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.