Cheney and Zinni Mideast Trips Show Convergence of Interests

The twin trips of Vice President Dick Cheney and peace envoy Anthony Zinni to the Middle East this week are seemingly unrelated, but in fact, they fit together.

President Bush dispatched his vice president to demonstrate resolve in combating Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a resolve that could include military action against Baghdad.

He wanted Cheney to consult with a variety of Arab countries, most prominently Saudi Arabia, amid hope that he can elicit their cooperation in this effort.

The Bush administration views Iraq as a linchpin for its regional strategy, given Iraq’s proven record for troublemaking.

If the United States were successful in installing a friendlier regime in a country that has huge amounts of oil reserves, some figures in the Bush administration believe, other Arab oil states would lose their ability to blackmail the United States.

The ability to achieve these objectives remains very uncertain, but they could have a significant impact on the future prospects for Israeli-Arab peace.

As the 1991 Gulf War demonstrated, only when radicalism in Iraq was dealt a sharp blow was there any genuine hope for Israeli-Arab peacemaking, and not the reverse as some Arabists claim.

When Saddam Hussein was dealt a serious setback, Arabs agreed to attend the landmark Madrid peace conference later that year.

A U.S. war against Iraq is not inevitable, but it seems increasingly likely, even though it is much more difficult to launch a change in regime than to expel Iraq from Kuwait, as President Bush’s father did.

Even if Saddam agrees to acquiesce on arms inspections, in keeping with U.N. resolutions, Bush administration officials believe such acquiescence would mean little more than foot-dragging and a cat-and-mouse exercise, as has happened so often in the past.

If the United States does take action, it would be launching a preventive rather than a traditional retaliatory war.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued in a recent column that such a war is morally justified since Saddam not only has such weapons, but he has used them twice, including against Kurds who lived in his own country.

Sept. 11 demonstrates, according to Kissinger, that the danger is real and it is suicidal to wait for the United States to be attacked first.

In his mission, Cheney is seeking not only Arab political cover for a move against Iraq, but also options for any military action.

The use of Saudi air force facilities and air space would make a strike against southern Iraq much easier — as would the use of bases in Turkey for a strike from the North.

There is a belief in Washington that the Saudis may support U.S. actions against Iraq if the United States finishes the job this time. Any halfway measures that leave Saddam in power would leave Riyadh feeling politically exposed for supporting the United States.

The Bush administration’s view is that the best way to obtain multilateral support is to demonstrate unilateral determination. Hence, the importance of the Cheney mission.

Enter the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Bush administration fears that Cheney’s mission could be marred if, instead of the focus being Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah and other Arab leaders start launching tirades about how it is hard to support the United States in confronting Iraq while pan-Arab satellite Al-Jazeera television broadcasts images of Israelis killing Palestinians during the current violence.

Bush, fearing that Arab complaints on this issue would undercut the focus on Iraq, decided to dispatch Zinni to the region amid hopes that he could help tamp down the violence.

This marks a change for the Bush administration, which over the last two months — in the aftermath of the discovery that the Palestinian Authority sought to smuggle Iranian weapons on the Karine A ship into the Gaza Strip — offered no criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s handling of the current crisis.

The success of the Cheney mission is no less important to Israel than it is to the United States, given that Saddam has always been a leading Arab rejectionist of Israel.

Indeed, the case could be made that there is a greater strategic convergence between the United States and Israel today than in virtually any other moment of the history of the Jewish state.

In singling out Iraq and Iran as part of an “axis of evil” against the United States, Bush, in his State of the Union speech, was pointing out the two biggest threats to Israel’s existence as well.

Yet, anti-Semites are wrong when they say the United States is aligned against these states because America is doing Israel’s bidding.

The United States views these regimes as threats because of their unremittingly hostile view of the United States and their proven ability to utilize a variety of methods — ranging from weapons of mass destruction in the case of Iraq to terrorism with both Tehran and Baghdad — to attain their goals.

Too often, such forces don’t hate the United States because of Israel, but hate Israel because it embodies the United States.

This proved to be the case through much of the 20th century: the enemies of the United States have also been the enemies of the Jews, whether they be Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or more recently, a militant variant of political Islam.

Israel understands the importance of maintaining strategic convergence with the United States, and thus the idea of sending Zinni to ease the Cheney mission was welcomed in Jerusalem.

To facilitate his trip, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ultimately accepted a request put forward in a phone call last week by Secretary of State Colin Powell to drop the precondition for seven days of quiet as a prerequisite for a cease-fire. And when the Palestinian Authority arrested the last of the suspected killers of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, Sharon announced that Arafat would have more freedom of movement.

The U.S. focus on the Saudis may also lead Zinni to focus on a second package deal, enabling Arafat to attend the Arab summit in Beirut at the end of the month in return for a meaningful cease-fire with Israel.

It is at that summit where Arab countries are expected to focus on a Saudi proposal for Arab diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from lands it conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War.

The United States is under no illusion that a Saudi plan promising Arab world ‘normalization’ with Israel in return for withdrawal from the territories will produce peace.

There is an understanding in Washington that the core problem is Palestinian attitudes toward Israel, and a recognition that any peace deal must make both parties feel safer and less vulnerable than today.

Israel has ample reason to question whether any pre-Passover cease-fire will merely be a tactical maneuver — given a long slew of broken promises by Arafat in the past — or something more durable.

Some inside and outside the Bush administration believe the only hope for halting violence will require both a mechanism for compliance — and defined consequences for the Palestinians if they don’t — and incremental steps to revive the shattered confidence on both sides.

The bottom line is that Sharon would like Cheney to succeed, and realizes that the timing of the Zinni mission is designed to maximize such prospects. However, it is not just up to Sharon.

During the last six months of 2000, the United States had hoped that it was on the verge of conflict resolution in the Middle East.

Now given the current escalating violence, the mere prospect of crisis stabilization is a tall order.

Given failures in the past, it is hard to be overly optimistic about the prospects of the Zinni mission.

Yet the horrific death toll on the ground coupled with the Cheney trip to the region underscores the urgency of its success.

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