The spokesman and the novice

One of the most interesting commentaries on U.S. foreign policy is certainly the one made by Mr. Richard Boucher, spokesman of the State Department. Because he reflects the official line he is of much help to journalists, diplomats, and other professionals. Used to the old game of questions/answers, to the é sometimes- vicious tricks of the reporters, and thus spending most of his time during briefings and interviews in trying to guess what is coming next, Mr. Boucher has become almost as important as the Department he represents. It is not an easy job, one must concede it. All the other professional commentators take their time in studying the files and the problems they are expected to comment. Those who are working for the media are perhaps the luckier, for if they have succeeded in making a reputation of pundit, they may even afford sometimes to say anything. And that “anything” would even find its justification more in the reputation than in the argument put forward. Moreover, they are not expected to get along with the official line. Quite the contrary. The more they display sometimes their disagreement, the more they become interesting in the eyes of the public. But in the post he occupies, Mr. Boucher can afford neither saying “anything”, nor displaying his disagreement with the Bush administration.

Yet, despite his professionalism and his skill, he is sometimes confronted to unexpected questions. The point is that those who can play at cornering Mr. Boucher are not really professional reporters. Curiously enough, the latter scarcely get off the old paths of the usual chat with the spokesman. To whoever reads the transcripts of such sessions, the point is clear. The real difficulties come out of the uncontrolled huge public. Those anonymous people, whose names and whereabouts nobody cares about, and who happen to intervene in a public debate, on TV, on the radio or online, arguing with naéve, yet sincere faith. And it is paradoxically that “naivety” that puts the clock right, somehow pushing the spokesman é or the leader or whoever is on the stage- to his last position. The “cornered” would then reveal himself either as a dribbler or as a daydreamer!

That is just what happened to Mr. Boucher lately. He was speaking to Mr. Paul Orgel of C-Span’s Washington journal (January 29, 2002), and questions were raining from the public. Commenting on Crown Prince Abdullah saying that the American position on the Middle East is hard to defend for its Arab friends, Boucher, while agreeing on the Prince’s analyze of the US-Saudi relationship in the wake of September 11 attacks, said: ” we don’t think that our position on the Middle East is indefensible”. So what’s the problem?

The problem, as he explained it afterward, is that “they (the Arabs) don’t agree completely with what we’re doing in the Middle East. They would like to see us put more pressure on Israel, and a little less on Arafat”. Thus formulated by the spokesman, in his skillful diplomatic rhetoric, the problem sounds that simple! It is just a matter of putting the “right degree” of pressure! Once this is done, everything will be in order!

But the true answer came out of the blue. It was contained in the question put to the spokesman by a caller who defined himself as an American ” who served in the military for six years, and proud of it”. What that American citizen said thereafter deserves to be fully quoted here, because first, it was not the kind of talk the spokesman is accustomed to hear from his interlocutors; and secondly because that anonymous man expressed actually the opinion the majority of the Arab people have, albeit few among their officials would dare face publicly the American officials with it.

He told Boucher: ” I have to say it has become quite obvious to so many Americans that American Middle East policy is almost exclusively formulated and has been hijacked by the Israeli Jewish lobby. I mean more than thirty years ago, Senator Fulbright the Chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said Israel controls the Senate. That was 30 years ago. So I think we need to reassert our sovereignty over Israel and over the Jewish lobby in Washington. That’s number one. But number two; of course we all want an end to violence. And I detest the killing of all civilians, Israelis and Palestinians. But on the one hand, you have Israel, who is an illegal military occupying force, who has been there for 35 years, bombing with F-16s, Apache helicopter gunships, tanks. On the other hand, Palestinians 1000 of whom are dead, 300 of them children under the age of 18é”

Then, even before he could put his question, Mr. Orgel interrupted him saying: ” Thanks a lot. We get the point.” And he turned for Mr. Boucher to have his answer.

