The United States is now bombing ISIS targets in Syria, opening a new front and possibly new dangers in the region. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s top diplomatic troubleshooter for more than two decades, argues that a series of critical American mistakes in the Middle East since 9/11 have brought President Obama, a reluctant warrior, to this point, with no sign that American policymakers have learned from the past. Our UN correspondent, Barbara Crossette, spoke with Brahimi in Paris.
The United States, now expanding its war against the formidable, ruthless fighters of the Islamic State, has found Arab nations willing to join the campaign in their own self-interest, but the base on which the coalition is built is not a very solid one. More than two decades of American naïveté or misunderstanding of Arab and other regional societies, astonishingly poor planning and post-conflict miscalculations that undercut claims of success, have left a deep mistrust and lack of confidence in the United States, in the view of the United Nations’ most experienced and savvy international envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who worked closely with Americans in Iraq in 2004 and Afghanistan in 2001–04. Brahimi was the UN-Arab League special representative for Syria from 2012 until early this year.
To add to the skepticism, despair and alienation across the region, Brahimi says, is the corrosive, unconditional American support of Israel despite its unending land grabs and military assaults on Palestinians, most recently in the attacks on Gaza this summer. It was outrageous that the reaction in Congress and from President Obama to the most recent carnage and death was prefaced with the time-worn expression “Israel has the right to defend itself,” Brahimi said, adding that the lack of sensitivity to the hugely imbalanced casualty figures—more than 2,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza compared with sixty-eight Israelis, almost all of them soldiers, according to United Nations figures—seemed to imply that “Gazans are not human.”
“I generally don’t like to speak about countries,” said Brahimi, usually a consummate diplomat who was Algeria’s foreign minister from 1991–93, “but [Obama] is not the president of the United States only. He’s a kind of president of the world. I still remember his Cairo speech in 2009. That was an inspired and inspiring speech. So looking back at that speech, definitely we are disappointed.”
Brahimi, now 80, speaking in an interview from his home in Paris, said that, like it or not, “the Palestinian issue is still important for all of us in this region. This is a very, very big part of the story. Anything on the Palestinian issue is decided by the Israelis. It is a mistake to go to the Americans: Please come and help us with this problem. They cannot. They are not allowed to. We need Americans. They have a huge role to play. But they cannot be an honest broker.” Not that there have never been laudable American efforts to find solutions, he said.