U.S. must act in Middle East

April 19, 2001|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON -- To paraphrase Leon Trotsky's reflection on the relationship between war and the people, the current U.S. administration may not care about the Middle East, but the Middle East cares very much about the United States.

At the most immediate, a new study by the Council on Foreign Relations states the obvious from an expert, long-range view: The continued tensions in the Middle East raise new prospects of energy shortages. California today, the United States tomorrow.

Harking back to 1974, Middle East tensions raise the prospect of long lines of raging motorists in their gas-guzzling SUVs looking to blame somebody. Road rage can be translated into politics and control of Congress.

And then there are other kinds of rage.

Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria and now director of the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, notes this is a time of ferment in the Middle East, with more than 50 percent of the population of some countries under the age of 25, with growing unemployment and the gap between rich and poor widening. Unemployment in some Arab countries is more than 50 percent, and corruption is endemic.

This situation is an open can of gasoline, waiting for someone to ignite it, and there is never a shortage of arsonists in the Middle East.

There is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the malign Energizer Bunny of world politics, who has the money and the desire to leverage the situation into an assault on the United States. He has not missed an opportunity to make the point that the U.S.-Israeli security alliance has resulted in misery and death for Palestinians.

In an unlikely, unwilling alliance of blood enemies, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has joined with Mr. Hussein to make things more difficult for the United States.

Mr. Sharon's longtime obsession with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat -- his personal white whale -- leads him into following a bulldozer strategy. That involves plowing straight ahead until he prevails or until he meets an immovable object. In Lebanon in 1982, the immovable object was the United States, which forced Mr. Sharon's forces to withdraw and negotiated safe passage for Mr. Arafat and his PLO.

Mr. Sharon is again on his hunt for Mr. Arafat, who he believes is in charge of the uprising. He is literally bulldozing neighborhoods in Gaza trying to put an end to the Palestinian intifada that began after he made his visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in September.

But, as Mr. Djerejian says, "You can see that the desperate economic plight of the Palestinians encourages extremism. In the current context, the lack of employment, food, water and basic services is fueling anger and resentment against Israel and the Palestinian Authority itself."

He adds that the resentment has spread to include the United States throughout the Middle East, now with its own versions of independent TV news satellite stations and a growing body of independent public opinion.

After July's fiasco of the failed Camp David II summit, the Bush administration can stand aside in the belief that the United States cannot want peace more than the parties involved.

But the Middle East cauldron doesn't wait until it is convenient for the United States to act. It never has and it never will. The Middle East finds a way to show that it cares very much about the United States.

Jim Anderson is a Washington journalist who has covered Middle Eastern affairs from the State Department for more than 30 years.

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