No Comment — March 4, 2008, 2:13 pm

Eyeless in Gaza

Promise was that I
Should Israel from Philistian yoke deliver;
Ask for this great Deliverer now, and find him
Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves,
Himself in bonds under Philistian yoke;
Yet stay, let me not rashly call in doubt
Divine Prediction; what if all foretold
Had been fulfilld but through mine own default,
Whom have I to complain of but my self?

John Milton, Samson Agonistes, l. 38-46 (1671)

In a previous post, I noted that U.S. and Israeli statements concerning developments in the Gaza strip had an aura of rather surreal detachment about them. There was much in the air that suggested some fairly significant though indirect engagement in the disturbing violence in Gaza by Washington and Jerusalem, but there has been little reporting that would allow us to infer what, exactly, was going on. The April Vanity Fair is just out, and it contains an article by David Rose that offers up some coherent explanations. Rose takes the wrappers off of a highly covert project which he dubs “Iran-Contra 2.0,” and the tagging is appropriate for many reasons, including the remarkable coincidence in the cast of characters.

The thrust of Rose’s tale is fairly simple. The Bush Administration was taken aback by Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, and it settled on a covert policy designed to take down the Hamas government and to install a Fatah warlord as the power center in Gaza through force of arms. And Rose links this grand design directly to the violent civil conflagration that erupted in Gaza—which in the view of many experts has left Hamas even more strongly in control than before. If Rose’s account is accurate, it marks another in an extended series of Middle East foreign policy disasters for the Administration. The article appears just as Secretary Rice has set down in Cairo at the start of a major Middle East trip. She was quick to denounce the article as “ludicrous.”

One interesting point to note at the outset: the initiative was highly controversial within the Administration’s Middle East policy circles. Indeed, Vice President Cheney’s senior Middle East analyst, David Wurmser, was strongly against and his account drives much of what Rose writes:

Some sources call the scheme “Iran-contra 2.0,” recalling that Abrams was convicted (and later pardoned) for withholding information from Congress during the original Iran-contra scandal under President Reagan. There are echoes of other past misadventures as well: the C.I.A.’s 1953 ouster of an elected prime minister in Iran, which set the stage for the 1979 Islamic revolution there; the aborted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which gave Fidel Castro an excuse to solidify his hold on Cuba; and the contemporary tragedy in Iraq.

Within the Bush administration, the Palestinian policy set off a furious debate. One of its critics is David Wurmser, the avowed neoconservative, who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East adviser in July 2007, a month after the Gaza coup.

Wurmser accuses the Bush administration of “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.” He believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen,” Wurmser says.

Rose offers up a very sinister portrait of the Bush Administration’s “anointed one,” Muhammad Dahlan. American ties to Dahlan stretch far back. But the relationship got much stronger after 2006. Rose opens it up with a vivid depiction of the sort of evil perpetrated in Dahlan’s name—providing a first-person recounting of a brutal torture scene. Dahlan was a “son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch” according to one of Rose’s State Department sources.

So what exactly did the United States do to push this hardened terrorist thug forward to his fate?

“Those in charge of implementing the policy were saying, ‘Do whatever it takes. We have to be in a position for Fatah to defeat Hamas militarily, and only Muhammad Dahlan has the guile and the muscle to do this.’ The expectation was that this was where it would end up—with a military showdown.” There were, this official says, two “parallel programs”—the overt one, which the administration took to Congress, “and a covert one, not only to buy arms but to pay the salaries of security personnel.”

In essence, the program was simple. According to State Department officials, beginning in the latter part of 2006, Rice initiated several rounds of phone calls and personal meetings with leaders of four Arab nations—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. She asked them to bolster Fatah by providing military training and by pledging funds to buy its forces lethal weapons. The money was to be paid directly into accounts controlled by President Abbas.

The scheme bore some resemblance to the Iran-contra scandal, in which members of Ronald Reagan’s administration sold arms to Iran, an enemy of the U.S. The money was used to fund the contra rebels in Nicaragua, in violation of a congressional ban. Some of the money for the contras, like that for Fatah, was furnished by Arab allies as a result of U.S. lobbying. But there are also important differences—starting with the fact that Congress never passed a measure expressly prohibiting the supply of aid to Fatah and Dahlan. “It was close to the margins,” says a former intelligence official with experience in covert programs. “But it probably wasn’t illegal.”

Don’t you love that ringing assurance? “Probably” not illegal.

The scenario was played through to its conclusion, filled with blood, death and destruction. And in the end, Hamas seemed more secure in its perch than before. It’s no wonder of course that Condi Rice doesn’t want to claim ownership.

But the question that Washington should be asking about the Gaza affair (and almost certainly, which will go unasked) is how this can be rationalized in terms of America’s foreign policy interests. It is more evidence of a flair for dangerous, poorly planned and thought-through experimentation. A conservative foreign policy recognizes that even in the best of cases, our powers of prediction are slight, our ability to assess in advance the results of our interventions are poor. This counsels against aggressively wading into the affairs of others with force of arms except when the risk to our own nation is clear. And in this case, we are witnessing a curious pattern of picking allies, the “lesser of two evils” for some imagined incremental benefits. To venture the reputation and treasure of a great nation in such a manner is foolish. But the real evil of this choice lies in the death, destruction and mayhem which were predictable from the outset. The likelihood that the scheme would bear the fruit that its authors imagined was infinitesimal. Whatever you may wish to label this foreign policy, “conservative” it is not.

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