The Middle East Channel

Strikeout: How Cook fails to bring the neocons back

Last week, my friend Steven Cook valiantly stepped to the plate to defend the counter-intuitive proposition that the neocons got some things right on the Middle East. Cook is a known baseball fan, so I assume that it was the beginning of spring training which inspired him to step up to this particular plate. He ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Last week, my friend Steven Cook valiantly stepped to the plate to defend the counter-intuitive proposition that the neocons got some things right on the Middle East. Cook is a known baseball fan, so I assume that it was the beginning of spring training which inspired him to step up to this particular plate. He took three good cuts, identifying Syria, Iran and democracy as the things the neocons correctly interpreted — but he whiffed on each. Three strikes, and you are out.  Unfortunately, the neocons are not out of the game despite their horrific track record on the biggest issues in the Middle East — and now is not the time to be soft-pedaling their failures or rehabilitating their image.

Cook was right not to let the neocons off the hook on Iraq. He could have said more about their misguided approach to the "War on Terror" and Arab public opinion. And he might have mentioned that the course-correction of 2007, when Robert Gates came in and discarded much of the neoconservative agenda, does not excuse the preceding half-decade. But allow me to focus on the three things which, he claims, the neocons got right.

First, Syria. Cook contends that the neocons were right about the true nature of the Assad regime, that it would never make peace with Israel and always be hostile to the United States.  He argues that all during the Syrian-Israeli negotiations of the 1990s, Damascus never laid out what it was willing to give Israel for the return of the Golan Heights. This is just wrong. The memoirs of both Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, neither known as defenders of the Syrian regime, make clear that in fact the Syrian side gave a quite detailed outline of how they defined "peace" with Israel and what they were willing to give to get back the Golan. 

Those who followed those negotiations closely at the time will recall that these elements were leaked to the press, first in less detailed form to the international Arabic daily Al-Hayat and later in a fuller form to the Israeli daily Maariv. This was later leaked by the Israeli government itself, which was responding to domestic critics who accused it of being ready to give away the store to Damascus. The leak about a draft of a proposed Syrian-Israeli treaty that had been agreed to by both sides was meant to show how well and hard then Prime Minister Ehud Barak had bargained.  Both Indyk and Ross show Barak to have been all over the place on the Syrian negotiations, pushing for a quick conclusion, then backing off at Shepardstown (having to be coaxed off his airplane, in fact, to join the negotiations), and then begging President Clinton to meet with Assad — even though Barak had nothing new to offer on the maddeningly minor territorial compromise he was demanding.

In the end, both Ross and Indyk blame Syria for backing away from peace with Israel, arguing that the elder Assad was pressured domestically not to take the final step. This does not ring true with me, as the Assad regime was not known for its gentle consideration of domestic criticism.  More likely, Assad just decided that the Israelis were not serious. But neither Ross nor Indyk say that Syria failed to set out in detail what it was willing to offer in exchange for the Golan.

More generally, Cook gets the dynamics that drive Syrian foreign policy wrong. He forgets that Damascus was willing to ally with the U.S. in the Gulf War of 1990-91 and that with the end of the Cold War, it slowly but surely accommodated itself to American unipolar leadership in the Middle East. It hedged its bets, to be sure, by maintaining its ties to Iran (which had their origins in the two regimes’ common antipathy toward Saddam Hussein) and never gave up its desire to dominate Lebanon. But its overt anti-Americanism of the post-2003 period was a response to the neo-con-inspired hubris of American policy after the fall of Saddam, characterized by loose talk about further regime changes in the region. Damascus was balancing American power, which is not a particularly unexpected foreign policy reaction. It is hard to understand why Bashar al-Assad engaged in indirect talks with the Israelis through Turkey for years (until they were scuttled by the Gaza conflict of late 2008-early 2009) if the neocons were right about the nature of the Syrian regime.

Cook’s second swing regards Iran. He contends that the neocons sniffed out the true nature of the Iranian regime, recognizing that it was ontologically incapable of reconciliation with the U.S.  But this blanket assessment ignores the important differences in Iranian policy under the Khatami and Ahmadinejad presidencies and implicitly absolves the neocons of Washington’s failure to deal seriously with the former while it had the chance.

