Voice

Punitive Measures

The coming Palestinian statehood push at the United Nations is a train wreck. But with the U.S. Congress promising punishment for this effrontery, it's not just Palestinians who will come away grievously injured.

With barely a week to go before the Palestinian Authority (PA) seeks a vote on statehood at the United Nations, members of U.S. Congress have begun to stage a lively competition for the most elaborately punitive legislative response. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has prepared a bill that would withhold funds "from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission," a measure that cleverly kills two abhorred birds -- the United Nations and the Palestinians -- with one stone. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, did her one better with a measure that would eliminate bilateral military assistance for any country that voted for statehood, thus punishing dozens of America's allies for expressing a difference of opinion. But Rep. Joe Walsh, a right-wing Republican from Illinois, took the cake with a resolution endorsing Israel's right to annex the West Bank should the PA go ahead with the vote, thus putting an end to a two-state solution. Walsh has proudly noted that he is copying a radical right-wing bill introduced into the Knesset.

This cynical bidding war demonstrates that blind partnership for Israel crosses both partisan and confessional lines: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists should note that Christians, not Jews, have sponsored much of this legislative blackmail. Fortunately, none of it has a chance of becoming law; the Senate is unlikely even to take up any of these measures. But there is one bill that sounds just sane enough to pose a genuine threat: a House subcommittee has inserted language into an appropriations bill that would cut U.S. budgetary support to the PA should the Palestinians go ahead with the U.N. vote. Compared with all the loony bills, says Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, the liberal Israel lobbying group, "only cutting Palestinian aid begins to look like a compromise position."

Some compromise. Right now, the United States provides slightly more than $500 million a year to the Palestinian Authority. Of that, $200 million goes straight into the Palestinian budget. It is these "Economic Support Funds" that the House measure targets. That's only about 15 percent of the PA's $1.3 billion budget; but the Palestinians already have a $600 million deficit and stopped paying public salaries last month. Unless the Saudis or other Gulf Arabs make up the difference -- and it's their failure to make promised payments that has created the shortfall -- the enormous progress that the PA has made in building a state could grind to a halt. It's possible, though unlikely, that an additional $200 million shortfall could lead the PA to collapse. But it's nearly certain that the government's legitimacy will suffer -- and that United States will be blamed.

Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat and the ranking member on the House committee overseeing foreign aid, has been a leading supporter of the move to threaten the cut in funding. Unlike Walsh, who has said, "There is no such thing as a two-state solution" and believes that peace will come through "Israel having sovereignty over the whole land," Lowey has been a strong supporter of the PA's state-building process and the U.S. funding that has helped make it possible. I asked why she was prepared to put all that in jeopardy to punish the Palestinians for seeking a vote on statehood. "There has to be a line in the sand," she said. The unilateral bid for statehood undermines the peace process. "The Palestinians," Lowey said, "will have to deal with the consequences."

But it's not just the Palestinians who will bear the consequences. Anything that jeopardizes the authority of the PA -- and by extension the moderate Fatah faction -- opens the door to its rival, Hamas, which of course would truly bring the peace process to a halt. And anger over an American decision to not only obstruct the Palestinian bid for statehood but punish its citizens will prove costly for the United States in a new Middle East where public opinion -- and people power -- increasingly matters.

I asked Lowey whether she worried about these consequences. "I worry," she said, "about the Palestinian Authority going to the U.N." She wasn't thinking about the consequences; that was the Palestinians' job. At moments like this, I can't help feeling that Congress should not be allowed to make foreign policy.

Lowey said that she still hoped that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would sheer off before she and her colleagues had to deploy their doomsday device. "I am an optimist," she kept repeating, pointing to the U.S. team, led by White House official Dennis Ross, that has been dispatched to the Middle East to gain Israeli and Palestinian agreement on a new framework of negotiations to be held under the aegis of the so-called Quartet, thus derailing the bid for statehood. But these discussions are in fact a shadow play; it is widely understood that Abbas cannot afford to abort the effort unless Israel makes the kind of concessions that it plainly is not prepared to make. Indeed, Abbas just delivered a speech rejecting the diplomatic bid and vowing to seek statehood at the U.N. Security Council.

Lowey and her colleagues are threatening the Palestinians with doom for refusing to engage with a peace process that is self-evidently dead. Palestinian leaders have been quite open about the fact that they chose the U.N. path only after they concluded that Washington could not or would not push Israel into making meaningful concessions. "We know there is no escape from negotiations," a Palestinian official is quoted as saying in a recent report by the International Crisis Group. "We have no options because the process' sponsor has checked out." The U.N. statehood bid, then, is more a gesture of despair than an act of calculated diplomacy.

