Why US Can't Help Being Pulled into Mideast Vortex ; the Bush Team Takes First, Cautious Steps to Intervene in the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict

By Francine Kiefer writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2001 | Go to article overview

Why US Can't Help Being Pulled into Mideast Vortex ; the Bush Team Takes First, Cautious Steps to Intervene in the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict


Francine Kiefer writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Despite its lineup of vastly experienced national-security experts, the Bush administration has learned a lesson in its first four months: It can't stand idly by while Israelis and Palestinians descend into near war.

What was first touted as a hands-off policy has in fact become a policy of negative consequences - both for the Middle East and for the United States, according to experts. As a result, Washington is being forced back into its traditional role as honest broker in the region.

"American involvement is unavoidable," says Shibley Telhami, Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "The question is, what role to play and how to play it."

That debate is still swirling in Washington, even as Secretary of State Colin Powell this week stepped up US engagement by announcing the appointment of a "special assistant" to the region. He also appealed for an "unconditional cessation of violence" and endorsed a report initiated in the Clinton administration as a road map to future negotiations.

Experts say the deteriorating scene on the ground, as well as its consequences across the region, has dislodged the Bush administration from its initial position of noninvolvement.

Strategic Arab nations have been livid over Washington's nonpolicy, interpreting it as automatically pro-Israel, he says. Saudi Arabia's crown prince, for instance, recently refused to come to Washington because of its hands-off stance.

"If you allow this to escalate, the chance of extension into the region is very high," says Mr. Telhami, who sees a ripple effect of Egypt and Jordan freezing relations with Israel, of violence extending to Lebanon, and possibly even war between Egypt and Israel. All of this, he says, would make US aims in the Mideast, including its policy toward Iraq, "impossible to implement."

The un-Clinton policy

Until this week, the Bush administration's nonengagement has stood in sharp contrast to the Clinton regime. Some observers even suggest the Bush team has taken this approach simply because it is the un-Clinton one.

But other factors have been at work, including the high risk of failure and the belief that, in the end, it takes both parties in the Mideast to want peace.

Now, however, "the conflict is ripe for intervention," says Raymond Tanter, former Mideast adviser in the Reagan and Bush administrations. The violence has escalated to the point of being "intolerable" for both sides, and Egypt and Jordan are more actively trying to halt the fighting. The report this week by former US Sen. George Mitchell - and now endorsed by Mr. Powell - gives an additional impetus in favor of US intervention, he says. …

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