What moral principles underline U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

In June of 1982 I co-led a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a religious sister, accompanied by my parents and sister and an entourage of pilgrims. We visited sites in Jordan and Israel, crossing the Allenby bridge from one country to the other, by coincidence as Israel was preparing to bomb Lebanon. On our visit to the Holy Land we were to find ourselves in the middle of a war.

My father had difficulty sleeping the night we were situated in a hotel across the Kidron Valley from central Jerusalem, as he heard whirring from the engines of tanks and trucks which he recognized as American military machinery being secretly deployed during the night for use in combat, if necessary, with troops hostile to Israel ensconced in Lebanon. My father was a strong supporter of the U.S. military, having had three of his four sons serve in the Army during the Vietnam war, with one serving in Vietnam and the other two, stateside. I was the only exception, having a 4-D classification as a seminarian, then as a priest, during the war.

The concern my father had about this whole situation was that it was the United States supplying weapons and machinery to the Israelis, and the Russians supplying weapons and machinery to the Palestinians that made for a potential conflict on a world scale, much larger than the one that existed at the time in Israel. Something was wrong with this picture for him. He can now see the dilemma in a much fuller perspective, as he was called to eternity in July of 1997.

Our pilgrimage was able to move through Israel to visit most of the sites that were on our tour. Our tour guide was Palestinian, and we managed to visit a shop in Jerusalem that was Palestinian-owned.

One of the men working in the shop managed to get a little too close to me, not once, but twice, with the hot end of his cigarette, leaving two burn marks on my arm. The same thing happened to another member of our group. We got the message. It wasn’t an accident. We were being told, “Americans, we like your money. We just don’t like you.” We decided we had enough shopping in that store and made a quick exit.

Already back in 1982 Palestinians were give us a milder, subtler message than we have gotten from them in recent years. “We don’t appreciate your supplying your military might to our enemy. We like your money. We just don’t like you.”

For whatever reason American foreign policy in the Middle East has been decidedly one-sided. Consequently the other side identifies us with their enemy. Every act of aggression by their enemy is an act of aggression by the United States. And of course, they can point to the weaponry as evidence of our collusion with the enemy. This is a very difficult bind for the American people to be in. It is taken for granted that the United States supports every military move by the enemy.

Such is not a fair or accurate conclusion, but it is the one that is made.

The Vatican’s Middle East policy, under Pope John Paul II, has been attempting to help repair long-hostile relations between Jews and Muslims, promote the establishing of a Palestinian State that includes territory presently occupied by Israelis, protect minority Christian denominations in the Middle East, and establish the demarcation of territorial hegemony over Old City and holy sites for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

U.S. foreign policy has vacillated in areas where the Vatican policy has remained consistent. The American people would do well to listen more carefully to the moral wisdom of Pope John Paul II, the pope who helped topple Communism in Eastern Europe, the pope who has helped melt the freeze in U.S. relations with Castro’s Cuba through his visit there, the pope who has visited nearly every troubled political area of the world and brought a message of hope wherever he went.

The Holy Father remains one of the great, credible religious leaders of our time. He is presently speaking out strongly, cautioning against a pre-emptive, unilateral invasion of Iraq, prior to clear evidence of the amassing of chemical and nuclear weaponry by Iraq, as determined by impartial observers. His position is not an effort to whitewash the evils perpetrated by Saddam Hussein, but to look for alternatives to a full-scale war in addressing them.

The United States clearly has the might to topple Saddam Hussein. Doing so without a clear moral mandate puts the American people at risk for years to come. We know from a horrendous historical experience that disgruntled Palestinians are no longer using the butts of their cigarettes to vent their anger.

Better for us to spell out clearly our foreign policy regarding the war between Israel and Palestine, refusing to support extremists and terrorists on either side. We should support only governments like those led by the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and the late Anwar Sadat of Egypt, both of whom became martyrs because of their balanced and just policies. They were killed by extremists from their own countries. For the United States to link its weaponry, money, and support with any group of leaders of a lesser caliber would be disastrous for the American people, morally and politically.

American foreign policy in the Middle East lacks a moral compass. Returning to one will help us out of the morass we are in.