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Powell Speech Marks U.S. Path to Strong Mideast Engagement

November 21, 2001
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The United States is back in the game.

Monday’s announcement of a new Middle East envoy and a revived road map toward an Israeli-Palestinian cease- fire has brought the White House and State Department back into Mideast diplomacy, a role President Bush was extremely reluctant to take a year ago.

The Bush administration will try to walk a fine line between what it sees as two extremes — the hands-off approach Bush initially envisioned for his administration and the shuttle diplomacy of the Clinton years.

The shift in policy emphasis –a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — is just the latest seesaw in the administration’s activities in the region.

While the Bush administration originally vowed to stay out of the Middle East conflict — placing more emphasis on the responsibilities of Israel and the Palestinian Authority themselves — daily violence has forced on Washington a slightly more active role.

In May, Bush endorsed a plan by former Sen. George Mitchell to bring the two sides back to peace talks, and dispatched CIA Director George Tenet to the region a month later to negotiate a cease-fire.

But Bush did not put any real effort into implementing either plan, and both failed to bring the parties together toward a lasting truce, said Martin Indyk, U.S. ambassador to Israel during the opening months of the Bush administration.

The administration “got its toes wet in the first six months, found the water too hot and pulled back,” said Indyk, who served in Israel and also as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs under Clinton.

Now, Secretary of State Colin Powell says the United States will “push,” “prod” and “present ideas” toward ending violence. Powell has sent retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of the U.S. Central Command, to the region and has said Zinni will remain there until conditions for a lasting cease-fire can be found.

“Now the U.S. is more engaged, but still there’s the question of how engaged,” Indyk said.

An unpaid, part-time adviser, Zinni will be the main conduit for talks, which places the U.S. engagement still below Clinton’s level of involvement — which reached a height when Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to Camp David in July 2000 to seek a final-status agreement.

Powell made clear Monday in his speech at the University of Louisville that the administration’s focus would be on ending violence, not seeking a final peace agreement.

After 14 months of violence, U.S. sights have been lowered — and diplomats simply hope to reduce current tensions instead of working toward lasting peace.

David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the United States needs to engage now in crisis stabilization, not conflict resolution.

“The administration has realized it is a false choice to say ‘a grand deal or nothing,’ ” said Makovsky, a former editor of the Jerusalem Post. “The situation has deteriorated further, and they cannot just blame the Clinton administration.”

Many analysts agree that Bush was scared away from the Middle East by the experience of his predecessor.

Clinton spent a great deal of time negotiating with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but left office without a peace deal. During his final hours as president, he reportedly told Arafat that Arafat’s rejection of a Mideast peace plan had ruined Clinton’s legacy.

Bush was wary of falling down the same path.

“There was the question of what was the point of getting engaged?” Indyk said. “Now they are more engaged, but more out of response to Arab pressure and post-Sept. 11.”

The terror attacks in New York City and Washington have placed a larger emphasis on international affairs, and some say gave Bush a window to re-engage in the Middle East.

Arab nations have pressured the United States to take a more active role in exchange for their support for the U.S.- led “coalition against terrorism.” Israel sought proof that its needs would not be ignored in exchange for this Arab support.

“The policy of ‘hands off and let them bleed’ was unsustainable before Sept. 11, and impossible afterwards,” said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. “There’s too much at stake.”

In the two months since the terror attacks, the Bush administration’s strong leadership and early victories in Afghanistan have raised its foreign policy clout. A leader who came to office after bumbling the names of foreign leaders can now feel more secure leading an international peace effort, analysts say.

Even so, the fact that the roadmap was laid out by Powell, not Bush, shows a lingering hesitancy to put all of the administration’s eggs in the Middle East basket.

“You don’t want the president associated with something unless you know it is going to succeed,” Makovsky said.

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