It is now well-documented that in the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein there was a serious feeler from the Khatami government for a "grand bargain" negotiation with Washington, in which all issues would be on the table. A good foreign policy strategist, sensitive to regional power realities, would have realized that this was the time for maximum American leverage in the region and taken up the Iranian offer. Instead, the Bush administration ignored the offer and continued in its policy of regime change in the other Middle East member of the "axis of evil."  By the time (in Bush’s second term) that a more realistic view of Iran developed in Washington, America’s regional position was much weaker and the ideologically-driven Ahmadinejad was President.

Would a serious American engagement with Iran in 2003 have led to a diplomatic deal that locked Iran into a non-proliferation promise and limited its opposition to Arab-Israeli peace? We will never know. But what we do know is that Iran’s increased regional power now is the direct result of the neocons’ most fervent wish — the American war in Iraq. If Iran is more of a problem now than it was before, the neocons have to take a big part of the responsibility for that.

Cook’s third cut was on democracy. He contends that the neo-con diagnosis of the region’s political pathologies and their prescription that democracy would "drain the swamp" of the root causes of anti-American terrorism was on the mark. Unfortunately, the evidence just does not support this contention. The hard core terrorists in al-Qaeda hate democracy. A democratic Arab world, at peace with Israel and with close ties to the United States (which is what the neocons naively thought Arab democracy would produce), would be anathema to bin Laden and his ilk.  They would fight just as hard against the United States and Arab governments if this vision came to pass. The implicit argument behind the neo-con prescription is that the citizens of a democratic Middle East would be so satisfied politically that they would not join terrorist organizations. But there is no evidence that democracy has this effect. So it is hard to see how the neocons got it right on the need for democracy in the region if the goal is to stamp out terrorism. 

Moreover, the neocons got one thing very wrong about Arab democracy. Islamist groups do very well in free elections these days, as the Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of 2006 demonstrated. Encouraging democratic reform in American allies like Egypt would very likely bring to power governments less willing to work with the United States and less willing to maintain or join peace agreements with Israel. It is hard to see how that serves American interests.

Cook gets this conundrum about American democracy promotion in the region, but still contends that the neocons were "on to something" in their advocacy of democracy.  He says that the Bush administration’s advocacy of democracy changed the terms of the regional debate. He is right in the case of Lebanon, but the restored Lebanese democracy, despite its many positive points, has not been able to turn Hizballah from a militia with its own foreign policy into a regular political party. It is true that under American pressure, Egypt had freer parliamentary elections in 2005 (the Muslim Brotherhood took 20 percent of the seats, more than 60 percent of the seats which they contested).  And American urgings certainly played a role in the Palestinian Authority’s decision to go ahead with the scheduled parliamentary elections of 2006 that Hamas won. But it is not clear just how American policy "changed the terms" of the regional debate. Egypt has retreated from its tentative reforms. We know what happened in Palestine after the elections — a brief civil war and the current division between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Jordan is probably less democratic now than it was before September 11.  There is no sign of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia or Syria, and Iran has certainly moved backwards on the democracy scale since its 2009 elections. So where is the changed regional debate? It is hard to see its effects.

Back to the baseball metaphor. Steven Cook had a tough task here. He took three good cuts, but missed on each — that’s a strikeout. Striking out in spring training isn’t that bad a thing, so I can forgive him for his effort to provoke a debate. But the proposition that the neocons got some things right about the Middle East is counter-intuitive in the sense that it’s wrong. The neocons took their cuts in the big leagues, and whiffed badly on the Middle East. Reality has rendered its verdict, and there are no do-overs. We as a country are still paying the price of their failures, and will be for some time to come. They failed utterly and they do not deserve a second chance to influence American policy. Send them back to the minors and keep them away from the bat rack.

F. Gregory Gause, III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of  "The International Relations of the Persian Gulf" (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).  He is currently a visiting fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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