The Magazine

Syria Yes, Israel No!

Our anti-terror coalition doesn't distinguish friend from foe

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By NORMAN PODHORETZ
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DURING DESERT SHIELD, the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991, President George Bush told a visitor that Israel would join in the fight "over my dead body." His reason was that the coalition of Arab states he was building to eject Iraq from Kuwait would break up if Israel were involved.

Everyone knows this, but there is something else that few know now and fewer chose to know then: When Saddam Hussein started firing Scud missiles at Israel, several Arab members of the coalition -- including even Syria, whose hostility to the Jewish state was easily a match for Saddam's -- announced that they would "understand" (that is, tolerate) a military response by Israel. Nevertheless, the first George Bush turned a blind eye to this green light, so persuaded was he that Israeli entry into the war would break up the coalition. Refusing to give the Israelis the codes their planes would need to assure they would not be shot down by ours, he stopped them from taking to the air.

Yet the elder Bush must have been aware that special Israeli pilots had been training for years to fly low enough to find the Scud launchers in their hiding places (with the help of target-spotting commandos who had also been preparing for this very mission). Our own pilots were not allowed to descend to such perilously low altitudes. And so, as a direct consequence of the exclusion of Israel, Saddam emerged from his defeat with his Scuds intact, and only the dummies destroyed

Now a different George Bush is sitting in the White House, confronted by a different threat emanating from the Middle East. Even so, the younger Bush has gone about meeting this new threat of terrorism in much the same way his father did in preparing to throw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and preventing him from invading Saudi Arabia. Now, as then, the building of a coalition in which, it is deemed, Arab and other Muslim states must be included, has become so obsessive that it has almost turned into an end in itself rather than a means of fighting a war. And now as then, this overriding imperative has dictated the exclusion of Israel.

Yet today, George W. Bush is under no compulsion to put together a semblance of the coalition his father rightly calculated he needed. In 1991, half the country -- and practically all the Democrats in Congress -- opposed the idea of going to war against Iraq. Hence it was to provide himself with political cover (and a sharing of the financial burden) that the elder Bush assembled his coalition. In 2001, by contrast, some 90 percent of the American people are solidly behind the war on terrorism, and the Democrats are all on board. (Tom Daschle, the majority leader of the Democratic-controlled Senate, seconded the president's magnificent speech before Congress on September 20 with unprecedented fervor: Not even Pearl Harbor elicited words from the repentant isolationists that came close to Daschle's in bipartisan solidarity.)

Why then has George W. Bush been following in the footsteps of his father? Specifically, why has Secretary of State Colin Powell been pitching woo at some of the very states against which the president himself declared we were going to war?

After all, the president vowed that we would make no distinction between terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the states that had financed and trained and provided safe haven and diplomatic protection for them over the years. These states, the president and leading members of his administration kept repeating, were no less guilty of the aggression against us on September 11 than the terrorists who depended upon them.

To make matters even more bizarre, a few of the countries courted by Powell -- Syria and Iran, for example -- were on his own department's list of such sponsors of terrorism. Along the same lines, several groups officially recognized by the State Department as terrorists, including Hamas and Hezbollah, were omitted from a new list of organizations whose assets were to be frozen as part of the war we had declared against them.

But not even all this exhausts the bizarre aspects of the situation, which extend not only to our self-declared enemies but to our "friends" and "allies" in the Arab world -- the two most prominent being Egypt and Saudi Arabia. These "moderates" have sympathetically clucked their tongues over the bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and have made all -- or anyway some -- of the right noises about the evils of terrorism. And why not, since the despotic rulers of those countries are all potential targets in their own right? Indeed, Hosni Mubarak came to power in Egypt only after Anwar Sadat had been assassinated by Islamic militants.

This, however, is not the whole story of how Saudi Arabia and Egypt relate to the war against the terrorists in their midst.

Mubarak and the monarchy in Saudi Arabia may wish for various reasons to play ball with us, and we are constantly being assured that they are doing so. Thus, to start with the latter, in the early days of our struggle to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban regime under whose protection Osama bin Laden had long been operating, Phil Reeker, a spokesman for the State Department, announced that the Saudis "have agreed to everything we have asked of them in our campaign against terrorism."