Kay Granger, chairman of Lowey's subcommittee and author of the legislative language terminating aid, recently described the upcoming vote as a "train wreck" -- which it may well be. Granger was of course blaming the Palestinians, who are driving the train. But this looming calamity has less to do with Palestinian stubbornness than with Israeli intransigence and American paralysis, both conditioned in part by the pro-Israel (right or wrong) crowd in Congress. In their despair, the Palestinians really may do something genuinely self-destructive. Abbas is fully aware that the United States would veto an attempt to gain statehood in the Security Council. That would be a train wreck, bringing terrible harm both to U.S. standing in the Arab world and to the Palestinians' standing in the United States. It's the one thing that might make Senate action on an aid cutoff unavoidable, thus turning Granger's metaphor into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

President Barack Obama's administration is now trying to line up enough votes at the Security Council to make a veto unnecessary and then persuade the Palestinians to go instead to the General Assembly, which could not grant statehood but could upgrade their status to that of "nonmember observer state," like the Vatican. Of course, the United States would oppose this too; and the Obama administration is hoping to reduce the Palestinians' expected margin of victory in the General Assembly by peeling off key European allies. That, according to a senior congressional aide, a U.S. diplomat, and an expert in the region, is the real purpose of the administration's eleventh-hour dash to the Middle East: to devise language sufficiently acceptable to EU countries that they would agree to vote against the Palestinians in the Security Council or the General Assembly.

This is what U.S. diplomacy on the Middle East has come to. It didn't have to be this way. Perhaps if Obama didn't have to worry about the political consequences, he would be trying to find the least confrontational way of giving the Palestinians the dignity of enhanced status at the United Nations. Perhaps administration officials would now be trying to draft a General Assembly resolution that the Palestinians could accept, and that Israel could almost live with.

But they're not; in fact, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice recently felt compelled to squash rumors that the United States was doing any such thing, lest the Obama administration be accused of accepting an unacceptable reality. Instead, the United States will stand fast with its great friends in the Marshall Islands, and perhaps some EU members, in opposing an upgrade in Palestinian status at the United Nations. Then Congress may punish the Palestinians for their effrontery. And the Palestinians may react badly. And then the Israelis may react badly. And then the Arab street may react badly.

Welcome to the train wreck.

HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Twilight in Manhattan, Dawn in Tripoli

America did nearly everything wrong in the post-9/11 world. The post-Arab Spring world is our chance to finally get it right.

I've learned a lot of painful lessons since Sept. 11, 2001. The only consolation is, everybody else has, too -- at least, everybody who is being honest about it. I was "a 55-45er" on the Iraq war: for it, by a hair. I wrote a book about democracy promotion that sharply criticized President George W. Bush's Freedom Agenda, but was still, in retrospect, too optimistic. I thought the counterinsurgency strategy was the right call for Afghanistan. The world is more recalcitrant -- more tragic -- than I was prepared to accept, or than Bush was prepared to hear. This is, of course, the great lesson of realists like Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan; but it would be a terrible irony if the lasting impact of 9/11 on foreign policy was an acceptance of America's helplessness to shape a better world.

One thing we have learned is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. Those of us who supported the war in Iraq at least in part for humanitarian reasons scarcely imagined that life could get worse for Iraqis than it was under Saddam Hussein. But the Iraqi civilian deaths from the war -- now totaling over 100,000, according to figures compiled by Iraq Body Count -- bleakly demonstrate the limits of our imagination. And yes, of course, the Bush administration was criminally negligent in its management of postwar Iraq; but Saddam's brutality had so deeply damaged Iraq that sectarian warfare might have broken out no matter what the United States did.

Another lesson we have learned is: Just because we must do something doesn't mean that we can do it. The 9/11 attacks persuaded Bush and his top aides that the United States could no longer afford to ignore failed or autocratic states that germinated terrorism -- thus the Freedom Agenda. As Bush majestically phrased it in his second inaugural address, "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." Policymakers thus needed to find instruments -- including but scarcely limited to regime change -- to reach inside states. The insight was correct, but Bush quickly discovered the limits of the American capacity to shape countries for the better. In 2005, he tried to push Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to hold free and fair elections. But when Mubarak realized that such elections would bring the opposition to power, he cracked down hard. Again, you can blame the Bush administration -- and I did -- for abandoning the Freedom Agenda out of fear that it might bring Islamists to power and for undermining its rhetoric with the abusive treatment of detainees in the war on terror. But the truth is that the United States lacked the instruments to produce the change it sought.

