At a Passover seder

April 21, 2003 1:29 a.m.

At a Passover seder a few days ago I was talking to an Israeli emigre who told me there was a long-abandoned oil pipeline connecting the Iraqi city of Mosul to the Israeli port city in Haifa. The pipeline was built by the British in the 1930s and 1940s. But it was shut down in 1948 when the Brits quit Palestine and the state of Israel was born. It’s sat unused for more than half a century.

The implications of reopening such a pipeline under the auspices of a pro-American Iraqi government were obvious to me immediately. But I didn’t know if the idea had yet gotten much serious attention.

It turns out that it has. Quite a lot, actually. The issue was first raised by Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure at the end of March. His comments were reported in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Here’s a more recent piece from Janes (the British defense industry news publisher) and another in Sunday’s Guardian.

The Guardian piece not only confirms that this is being actively discussed in Israel, but also that the Israelis are discussing it with US administration officials as well as members of Ahmed Chalabi’s INC. (Add to this, Richard Perle’s statement last month that Chalabi “and his people have confirmed that they want a real peace process, and that they would recognize the state of Israel. There is no doubt about that if they come to power.”

This captures what’s at the heart of my deepest misgivings about this whole endeavor we’re now embarked upon: fatal overreach on the part of American policy-makers. It’s an overreach with multiple causes, none of which will lead to anything good.

I’d like nothing better than to see a pro-Israeli government in Baghdad. It would be great if they could start pumping oil from Mosul through Jordan to Haifa. Same goes for a “real peace process.” But what is the chance of any of these things happening in the short term and the new government of Iraq actually being democratic?

What sort of government in the Arab world, born of what is at best the iffy origin of an American invasion, would kick things off by establishing warm relations with Israel and opening a pipeline to sell Iraqi oil to the Israelis? The answer, I’d imagine, is one that won’t last a second longer than American troops are on the ground.

There are those who think that Arab hostility toward Israel is largely the product of corrupt, authoritarian governments that divert popular unrest into rage against Israel. I think there’s a degree of truth to that argument. But even if you grant the point, which I do only to a limited degree, it’s still quite possible that that antipathy will persist long after the corrupt, authoritarian governments who fed it leave the scene.

It’s already clear that our credibility and Arab perceptions of our motives are extremely poor. To make this democratization project work, we will really have to be, as the old-timers say, purer than Caesar’s wife. If we treat Iraq simultaneously as a democratization project and as grab-bag to fill out our geopolitical wish list, then we’re heading for disaster.

We hear a lot, and rightly so, that this effort is going to require patience. Usually that’s meant in the sense of patience to stay involved in Iraq’s affairs for a very long time. But we’re just as much in need of patience to achieve our most desired ends in the region. If we don’t have it, if we try to squeeze this orange for every quick advantage, we really are heading for disaster.

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