Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

State Department Representative Discusses U.S. Foreign Policy

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

State Department Representative Discusses U.S. Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

On Jan. 30 the al-Hewar Center in Vienna, VA, gave a concerned audience the opportunity to question Jon Alterman, special assistant to the assistant secretary of state on the Near East, regarding Bush administration foreign policy.

President George W. Bush had discussed America's war on terrorism in his State of the Union address broadcast days earlier. Of the 50-some organizations on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations, three of the four singled out in Bush's address were Arab--Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. The president also took a moment to celebrate improved relations with three countries--Russia, China and India--all non-Arab. The implications of Bush's speech were not lost on Alterman's audience.

Alterman opened on a note of hope. "I am deeply convinced that we all share a similar vision for the Middle East," he said. Recognizing that the region isn't where it needs to be, or where it should be, he asked, "How do we go from where we are, using the tools available to the U.S., to where we want to be?" He then described the State Department's plan to improve diplomatic relations with Middle East governments.

Alterman defined the Arab-Israeli conflict as the greatest source of diplomatic difficulty. As Arab countries demand an end to Israeli aggression, he said, the U.S. demands an end to Palestinian aggression. Conflicting interpretations of the conflict make diplomatic relations between the two regions difficult, he observed, and in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict near impossible. Yet, he maintained, a conflict of interpretation does not exclude the ability to understand the other's perspective.

According to Alterman, Washington understands the Arab argument and, more importantly, has taken it into account. Along with the demand for a 100 percent effort to end the violence, it has expressed its desire for a Palestinian state. "The U.S. government had never spoken so clearly before about where this is going," he said, "and this is an opportunity we need to grab."

At the same time, Alterman said he understood the need to engage Arab Americans in order to better understand the Arab perspective of the conflict. "There has never been so much attention paid to Arab public opinion in the U.S. as there is now," he told the audience. "You can be sure that tomorrow when I go to work, I'm going to tell people what you said."

The first question put to Alterman was, "How do we define terrorism?" Alterman replied that, although he was unsure of the legal definition, most evidence used to define terrorism was not open to the public. …

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