President Barack Obama, convinced that Bush had effectively poisoned the idea of democracy promotion, put a stop both to the grandiose language and to the impossible expectations it aroused. In the summer of 2009 he was criticized for holding his tongue when the Iranian regime rigged an election to block reformers from wining seats. But Obama understood that U.S. interference might do more harm than good; he was well schooled in the limits of the possible. During that same period, however, Obama was being driven to the conclusion -- very reluctantly, by most accounts -- that the only way the United States could win the war in Afghanistan was by helping the Afghans create a legitimate government. And so he accepted the logic of the counterinsurgency war that Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Stanley McChrystal proposed to fight there.

At the time, in the early fall of 2009, I was writing an article about Vice President Joe Biden, and Biden kept telling me -- and of course Obama and anyone else who would listen -- that the policy wouldn't work and wasn't necessary. But Obama concluded that it was necessary, and therefore had to work -- at least well enough to allow the United States to leave behind a functioning Afghan government.

It hasn't worked. Classic counterterrorism tactics have done a very effective job of wiping out Taliban leaders, but the Taliban keep regenerating thanks to the Afghan government's scant legitimacy. Endless American efforts to get Afghan President Hamid Karzai to behave other than the way he is inclined to behave have come to nothing. But does that necessarily mean that Biden was right? His argument was always, "It's Pakistan, stupid." The experience of the last few years, however, has shown both that the United States has far less leverage over Pakistan's military leaders than it thought, and that Pakistan's pathologies are even deeper than we understood. Is there any graver example in the world of "We must, but we can't"?

And so there is much to feel chastened about. Last year Peter Beinart, a former New Republic editor and a liberal supporter of the Iraq war, repented with a vengeance by writing The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Beinart came down so hard on poor Woodrow Wilson, and on Wilsonian idealism in foreign affairs, that the Council on Foreign Relations' Leslie Gelb, an arch-realist, took him to task in the New York Times Book Review. Idealism is not, or rather need not be, a species of hubris; it was, after all, Wilson's explicit and eloquent appeal to national ideals that persuaded a very reluctant American public to enter World War I.

There is a very real danger that our reaction to the discovery that we can't do everything will be to conclude that we can't do anything. We should rein in our hubris, tend to our own garden, patrol our own borders (and Persian Gulf sea lanes too, of course). We should not, in John Quincy Adams's now-much-quoted phrase, go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. But as we learned on 9/11, the world beyond our borders can do terrible harm to us, as it could not in 1821. And it can, lest we forget, bring great benefit as well.

We have been given a second chance to get things right. Just as the last decade began with the terrorist attacks, this one has begun with the Arab Spring. It is, in effect, 2002 once more: We stand at the very beginning of a new moment in history, its outcome very much unknown. And, of course, what is centrally different about this moment is that the peoples of the Arab world have acted on their own. The irrelevance of outsiders has made it impossible for Arab autocrats to discredit the democratic movement, as they were able to do in the face of Bush's blustering about freedom, and as the Iranian government sought to do in 2009. And yet we have just seen overwhelming proof that outsiders can decisively tip the scales on behalf of Arab peoples.

I am thinking, of course, of Libya. The NATO bombing campaign dislodged Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime without undermining the rebels' own legitimacy. Conservatives now belabor Obama for "leading from behind," or letting France -- France! -- take the lead; but Obama understands that the Arab Spring is not some sort of test of American power or primacy. American capacities were indispensable to the NATO effort, but no one can say that America delivered Tripoli to the rebels. That's not a bad model for the future.

It is, of course, no secret that American firepower can work wonders. But now the hard part begins. In Libya, as in Egypt and Tunisia, the tyrant is gone, and the burden of creating a future different from the past has fallen on people with no experience of self-government. This is where democracy promotion becomes very real, but also very unglamorous. Libya doesn't need money -- save for its own unfrozen assets -- but it will need a lot of diplomatic hand-holding and help with the establishment of political parties, electoral commissions, a parliament, and so on.

OK, maybe that's not so hard. Here are some hard questions: What are we going to do in Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood captures a plurality of seats in elections this fall? Are we going to say that democracies disqualify themselves when people freely choose Islamists? And what about Bahrain, where Obama was bold enough to publicly demand reform -- and where the regime has carried out a Potemkin version of dialogue with the opposition? Is Obama prepared to threaten serious consequences, or will he back down in the name of preserving alliances, as Bush did in Egypt in 2005?

Obama has often expressed his admiration for Niebuhr and the realists. He will err on the side of restraint. Perhaps, with all we've been through, that's a good thing.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images