is unquestionable. But America must have the support of the international community." In other words, the president told him that his hands are tied, that without the Europeans and the Russians it is impossible to do anything. The chance that they will take to the task of destroying the Iranian atomic installations looks like zero at the moment. No wonder Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasted this week of the approaching completion of the atomic program.

The significance of this is that the Israeli leadership will soon be facing a difficult dilemma: whether to gamble on a military action against Iran, the operational possibility of which is not clear, or to accustom the public gradually to life in the shadow of the bomb. The politicians' rhetoric is pushing for a confrontation. But strategic experts in Israel and in the United States are warning against this.

The conference center. Security

MK Avshalom Vilan of Meretz went to shake Netanyahu's hand after the leader of the opposition completed his scary speech at the GA about the Iranian threat. "I don't agree with you," said Vilan. "How is it possible not to agree?" asked Netanyahu. "There is no need to scare people," said Vilan, "but rather to build an international coalition against Iran."

The problem is that Netanyahu has apparently already despaired of such a coalition. And it isn't that he doesn't have good reasons. No one is going to defend the Jews if they don't defend themselves, he said in his speech. And it is not entirely clear to Vilan what alternative Netanyahu is proposing.

On Sunday evening, Vilan and his colleague from the Likud, MK Gideon Saar, went to watch a Lakers basketball game, at spitting distance from the conference center where the GA was held. The Lakers won, but the game, the two summed up, wasn't anything special. Most of the Israeli government ministers who came to Los Angeles this week made the rounds of more glittering events - parties, receptions and dinners. Apparently they had a good time. The pillars of the city and its wealthy danced attendance on them, or maybe it was the other way around. The Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, hosted some of these luminaries at his residence. The Nazarin brothers, the wealthiest men in the local Persian community, met nearly every one of the politicians who came to the city.

This was the convention's main contribution to the life of the Jewish people. On Tuesday an American journalist sat at a table and chewed the end of his pen; the deadline was soon. "How many times can I write that this year, too, the GA was boring?" he asked his interlocutor. The intentions of the convention organizers were good, perhaps even necessitated by circumstances. The war in Lebanon diverted attention from local concerns to strategic questions and they changed the program for the GA, transforming it into an event that was entirely about Israel's security. But they did not succeed in transforming it into an exciting, fascinating and vibrant event. For years now the GA has been limping, and there is no savior. The time has come for it to undergo a facelift.


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