President Bush has made it official: Saddam Husayn's effort to link Kuwait and Palestine is now, in effect, American policy too.
This is what the president announced on Wednesday evening, when he made two major pronouncements about the Middle East to a joint session of Congress. First, "the war is over." Second, "the time has come to put an end to Arab-Israeli conflict."
In connecting the two issues, Mr. Bush is doing what all the major coalition partners avidly seek. Douglas Hurd, the British foreign secretary, has promised a return to the Palestinian issue "with renewed vigor" as soon as Kuwait was liberated; throughout the crisis, the French government has consistently pressed for linkage. Saudi and Egyptian authorities see the Palestinian cause as the ideal vehicle to burnish their nationalist credentials; they are publicly pushing to make this the top diplomatic priority.
President Bush signaled some willingness to link the two issues at the United Nations in October 1990; soon after, according to a Syrian source, he assured Hafiz al-Asad that an international conference would be he. In late January, a U.S.- Soviet joint statement made this connection explicit, deeming it especially important that Arab-Israeli conflict be dealt with to solve the problems of instability in the Persian Gulf.
Outside government circles too, wide agreement exists that the moment has come to focus attention on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Henry Kissinger sees victory in the Gulf as "a historic opportunity"; the Economist goes so far as to argue that "America's main job in the post-war Middle East will be to act as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians."
These are important and wise voices in favor with linkage. But, to paraphrase General Schwartzkopf, the idea is illogical, badly timed, and counterproductive. Other than that, it's a great plan.
Linkage is illogical because the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had nothing at all to do with the Palestinian cause. Indeed, Saddam himself did not discover the connection until ten days after the occupation, when he needed something to answer the unexpected international outrage directed his way. Illogical too, because the 400,000 Palestinians living in Kuwait were among the first to suffer from the Iraqi invasion, losing their trusted status there, their jobs and savings, even their lives. It makes about as much sense to look to the Arab-Israeli conflict as it does to the Kashmir problem. The dispute there approximates the Arab-Israeli conflict in its duration, its origins in the creation of a new religiously-defined state, its nationalist passions, its military escalation, its complexity, and its geographic distance from Kuwait.
To turn to the Arab-Israeli conflict at this moment makes no political sense. Americans have just made a very costly investment in the Persian Gulf, and it has had paid off; why squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by getting diverted to a peripheral issue? Right now, but only for some weeks or months, the chance exists to influence the future course of politics in Iraq. Haring off to another issue—and this should be too obvious to mention—would be a tragic mistake. It would be as though the U.S. government in late 1945 decided to neglect Germany and Japan in favor of the Irish problem.
Actually, there is no need to search that far for an analogy; Washington made precisely this mistake in 1982, when an inability to stay away from the West Bank meant the loss of a unique chance in Lebanon. That story is worth recalling, for it closely parallels the situation today. Here is what happened:
Israeli forces had attained their goals in Lebanon by the end of August 1982 -- getting the PLO out of that country, reducing Syrian military strength, having a friendly government installed. These were Israeli achievements, not American ones, but Israel's close association with the United States, including its reliance on American weapons, caused U.S. prestige to soar in tandem with Israel's. Washington could have seized that moment to restructure the Lebanese polity by changing the communal balance of the government, carefully reducing the Christians' power in favor of the Muslims.
Instead, it pushed Lebanese issues to the side. Noting that the Lebanon war "has left us with a new opportunity," President Reagan on 1 September 1982 offered a (very sensible) plan to resolve the West Bank conundrum by suggesting Palestinian association with Jordan. King Husayn of Jordan mulled the idea for seven months, finally deciding against it in April 1983. Rebuffed, Secretary of State George Shultz returned his attention to Lebanon, but by then American diplomacy no longer could prevail, for the Syrian military was again strong and a new Lebanese president has taken office. Undaunted, Shultz used his office to prod the Lebanese and Israelis into ending the state of war between their two countries. His victory was Pyrrhic, however: less than a year after the 17 May 1983 Agreement was signed, Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad had forced the Lebanese government to renounce it. With this, Washington missed its fleeting chance to make a difference in Lebanon.
Eight years later, this unhappy episode has sunk down the memory hole. President Bush, in eerily parallel language to Mr. Reagan's, told the Congress of "new opportunities" to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He too has outlined a novel sensible policy to that conflict (the "two-track approach"). Like his predecessor, Mr. Bush seems intent to skip from the fluid and relatively simple problem of the moment (Lebanon, the Persian Gulf), to the swamp of the century-old Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. Like him, he appears about to let a unique chance get away.All this makes no sense. But then, as Irving Kristol has observed, "Whom the gods would destroy they first tempt to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict."