Posted on October 16, 2006 in Washington Watch

In not a single House or Senate race being contested this year will the candidates engage in a serious debate about the failed US policy in the Middle East. There are a number of races where the Iraq war is an issue, but in these instances the debate has more to do with how we got into the war, the mistakes we’ve made and how we should leave. There are, to be sure, supporters of the President’s vision (or fantasy) of the Iraq war; i.e., that we are producing a democracy that will transform the region. But in no case is there a serious discussion about Iraq, itself, or the consequences of our broader Middle East policy.

How can this be, especially given the reality of the horrible impact our polices have yielded for the people of the region in just the past few years?

We have created a mess. Iraq is a cauldron of explosive violence, with most of that country’s neighbors living in fear of its implosion. Iran, now emboldened by our failure in Iraq, has coupled inflammatory extremist rhetoric with a defiant nuclear challenge. Lebanon, still reeling after this summer’s devastating assault, is deeply divided with civil conflict looming on the horizon. The Palestinians have suffered from US neglect of the peace process and the continued brutality of the occupation, both of which have contributed to a growth of extremism and the internal dissolution of their society. Meanwhile, Israel, the supposed ally, has fared no better, with war and occupation resulting in renewed isolation and insecurity.

All of this points to a remarkable story of failure, and yet not a single campaign has challenged the polices that have brought us to this point.

Instead of debate, there is silence—as if the horrors of this past summer in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq didn’t happen and our policies in no way contributed to the mess, we and the peoples of the Middle East, are in. There is, it appears, a bipartisan consensus in support of failure, with a resulting deadly silence.

There are two areas where the Middle East is being discussed. Some in both parties continue to demonstrate resolve to “end our dependency on Middle East oil.” This slogan has been crafted to falsely conflate several problems—terrorism, environmental concerns and anti-Arab sentiment. This campaign, as I have noted before, is profoundly misleading on so may levels (e.g., we are dependent on oil, but not Middle East oil per se; environmental concerns are real and should be addressed, but Arab-baiting isn’t helpful in this regard; and generalizing Arab wealth and conflating it with “terror” is as racist as the old “Jewish banker” canard).

The other instance where the Middle East emerges as an issue in some campaigns is with the crowd that just can’t seem to let go of the Dubai Ports World issue. Some Democratic campaigns are still seeking to “exploit” their “victory” on this issue—some in campaign materials and others in boasting phone calls to voters.

Shameful.

The Middle East poses too many critical challenges and it holds too many vital interests for this region to be treated so shabbily.

As I have noted before: in the past three decades, since the end of Vietnam, the US has spent more foreign aid, shipped more weapons, sent more troops, fought more wars and lost more lives (even before Iraq) in the Middle East, than anywhere else in the world. We’ve also expended more political capital in one-sided diplomacy that refused to understand regional realities or recognize our broader interests, and we’ve created enormous animosity because of these failures. And yet, no debate.

I am often told that the reason is fear of offending powerful special interests (the “religious right” and hard-line pro-Israel Jewish groups). But polling shows that while many Americans do indeed support Israel, they want the Administration to pursue policies that are balanced and support a just peace settlement (this is also true of polling within the American Jewish community). Most Americans know that they do not understand the Middle East, see our polices as one-sided and failed, and want change. But, it appears they won’t get any change this year.

It’s too late to expect any meaningful debate to occur in 2006, but not too late to demand that it is on the agenda for 2008.

We simply cannot continue to alienate ourselves from the peoples of this critically important part of the world. We simply cannot persist in operating so blindly in a region whose peoples, culture and history we do not understand. We simply cannot allow those who seek to lead us to continue to refuse to confront our failures and to be silent.

We should have debated our Middle East policies years ago. We did not. It is vitally important that the debate begin now.

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