Fear of Failure Fails as Mideast Policy

Bush's repeated claims that his administration is fully engaged in the Middle East contrasted sharply with reality earlier this week when Egyptian national security adviser, Osama el-Baz, arrived in Washington to find many officials he hoped to meet with had followed Bush's example and skipped town. Neither national security adviser Condoleeza Rice nor assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs William J. Burns were in Washington to greet Baz. Bush's recent public statements on the Middle East have consisted almost entirely of variations on the theme that "The cycle of violence has got to end in order for the peace process, or any peace process to begin." When he does meet with administration officials, Mr. Baz is expected to reiterate what Arab diplomats have been saying for months: Bush's position is unrealistic.

Despite his fondness for the buzzword of "accountability," Bush has been reluctant to apply it in the Middle East. In an interview with Margaret Warner and John Hoaglund on August 8, under the auspices of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross took issue with the Bush administration doing little more than publicly chiding both sides.

[N]othing is going to change unless, in effect, we hold each side to the commitments they made in the Tenet plan, not by saying publicly, "You have to do this," but by saying, on a day-to-day basis, "Here's what you're doing," versus "Here's what you're supposed to be doing." At a certain point, you make it clear you are prepared to hold each side publicly accountable and say who is performing and who is not performing. You will not change the behavior unless there is that kind of involvement, and that kind of structure of accountability. If it comes to the notion of a seven-day period of calm, we should define what is a seven-day period of calm, and link that also to the structure of accountability.

Details of the Tenet plan, initially agreed to in mid-June, were never released publicly by the administration, although a text was published in the Israeli newspaper Ha'Aretz. Israeli and Palestinian spokesmen not surprisingly chose different aspects to emphasize. Palestinians said that Israel was to ease its blockade of Gaza and the West Bank, and eventually pull back its troops to positions held before the intifada began in September 2000. Israelis focused on the need for an end to violence, saying that even stone throwing would be a breach of the cease fire. The cease fire never materialized, and in the weeks following the ill-fated agreement, each side has likely violated most of the provisions they agreed to, while blaming the other side for the deteriorating situation. An unidentified Western diplomat in Israel characterized U.S. diplomatic efforts there as limited to matters such as travel documents and small real estate disputes, concluding, ""It's not a policy dialogue or any policy direction."

Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland, blamed the administration's paralysis on fear of failure. "[T]hat's the bottom line.... They are getting over the Clinton complex when in the first few months the policy was a "not-Clinton" policy — because they didn't like him and watched it fail." Egypt's Mr. Baz termed the Bush policy "inaction" in an interview with the New York Times, Wednesday, August 15, warning that the administration's lack of involvement could strengthen the hand of extremists in moderate Arab countries -- a far greater risk, he said, than loss of prestige. Further, Mr. Baz suggested the Bush policy was strengthening extremist positions in Israel, where moderates had hoped the U.S. take a position that would help "check the mad spiral of violence." "In the most moderate Arab countries the perception of the general public is that the United States doesn't care about what is happening — or does not want to confront the Israeli government because you have your eyes focused on the domestic program.... In all the gulf countries, you should take a look at what is being said about the United States in the mosques," he added, suggesting that the administration's current approach would encourage the "growth of fundamentalist trends in the region. If this happens it will seriously hurt United States interests." Similarly to Dennis Ross, Mr. Baz advocated that the U.S. clearly and even-handedly define an implementation plan for the Mitchell report, nominally endorsed by the Bush State Department earlier this year.

David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy suggested in February that Sharon's Likud government might actually be more dependent on the U.S. -- both the government and individuals -- than a Labor Party government, because of the continuing deterioration of relations with its Arab neighbors. "This, of course, does not mean that President Bush should become a Middle East desk officer. Middle Easterners should be weaned from the assumption that they can have the attention of the American president whenever they want it.... But as for staying on the sidelines, there's far too much at stake for that."

Meanwhile, not only has the violence continued to escalate, but each side has taken actions that have symbolic significance. A Palestinian gunman firing an automatic weapon outside the Israeli Defense Ministry seemed to be making the point that no where in Israel is safe. And suicide bombings of popular destinations like a pizzeria, disco, and shopping mall, while not new, target Israeli hopes for a Western way of life. Conversely, Israel's seizing of Orient House, regarded by many Palestinians as effectively their government headquarters, targets Palestinian hopes for a state of their own.

Bush and Secretary of State Powell have made public statements that Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat must crack down on Islamic militant groups, particularly Hamas. Hamas is an abbreviation of Harakat Al-Mouqawama Al-(I)Slamia, or Islamic Resistance Movement. The word itself means zeal, in the religious sense. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was jailed in Israel in 1991. Hamas is a apparently a nationalist movement aimed at a liberation of historical Palestine (which includes what is now Israel). Some observers have suggested that Hamas influence has increased in response to Israeli closure of Palestinian territories, continued settlement of the West Bank, etc. Although periodically repressed by the Palestinian authorities, a faction within Hamas seeks dialogue with the PLO and hopes to transform itself into a political party. Hamas's popularity derives in part from its social service activities in Palestine. The Jewish Post reports that 95% of its budget is believed to finance these activities, which include mosques, schools, clinics, youth groups, athletic clubs and day-care centers. Boundaries are blurred, however, between political, social, and military activities, since schools and youth clubs are used to promote Hamas's political message.

Hamas is believed to be responsible for the bombing of a Tel Aviv pizzeria on August 10. Arafat apparently promised to arrest certain terrorists as a part of the Tenet agreement in June. While keeping up a stream of rhetoric directed at Arafat, there is at the same time some evidence that the administration does not really believe Arafat is capable of following through on his commitment. The State Department, in particular, has carefully chosen words such as urging the need for greater "effort," rather than specifying results.

Bush administration refusal to take a more active mediating role in the Palestinian conflict has complicated their policy efforts concerning Iraq, as well. While many moderate Arab leaders regard Saddam Hussein no more positively than does the U.S. government, Hussein has been successful in portraying Iraq to the Arab man-in-the-street as a victim. Moreover, he gains in stature by representing himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause. U.S. efforts to modify policy toward Iraq have been frustrated recently. A proposal in the U.N. to limit sanctions against Iraq to military-related items died in the Security Council. And the U.S. lost its first aircraft in the no-fly zone, although it was a mechanical failure and not the result of Iraqi countermeasures.

So the strenuous effort to avoid failure by limiting involvement in the Palestinian conflict has produced failures of its own in loss of status among moderate Arab governments, and enhancing the stature of Saddam Hussein in the region. And while the administration escalates its rhetorical demands that Arafat condemn Islamic militants, their refusal to establish the kind of accountability that Dennis Ross proposes may actually have driven Arafat closer. Months of violence have taken their toll on him personally, and politically, to the point that he has made exploratory inquires to Hamas and Islamic Jihad asking them to join him in a "unity" government.


Perlez, Jane "Bush Theme: End the Cycle of Violence in the Mideast" NY Times 15 Aug. 2001

Perlez, Jane "U.S. 'Inaction' Weakens Arab Moderates, Egypt Aide Warns" 16 Aug. 2001

Hardy, Roger "Tenet plan open to interpretation" BBC News 13 Jun. 2001

Hockstader, Lee "U.S. Role as Mideast Mediator Fades to a Whisper" Washington Post 7 Aug. 2001

Haberman, Clyde "Symbolic Mideast Tactics Underscore Growing Divide" 12 Aug. 2001

"Elise Labott: Washington puts the onus on Arafat" CNN.com 13 Aug. 2001

Grier, Peter "Bush relearns lessons of Mideast" Christian Science Monitor 16 Aug. 2001