At last, Middle East gets Bush's attention

April 09, 2002|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON - President Bush, like presidents before him, has discovered that even though he may not have been interested in getting involved in the Middle East conflict, the Middle East was interested in getting involved with him.

Thus, his near-bizarre detachment from events between Israelis and Palestinians has ended. He is doing what all of his recent predecessors have done - sending his secretary of state to the region to try to move the Israeli-Palestinian struggle a few steps closer to some sort of truce leading to peace negotiations.

There were several strong motivations for the shift in administration policy:

Mr. Bush was receiving anguished - and angry - calls from some Arab leaders, notably Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who warned that scenes of Israel's overwhelming military show of force in the occupied West Bank were creating a massive wave of anti-American protests throughout the Arab world.

The street protests not only were directed at the United States but also against U.S. allies in the Middle East like Mr. Mubarak. Said one veteran U.S. diplomat of the Israeli military strikes against West Bank cities, "The scene reminded me of pictures of the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto."

The Bush administration is heavy at the top with oil men, whose nerve endings began to tingle as the benchmark price for crude oil on the International Petroleum Exchange rose by 3.3 percent in one day earlier this month.

That was alarming on several counts. Savvy global oil brokers were betting their future earnings on the probability of a wider Middle East conflict. That captures an oil man's attention.

With the American economy just beginning to get back on its feet, a spike in oil prices could knock it to its knees and set inflation roaring at the same time. Mr. Bush is very much aware of this with an election in November that will determine which party will control Congress.

It became clear to Mr. Bush that any hope of putting together a coalition of Middle Eastern states to topple Iraq's Saddam Hussein evaporated because of Israeli actions in the West Bank. Which Arab leader would sign up for an anti-Hussein operation with an American president who appeared to take sides with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon? As Vice President Dick Cheney found during his water-testing trip through the region, the answer was none.

Mr. Bush's anti-terrorism crusade - in which world leaders were told they're with us or against us - was beginning to dissolve because Mr. Sharon had taken Mr. Bush's language and logic and borrowed it for his own military and political purposes against the Palestinians.

This was a bitter setback for some of Mr. Bush's inner circle of advisers - Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the unsinkable Richard Perle of both Reagan administrations and others of similar political persuasion - who were pushing the Iraqi expedition.

These are the same people as the pro-Israeli hawks who were pushing to go after Mr. Hussein precisely because they see the Iraqi leader and his future weapons of mass destruction as the main threat to Israel's long-term safety.

So against that background of a reluctant president dragged into the volatile Middle East, what chance does Secretary of State Colin Powell have of defusing the conflict and getting Israelis and Palestinians to resume the peace process?

First, it is clear that there is no chance that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Mr. Sharon would ever agree to negotiate directly. The hatred and blood debts on both sides are too huge.

But as Nicholas Veliotes, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, says, "You've got to start somewhere." It will have to start with arms-length contacts with the Americans, and possibly the European Union, acting as intermediaries, like lawyers in an extremely nasty divorce case.

Mr. Veliotes and other U.S. diplomats believe the current violence and U.S. inaction have the potential of undoing all the hard work that the United States did in the Middle East in the last 30 years. This is why the State Department broke with the political operatives in the White House over how to deal with Mr. Sharon's actions in the West Bank.

That past hard work involved multibillion tax dollars in aligning moderate Arab states, such as Egypt and Jordan, into a quasi-alliance with the United States that involved their recognition of Israel. Among other things, it ensured a reliable supply of Middle East oil, not only to the United States, but also to Europe and Japan.

A belated welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President.

Jim Anderson is a reporter who has covered the Middle East and other foreign affairs issues through 11 secretaries of state.

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