If this were true, all it would have meant was that we had not asked them to do much of anything, especially not to allow us to launch bombers from Saudi bases. But Reeker's statement was a bald-faced lie.

As of late October, 94 countries had complied with our request that airlines entering this country provide U.S. Customs with advance lists of passengers, so that they could be checked for possible terrorists; the Saudis are among a handful (along with other great friends of the U.S. like Egypt, Kuwait, and Jordan) that have said no. The Saudis have also balked at investigating the 15 hijackers of September 11 who identified themselves as citizens of Saudi Arabia and obtained their visas there. And the Saudis have not exactly been enthusiastic about joining the more than 80 countries that are freezing the assets of terrorist cells. (A Treasury official last week praised the Saudis for their "cooperation," while acknowledging that the accounts in question may simply be under surveillance, not frozen.) To be sure, Saudi apologists whisper that, behind the scenes, they are providing us with valuable intelligence. But if so, it has not been valuable enough to help us find bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan.

Nor has the intelligence we have been getting from that other much-touted bastion of "moderation," Egypt, led us to bin Laden's hideout. Admittedly, unlike the Saudi rulers, Mubarak has granted overflight rights to American warplanes. Perhaps that is why the United States is preparing to supply him with new weapons. Whatever else Mubarak plans to do with these weapons, however, he has repeatedly expressed his determination to refrain from using them -- or the rest of the huge arsenal with which we have supplied him -- against Afghanistan or any other Muslim country. He has in addition particularly cautioned us not to risk offending Islamic "public opinion" either by "widening the battlefield" to Iraq (with which he has been working to improve his relations), or by bombing Afghanistan during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan (even though it was precisely during Ramadan that Egypt itself attacked Israel in 1973).

In interviews with Western journalists like Lally Weymouth of Newsweek, Mubarak attacks bin Laden, deplores suicide bombing, and voices sympathy for America. Yet in his own officially controlled press, not even the relentless assaults on Israel (and Jews in general) are more disgusting than the vitriol directed at America.

HERE ARE ONLY TWO of many dozens of examples. First, shortly after September 11, in Al Akhbar, a daily newspaper sponsored by the Egyptian government, a columnist wrote: "The Statue of Liberty, in New York Harbor, must be destroyed because of...the idiotic American policy that goes from disgrace to disgrace in the swamp of bias and blind fanaticism....[T]he age of the American collapse has begun." Then, after the bombing of Afghanistan had started, the editor of Al Ahram, an even more important government daily, reported that the food we were dropping into Afghanistan "may have been genetically treated....If this is true, the U.S. is committing a crime against humanity by giving the Afghani people hazardous humanitarian products."

This kind of filth could not be published without Mubarak's acquiescence. But very likely he thinks it serves as a safety valve, deflecting opposition to him on the part of a population that shares in such views. Evidently, giving a new twist to an old clich , Colin Powell, and presumably his boss, too, believe that even with friends like these we still need enemies whom we can also cajole and bribe and flatter and whitewash. Which brings me back to the question of why.

The answer usually given is that Powell and Bush are convinced that even lip-service support from some Islamic countries will keep the war against terrorism from being interpreted as a war against Islam, which is how bin Laden and his allies have been trying to portray it.

Never mind that there is an irrefutable argument against this charge in the fact that we have in recent years aligned ourselves both militarily and politically with Muslims: first in the Gulf, and then in Bosnia and Kosovo (where we sided with Muslims against Christians). Scarcely mentioning this fact, we have instead bought into the notion that the price of securing even such minimal support as we receive from Saudi Arabia and Egypt is to exclude Israel, a natural ally in any war against terrorism. It is a price Colin Powell is willing to pay. As he has made abundantly clear over the past month, the only way the Israelis can help us in our war against terrorism is not (shades of Desert Storm!) by participating in it with all the expertise they have gained in this area through much bloody experience, but rather by exercising "restraint" whenever terrorist aggressions are committed against them.

