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Bush badly botches Mideast conflict [the progressive view]

John Nichols, Capital Times, June 20, 2007

The tragedy of Washington’s narrow “debate” about the Middle East is that few American political players are willing to comment in a serious manner about the fact that George Bush’s mishandling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has done more than money or guns to advance the cause of the Islamic fundamentalists who now control the Gaza Strip.

Disengaged when engagement was called for, meddling when a hands-off approach would have been wiser, and always staggeringly ignorant — remember Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s shock when Hamas won the Palestinian elections early in 2006? — the Bush administration’s approach has been so disastrous that the International Crisis Group’s Robert Malley is being generous when he says “almost every decision the United States has made to interfere with Palestinian politics has boomeranged.”

Almost? Let’s be realistic. Hamas had expanded far beyond its fundamentalist base to draw significant support from Palestinians who simply wanted an end to the corruption of the rival and more secular Fatah group. Bush and Rice responded by throwing U.S. support fully behind Fatah.

The point of the U.S. maneuvering was to isolate and destroy Hamas. According to a recent report in London’s Guardian newspaper, the U.N. Mideast envoy, Alvaro de Soto, confirmed that the U.S. pressured Mahmoud Abbas to refuse Hamas’ initial invitation to form a “national unity government.”

The strategy was a miserable failure. The Bush administration only strengthened the hand of militant factions within Hamas.

This should not surprise anyone. In February 2006, former President Jimmy Carter, whose expertise on the Mideast is respected almost everywhere but in the U.S., warned, “My concern is that in order to try, on behalf of the United States and Israel, to punish Hamas, we’ll actually going to be punishing the Palestinian people who are already living in deprivation. And it’s going to turn the Palestinian people even more against the West and against Israel, against us and make Hamas seem to be, you know, their only friend.”

The fact that Carter’s warnings proved to be prescient will not earn him any forgiveness from his critics. Even the urgency of the moment is unlikely to bring much improvement in the quality of the debate about Bush’s failed Mideast policies. Carter tried, and he was ridiculed, smeared and dismissed for doing so.

It is this reality that has led most prominent political players in the U.S. — especially those seeking the presidency — to avoid saying much of consequence about the administration’s monumental Mideast blunders.

There are, of course, exceptions. One presidential candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is wading into the thick of the debate. “The chaos and factional violence in Gaza that ultimately led to the Hamas military takeover of the Presidential Compound and the National Security Guard building demonstrates a failure of President Bush’s strategy in matters relating to Hamas,” says Kucinich.

Picking up on Carter’s assessment, the congressman adds, “The humanitarian, economic and political boycott imposed on the elected Hamas government were meant to force Hamas to accept U.S. and Israeli conditions or alternatively to force it out of power. The boycott has accomplished neither goal and instead has created a severe humanitarian crisis that is now marred by political factionalism, violence, and unrest.”

Give Kucinich credit for recognizing the crisis on the ground. As the congressman notes, since the suspension of aid to the Palestinian Authority began in April 2006, the number of Palestinians living in abject poverty has risen to more than a million. And a Palestinian Authority budget that was once $1.5 billion annually has shrunk to $500 million, making it impossible to maintain basic services.

Kucinich is calling on Congress to pressure the Bush administration to:

1. Announce that the U.S. will immediately extend diplomatic recognition to the former national unity government coalition of Hamas and Fatah.

2. Ask for the reconstitution of the coalition government.

3. Initiate high-level diplomatic talks in the region, including representatives chosen by the coalition government.

4. Send emergency food and medical aid to Gaza, under auspices of the U.N. and NGOs.

Those are rational proposals — admittedly optimistic, but not irrationally so.

Congress is unlikely to even begin to exert the sort of pressure Kucinich proposes. In the absence of meaningful debate and serious challenges to their approach, Bush and Rice will continue to get it wrong. In so doing, they will make life worse for Palestinians, and for Israelis. They will place the prospect of stability further out of reach in the entire region.

And, despite all their pronouncements to the contrary, they will make the world a dramatically more dangerous place.