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France’s Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie received a rude introduction to Arab-Israeli issues on Friday when irate Hamas supporters attacked her entourage in Gaza. She escaped injury but faced protesters venting disapproval of her support for freeing Hamas’ long-held prisoner Israeli Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit. Ms. Alliot-Marie was not even remotely freelancing because Sgt. Shalit is a dual citizen of France and Israel, and her call for his immediate release merely restated Paris’ long-held views.
Nonetheless, the Gaza violence should be a wake-up call to both France and Europe more broadly that European Union (EU) policies in the Middle East are failing badly. Unfortunately, there is little prospect anything will change. France and the EU as a whole suffer from contradictory impulses that render their policies impotent and even harmful to their own interests and Middle East stability.
On the same trip, for example, Ms. Alliot-Marie responded to a question from Israel’s Haaretz newspaper by saying Syria “is an actor of much importance in the region that can and must play a constructive role on the area’s stability.” France has a particular blindness because it insists on its historical role in Syria and Lebanon dating to the Crusades; Arabs believe it is a legacy of 19th-century imperialism and the World War I Sykes-Picot agreement with Great Britain.
Yet for all of France’s supposed interest, Lebanon verges on losing the Cedar Revolution and falling under the unambiguous control of the Iran-financed terrorist organization Hezbollah. In fact, in the most troubling but entirely likely scenario, all the progress made since 2005 in forcing Syria out and restoring true Lebanese independence is very much at risk.
Of course, America is far too often complicit in Europe’s mistakes. President Obama’s decision to send a U.S. ambassador back to Damascus after five years without one is an act of foolishness impossible to distinguish from France’s own erroneous accommodation with Syria’s authoritarian government. At least Washington can say it did not make the same mistake as French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who two years ago praised the regime of now-deposed Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali for “advancing freedom and human rights.”
Even worse, both the EU and the United States remain devoted to the Perm Five-Plus-One talks with Iran, which continued last weekend in Istanbul. Entirely predictably, the talks ended with no progress in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. There is not, and has not been from the outset of these tortuous negotiations, even the slightest chance Iran will renounce its 20-year goal of deliverable nuclear weapons. Nor have successive rounds of economic sanctions against Iran, intended to force it into serious negotiations, succeeded. Instead, the Tehran regime has systematically used the talks to buy time to overcome the many scientific and technological obstacles to achieving its objective.
Ironically, while the EU’s infatuation with Iran is led by its “foreign minister,” Baroness Catherine Ashton of the United Kingdom, it is the U.K.’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair who has the clearest view of how to handle the Tehran mullahs. Testifying again before the U.K. inquiry into the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Blair said Iran “has to be confronted and changed. … I say this to you with all of the passion I possibly can – at some point the West has to get out of what I think is a wretched policy or posture of apology for believing that we are causing what the Iranians are doing, or what these extremists are doing. … We have to get our head out of the sand. They disagree fundamentally with our way of life and will carry on unless met with determination and, if necessary, force.” Mr. Blair’s clarity is absent from Mr. Obama’s view of Iran and even from President George W. Bush’s policy in his last years in office.
Unfortunately, every indication is that matters in the Middle East will simply get worse. While the Obama administration clears the decks for its 2012 re-election campaign and makes tactical shifts and feints toward the center of American politics to that end, there is no sign that its foreign policy is shifting to a more realistic assessment of the threats and challenges facing the United States internationally. To the contrary, it is business as usual when the president troubles himself to look beyond his domestic agenda.
Because there is no chance that the United States will regain its foreign-policy bearings before the 2012 election, Europeans concerned for the future of the West as a whole have a special responsibility. They must hold the line until American voters get a chance to reverse the 2008 election at the presidential level as they just largely did in November at the congressional level. In the meantime, conditions in the Middle East will simply continue to deteriorate.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
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