By William Pfaff
Most Americans would likely agree that the main shock delivered to Americans and the American government by the 9/11 attacks was that of vulnerability. Another such shock is impending. It is the national vulnerability that will be revealed this month by the American veto of a Palestinian demand for full United Nations membership.
During the century and a half preceding 9/11, Americans enjoyed national and individual invulnerability to devastating foreign attack, unlike the people of any other major nation. Much has been made in recent years of how nuclear dread lay over the land in the 1950s. My own experience was that even the Cuban Missile Crisis was not what it subsequently was made out to have been. I am sure that the people actually making decisions in Washington quaked in their boots and prayed, which is why nothing happened. The menace was on the one hand so great that there was nothing to do about it (crouching under a table or possession of a shovel notwithstanding), but on the other hand no one in power was so stupid as to initiate a nuclear attack.
The American conviction of national invulnerability marched on. The Vietnam outcome threatened it, but it was easy for Americans, especially those who were not in authority, to say well, yes, but of course we could have won if we had really wanted to use our power.
Iraq is not today really perceived by public opinion as a defeat, only as mistake, muddle and incompetence, and, besides, our troops will (supposedly) be gone by 2012, and what’s past will be past.
In Kabul, Gen. David Petraeus in 2009 promised Barack Obama and the nation that the United States Army could be relied upon for victory in 2010. Now Petraeus has left the army to pursue higher aspirations. Christopher Edley Jr., a member of the Obama presidential transition team and dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkrley, said that the team deemed the President-elect, with no military experience, vulnerable to official blackmail on national security and retroactive Bush administration justice issues, and so advised him to do whatever military and security officials proposed. Public confidence in President Obama on Middle Eastern issues may not be high today, while confidence in the Republicans seems even lower, but few Americans feel vulnerable to Middle Eastern risk. Least of all do they feel threatened by Israel’s actions.
This is likely to prove a serious mistake. National vulnerability has returned. A State Department official has confirmed that the United States intends to veto the expected Palestinian demand for U.N. Security Council recognition as a member state. The U.S. Congress, moreover, under pressure from Israel’s American friends, has declared that it will then cut off funding for the Palestinian Authority.
Egypt and the Arab governments will be angry, but the Arabs have been angry before with the invulnerable United States, and nothing has come of it—except for the 9/11 attacks and a war “on terror” that has gone on for a decade.
Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the U.S., has rather desperately been trying to warn America. He has published his warning in articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times, and circulated it on the Web. He writes that, if Washington vetoes the Palestinian petition, “American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region.”
A veto will provoke uproar among Muslims everywhere. Everyone already knows this, but the Obama administration ignores it.
Al-Faisal indirectly forecasts that, in the case of a veto, the American “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia will come to an end, and says that the Saudis will “adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy”—as Turkey already has done, one notes. The Saudi kingdom would oppose the American-supported Maliki government in Iraq, refuse to open an embassy there, and possibly end its support for American policy in Afghanistan and Yemen.
Al-Faisal also says that Saudi Arabia, by far the largest supporter of the Palestinian Authority, would be unable to give the Palestinians all of the financial aid and religious and political legitimacy that they would need to deal with Israel in such changed circumstances. He notes that, in recent polls, 70 percent of Palestinians anticipate a new intifada if they are vetoed at the U.N.
He warns that the region and the nations principally involved are far better served by continuing cooperation and good will between longstanding allies Saudi Arabia and the United States, and that “Saudi Arabia is willing and able to chart a new and divergent course if America fails to act justly with regard to Palestine.”
The American nation and economy, and its relations with nations far beyond the Middle East, are deeply vulnerable to the political catastrophe against which al-Faisal warns.
However, what al-Faisal does not say is that the U.S. is the only nation to possess the strength and opportunity to act preemptively to solve this crisis. Israel now is incapable of rescuing itself because of its quasi-permanent internal political deadlock.
President Obama could spectacularly reverse policy and save the day. He could declare that the U.S. will vote in support of Palestine’s full membership in the U.N. It will use all of the means at its disposal to support Israeli withdrawal of illegal settlements from territory designated as part of the Palestinian state in the 1948 U.N. partition of Mandate Palestine. It will do all in its power to impose the solution that everyone—including realistic Israelis and the Palestinians—understand to be the inevitable, permanent and just solution of this problem.
The world would be dazzled. Barack Obama’s place in history would be assured.
Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
AP / Tara Todras-Whitehill
Palestinian children from the Aida refugee camp, with posters of themselves holding painted flags of countries that support Palestinian statehood, help mount a display on Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.