Nor is this all. The administration has no compunction about pressuring Israel to try yet again for a deal with the godfather of contemporary terrorism, Yasser Arafat. This holder of the Nobel Peace Prize is even now continuing to harbor terrorist organizations (at least one of which, Hezbollah, has participated in actions against the United States) in the areas over which he rules as head of the Palestinian Authority. If the PA were a nation, this would qualify it as a target of our war against state sponsors of terrorism. Yet it is not to close that loophole that we are pressuring Israel to accede to a Palestinian state. We are doing so because we imagine that this will lessen Islamic hostility to us and undercut the popularity bin Laden enjoys among Muslims all over the world.

Assuming that Arafat would now accept what he refused when it was offered to him last year by Israel and the United States, it is yet another delusion to believe that the establishment of a Palestinian state at this, of all moments, would have the desired effects. On the contrary: it would be seen by the Islamic world, and correctly, as a capitulation to and a reward for terrorism. It would therefore add contempt to the hatred already felt for us as the embodiment of modernity and all that modernity entails.

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, undoubtedly committed a great diplomatic blunder in warning the West against trying to do unto Israel today what England and France did unto Czechoslovakia when they surrendered it to Hitler at Munich in 1938. But Sharon's mistake lay in talking so bluntly in public to his allies and benefactors, not in the substance of his speech.

The upshot is that the coalition of Muslim states put together by Colin Powell is proving to be of no value to us. I would go further: It is causing us harm, and not alone by making us look like appeasers in our constant rebukes of Israel. We have been pulling our punches in Afghanistan, and a major cause is fear that a greater deployment of our power would put a strain on the coalition. That same fear, I suspect, is also behind the record speeds achieved by some administration spokesmen in fleeing from any suggestion that Iraq ought to be our next target.

Finally, and most damaging of all, by allying ourselves in a war against terrorism with states that harbor terrorism, we create moral and intellectual confusion, and make it even harder to define an already shadowy enemy.

I realize that a similar complaint was lodged against our alliance with Stalin in the war against Hitler. But in forging a pact with the devil, as Winston Churchill put it, we derived a great military asset. An analogous, if lesser, military consideration justifies our current alliance with Pakistan, from whose territory we have been able to stage raids into Afghanistan.

But no such military benefit has come from our courtship of Syria and Yemen and Iran, or even our "friendship" with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And who can tell whether the "intelligence" they are all said to be sharing with us is reliable? If R.W. Apple of the New York Times is right, "the sole known commando raid into enemy territory" in Afghanistan provided "ample evidence that American intelligence about the Taliban is thin."

ON SEPTEMBER 11, we suffered the bloodiest aggression against us on our own soil in our history. War was declared on the United States, and the United States responded by going to war. But in no small measure because of the irrational compulsion to assemble a coalition that Arab and/or Islamic states would be willing to join, we have not been fighting this war with the all-out energy we summoned up after Pearl Harbor.

We, the American people, passionately want and need and demand that the enemy be defeated as decisively as Germany and Japan were by 1945. (Seventy-two percent of us are even in favor of restoring the draft!) It is not merely our physical security that has for the first time been called into question. A great blow has also been struck against our confidence in our strength and power, and we hunger for -- yes -- revenge.

Beyond revenge, we crave "a new birth" of the confidence we used to have in ourselves and in "America the Beautiful." But there is only one road to this lovely condition of the spirit, and it runs through what Roosevelt and Churchill called the "unconditional surrender" of the enemy. If we go on dithering, our lives will remain at permanent risk. So, too, will something deeper than the desire for physical security that has been stirred and agitated by the ferocious wound we received on September 11: a wound that is still suppurating and sore for lack of the healing balm that only a more coherent and wholehearted approach to the war will bring.

What I mean is that nothing less than the soul of this country is at stake, and that nothing less than an unambiguous victory will save us from yet another disappointment in ourselves and another despairing disillusion with our leaders. Only this time the disappointment and the despair might well possess enough force to topple us over just as surely as those hijacked planes did to the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Norman Podhoretz is editor-at-large of Commentary and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is My Love Affair with America (Free Press).

November 12, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 9