Indeed the latter got the point, but what was the question? Would he answer that man for the 30 last years of American vain attempts at building frail castles on the sand of the Middle East? Would he answer him for the past forty years of the new-desert wandering of the Jewish people? This is not exactly the job Mr. Boucher was hired for. What he was ready to explain concerns the present situation, not how we came to it. And he certainly performed that task as best as could be. But in doing that, he was precisely é and maybe unwillingly- escaping the questions that American citizen wished him to answer, which could not be much different from these: Why being the world most powerful nation are we still at the mercy of the small state of Israel? Why knowing the evil Israel is doing are we unable to stop it? Why among all the United Nations’ states, Israel is alone to be allowed an illegal behavior leading to trouble and war, without getting punished?

Boucher will not answer these questions, neither will any other American official, probably. All he could manage to say was something like: ” the US policy is not the same as Israeli policy.” Better still. He would even answer a question by another (which is not always a Jewish behavior, as Woody Allen once pretended!). For example: ” The real question is how do you get started? And how you get started if you’ve got to stop the violence? And where does the violence come from?” This is to prove- if need be é that a spokesman is not necessarily ” Mr. Answer”! He may also be “Mr. I don’t know”! And if he wants to confuse you he would put the questions instead of you and make sure they’ll never be answered, which is the perfection of his art!

It was the ex-French President Charles De Gaulle who said once: ” politics is the art of using the fancies so that they look true! What great deeds can we achieve without fancies?” That seemed to be paying for the General until the youth of May 68 made him descend from his pipedream’s world to realize that “the times are changing”, as goes the contemporary Bob Dylan’s hit.

This is another epoch indeed, and if it was hard to run countries with “fancies” and make-believes already in the first half of the previous century, can you think it is easier today with the media and communications’ boom?

The trouble for whoever observes the development of the US foreign policy in the Middle East since, let’s say 1948 to our days, is that he would inevitably notice two strange phenomenon: the first is that the American support to Israel has never faltered or defected, notwithstanding the alternating shifts in the Israeli leadership and governments. This is so obvious that one can certainly call it a constancy of the American policy. The second phenomenon concerns the relations with the Arab world. Here we are no longer in the constancy, but rather dealing with the variables. There is indeed a case-by-case consideration of each policy. Thus, we cannot even talk of a single American foreign policy, but rather of several varied approaches to the states concerned. But when the Americans are forced to choose between their Arab allies and friends and Israel, they would in 99,99 % cases line up with the latter even if they know they are thus offending the Arabs. That was not only the American behavior during the wars, but also during the peace process’s negotiations, as all the Arab witnesses reported, not to say anything of the diplomatic battles- proved by the successive vetoes- the American ambassadors to the United Nations led against the Arabs in the International Security Council.

The point is that for each American administration there is a schedule and an agenda to respect. Beyond these limits, there is no foreign policy whatever; as if the world has to deal with a newborn every time there is a change in the White House. The world itself has not changed, though. The problems are the same between an American era and another. The example of the Palestinian question is the most striking: all the American Presidents who succeeded to Truman had inherited it along with the relationship with Israel and the Arab states. And if all of them, without exception, gave full support to Israel, foreknowing that it means actually backing the invaders, none of them thought it convenient é if not to the American interests, at least to the sense of freedom and justice inscribed in the US constitution- to answer the expectations of about four million of Palestinians forced to put up with the military occupation, to flee to a foreign land, or turn themselves into human-bombs.

What was the cost of that foreign policy for the American citizen? Quite simply, he would scarcely be reminded that the $4 billion he yearly pays to the Israeli state é to speak only of what everybody knows- is actually his “share” in the oppression of the Palestinian people. Thus, making the American people who twice in the previous century é world war one, and world war two- sacrificed its own comfort for helping those who fought for freedom and democracy, – making of that proud and free people the accomplice of invaders, and criminals like Sharon, is a price é morally- far more costing than all the billions consented to make of Israel that little fascist thug it has become over the years.

What would Mr. Boucher say to account for the Israeli repeated deviations? Of course he condemned them many times as he would condemn any thuggish behavior from any rogue state. But would that be enough to justify the fact that, despite all the promises and all the declarations of American officials in favor of peace and a Palestinian state, there is not the least intention as far as we can observe, to stop the Israelis or to deny them the ungodly “right to kill” they have taken?

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.