Several days after the publication of the Baker-Hamilton Report, David Welch, the head of the Middle East desk in the United States Department of State, argued before a selected audience that U.S. policy had been, and would continue to be, to isolate American enemies in the Middle East: Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaida. The policy was to isolate each of them separately and all of them together. On a more positive note, Israel should be encouraged to support Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Apparently, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has fully adopted this strategic approach.
Looking back at history may be useful to learn some lessons. The basic doctrine of the Austro-Hungarian empire that broke apart at the end of World War I was "many enemies, much honor." The present U.S. administration appears to be attempting to copy the experience of the Austro-Hungarian empire. One may question whether this will turn out to be a successful approach.
Future historians who study the political behavior of the Bush administration, in light of the achievements thus far, will tend to conclude that the effect of U.S. policies during the period 2000-2008 was to contribute to the creation of an Iranian radical Islamic hegemony in the Middle East. The United States helped to destroy Iran's enemy to the East, the Taliban; it opened the way to Shi'ite majority rule in Iraq, to the West; it contributed to the revival of Russian power politics in the North; and it opened the way for Iranian interference among the Shi'ite population of the Arabian peninsula to the south. The Bush administration's energy policies contributed to the rise of oil prices, which helped Iran to finance its regional aspirations. And now, through a policy of "isolating" the enemy, the United States is assisting Iran to build a wide and effective regional coalition together with Iraq, Syria, a Shi'ite-dominated Lebanon, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaida. Instead of isolating Iran, the Bush administration is actually "successfully" isolating its own regional allies, and is proactively undermining the stability of Jordan, Egypt and eventually also of the moderate forces in the Palestinian Authority.
Looking back at history may also be useful to learn some positive lessons. When the American and British policy of supporting the Baghdad Pact broke down, during and after the 1956 Sinai Campaign, then president Dwight D. Eisenhower changed course, and in January 1957, he issued the Eisenhower Doctrine: Engage all potential allies in a common struggle against two well-defined enemies, the Soviet Union and Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. The Eisenhower Doctrine was intended to develop, and in fact succeeded in developing, a multitude of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral relationships among the United States and each of its allies in the Middle East, North Africa, southeast Europe and the Indian subcontinent. For Israel, this policy opened the door to relations with many of those regional powers (particularly Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia).
Today, the common fear of Iranian regional hegemony makes an updated Eisenhower Doctrine (the Bush-Blair Doctrine?) both necessary and possible: Engage with Lebanon to create a more stable balance of forces there; engage with the Syrians to draw them away from the Iranian orbit, using a step-by-step approach; engage with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to assist in driving a wedge between Syria and Iran; and help Abbas to test whether he can form a Palestinian national unity government, and if not, support him in isolating Hamas.
Israel is no disinterested observer; it is an important player. Isolating one's enemy is only possible by engaging with his potential allies. Olmert's policy of creating an opening to the moderate Palestinian leadership is good, but it cannot stand alone. It needs three other elements: an opening move toward Syria; a political program to get Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan fully engaged, and a proactive effort to help the United States to change course.
The author is a senior lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa.