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On Eve of Cheney’s Mideast Trip, U.S. Less Beholden to Arab Allies

February 25, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As Vice President Dick Cheney heads to the Middle East to drum up support for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, the Bush administration does not appear willing to make major policy concessions in order to win Arab support.

In a series of speeches in recent weeks, senior Bush administration officials have reiterated that the United States is willing to take action in Iraq — even without the support of U.S. allies, if necessary.

“A regime change is something the United States might have to do alone,” Secretary of State Colin Powell told the House International Relations Committee earlier this month.

Cheney will visit nine countries, including Israel, on a 10-day tour of the Middle East in March. He will focus not just on the Iraqi situation, but on what Arab states can do to thwart terrorism, including finding terror groups’ financial and diplomatic links within the region.

While the Bush administration is hoping to gain at least acquiescence from Arab states for any moves, it has made it clear that the United States will not bargain for that support, as it has in past regional conflicts.

That assertion leads some to conclude that Israel will not be harmed if U.S. forces move into the Middle East this time around.

“The president has demonstrated he’s not going to do these things at the price of Israel,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We know the Arabs have made some demands, but so far the administration has been very straightforward.”

Advocates for Israel grow wary each time the United States considers military action in the Middle East. Memories of U.S. support for Israel apparently waning as the first Bush administration sought Arab help in the 1991 Persian Gulf War has made American Jewish leaders nervous that a new foray into Iraq could damage U.S.-Israeli relations.

When the coalition against terrorism began to take shape after Sept. 11, American Jewish leaders wondered what would happen to U.S. support for Israel.

Bush administration officials openly wooed Iran and Syria, among other nations, to join their campaign against Afghanistan, while leaving Israel out of the coalition in response to Arab demands.

Any pressure that the Bush administration put on Israel — whether to end targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists or to minimize retaliatory incursions into Palestinian-run territory — was seen as a direct result of the need to maintain Arab support for the anti-terror campaign.

In recent months, however, the administration has seemed less beholden to the Arab states. At the same time, U.S. policy has become increasingly pro-Israel

As Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s failure to break with terror has become increasingly evident, administration rebukes about Israeli actions have become rarer.

American Jewish leaders therefore are far less hesitant as the United States sets its sights on Iraq.

“The idea that somehow the multilevel relationship between the United States and Israel had changed since Sept. 11 was mostly the concern of paranoid Jewish groups, and never touched policy-makers or the American public at large,” one Jewish leader said.

It remains unclear what effect an American attack on Iraq would have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. U.S. action against terrorism might give Israel a freer hand in its own efforts against terror — but a longer, protracted conflict with Iraq might up grass-roots pressure on Arab states, leading them to increase their support for the Palestinian cause and their pressure on the United States, almost as a safety valve.

And while it speaks of taking on Iraq alone if need be, the Bush administration would prefer to have international support. Support from the European Union is seen as key; Arab support less so.

“If the United States is unprepared to make changes in its strategy to get European support, it’s not going to make changes for countries with which it has more difficult relations,” said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Clawson said he believes that when Cheney puts his cards on the table with Arab leaders, many of them will come back with their own demands — specifically, more U.S. pressure on Israel to ease up on the Palestinians. But analysts say they do not think the administration will shift its attitude on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I don’t think you’re going to find positions change on the terror Israel faces solely because we are engaged in an effort in the Persian Gulf or elsewhere,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

“Israel’s enemies are now our enemies,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.

One factor insulating the United States from Arab pressure is the fact that the Bush administration wants support but not the type of grand coalition which was deemed necessary in the Persian Gulf War.

Coming off its quick, decisive victory in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has political capital to spare.

Many Arab countries are concerned about the threat from Iraq. They may hope that the United States will take similar speedy action in the Middle East that will result in a regime change in Iraq, analysts say.

Some Arab countries also seem less likely to take up the Palestinian cause than they were a few months ago. Egypt has been more critical of Palestinian actions since Israel last month seized a ship filled with 50 tons of weapons, en route to the Palestinian Authority from Iran.

One State Department official said the collusion between Iran and the Palestinian Authority has changed several Arab states’ attitude on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And Bush administration officials have been heartened by several recent Arab gestures, including a tentative Saudi Arabian statement of support for an diplomatic resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Therefore, while they may raise public objections, Arab states privately are expected to go along with U.S. plans against Iraq.

“Cheney will encounter classic Middle Eastern schizophrenia in saying one thing in public and another in private,” Pipes said. “Privately they will be urging us to finish Saddam Hussein, while publicly urging us to stay away.”

Israel’s main concern is not about U.S. or Arab rhetoric, but real action. During the Persian Gulf War, Israel was dissuaded from retaliating when Iraq hit Israel with Scud missiles.

This time, Israeli officials have made it clear that they will not demonstrate similar restraint.

“We cannot not retaliate twice and keep the same deterrence” in the Middle East, David Ivry, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said this week.

But Israel also does not believe it is as vulnerable as it was a decade ago.

Ivry said he believes Saddam Hussein does not have the same missile stockpile as he had during the Gulf War, and Israel’s anti-missile systems are vastly improved.

One danger is the possibility of nuclear weapons, which some Israeli officials believe Hussein already had access to — but did not use — a decade ago.

“If he believes this operation is designed to remove him from power, he could go for broke,” one Israeli official said.

For that reason, Israel sought assurances that the United States will give it early warning of an impending attack. While not describing details of the agreement, Israeli officials seem satisfied with the results.

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