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Bush team still vague on Mideast policy


WASHINGTON, March 6 (JTA) – With Secretary of State Colin Powell’s inaugural trip to the Middle East failing to produce major policy pronouncements, analysts are checking their calendars to see when the Bush administration may outline its Mideast policy.

Powell’s trip last month was billed as a foreign affairs “listening tour,” an opportunity to size up Mideast leaders and sound them out on the major issues in the region.

Powell indicated his preference for “smarter sanctions” against Iraq, but gave few details. In any case, as differences of opinion have emerged among the administration’s top foreign policy-makers, those comments have been watered down since his return to the United States.

Powell also gave few details of the Bush administration’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Powell’s idea on sanctions is a controversial proposal to tone down restrictions the United Nations imposed on Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War.

European and Arab nations increasingly have been flouting the sanctions regime. Changes would be designed to make sanctions more enforceable, ostensibly tailoring them to hurt Hussein’s regime and his military procurement campaign while sparing, as much possible, the population.

But other powers in the Bush administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, do not share Powell’s outlook on sanctions.

Several people who are now senior figures in the Bush administration signed a letter to then-President Clinton advocating the overthrow of Hussein’s regime. But Powell, who was the most hesitant of President George Bush’s inner circle to commit American forces to the Persian Gulf to fight Iraq a decade ago, is again considered reluctant to take steps that could lead to a military confrontation.

His visit to the region gave Powell a chance to speak his mind before the others.

“Powell is the dove, and Cheney and Rumsfeld are the hawks,” said an official with a Jewish organization who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Powell basically wanted to settle the issue of Iraq policy early against his rivals in the administration.”

Over the weekend, Cheney said a plan for handling Iraq is still under review, and Powell’s mission in the region last week was only to “test the waters.”

The key benefit to Powell’s proposal is that it would focus sanctions in ways that are acceptable to the Arab countries, helping to build backing for American policy among Hussein’s neighbors. Many in the Arab world see the current sanctions as targeting the Iraqi people rather than the regime, and in recent years have made a show of circumventing the sanctions.

“The secretary has made clear that the mission at this time is really to talk to people about the sanctions issues, about how to make the sanctions achieve what they were originally intended to achieve,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. “And that’s to keep Iraq from arming itself and threatening the people of the region.”

Critics, however, say Powell’s plan actually would strengthen Hussein’s grip on power.

Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, said he believes Powell was eroding American strength in the region by trying to accommodate too many factions in the Arab world.

“The signal sent to Saddam is that this will all unravel if he just holds on,” Gaffney said. “The idea that we are going to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs in the Middle East by trying to accommodate Saddam and taking steps to endure his survival is not a way to create a coalition.”

A consensus on the administration’s Mideast policy is expected to be forged within the next month. Powell was scheduled to address the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, when he could face tough questions from both sides of the aisle about his sanctions plans.

A definitive policy announcement is expected in time for an Arab League summit in late March, sources said.

But State Department officials said policy-makers are considering all options and have not set themselves a deadline.

“Our goal is to re-establish the firm consensus points so we can go forward with a policy that doesn’t mislead Saddam Hussein,” one department official said. “We’re not going to rush this whole process.”

Powell is still playing short-handed while the Bush administration settles in, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Much of the State Department is still staffed by Clinton administration holdovers, and it may take up to a year for Powell to finish assembling his team.

“The Middle East is at a very sensitive juncture,” Makovsky said. “It requires that you put the full team on the playing field and develop a game plan. The signs are that this has not happened.”

The state of flux within the State Department is also affecting the U.S. take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Powell walked a tightrope in his meetings with leaders of each side, trying to leave both Israelis and Palestinians with the impression that the United States was at least partially behind them.

“Powell truly had some elements for everybody, but didn’t put forward a road map of how you get out of the current situation and obtain a better footing,” Makovsky said.

Israeli leaders liked Powell’s discussion of “sequencing,” endorsing an end to violence before a resumption of talks. Palestinians liked the fact that Powell didn’t attack them as the source of the violence.

“Powell left too many questions in his wake,” said Marc Ginsberg, a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign and a former ambassador to Morocco. “He failed to adequately impress upon Arafat that the United States is not going to be an innocent bystander as he continues to use violence as a tool for negotiations.”

The White House is allowing Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon to form his government before the United States takes any major policy stands. But it also will await the filling of key State Department posts.

The Senate has yet to approve Richard Haass as director of policy planning at the State Department. A former adviser to President Bush’s father during the Gulf War, Haass is an advocate of “concerted unilateralism,” which calls for Israel and the Palestinians to take slow steps toward peace through verbal agreements, lessening the threat of backlash that could result if they try to jump straight to major peace agreements.

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