U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney is continuing a regional tour of the Mideast which, in part, is intended to explore Arab leaders' views of a tougher U.S. policy toward Baghdad. RFE/RL Charles Recknagel looks at the progress of Cheney's trip as it reaches its half-way point.
Prague, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney sets a fast travel pace through the Mideast region, his meetings with Arab leaders are reported to be concentrating largely on two issues.
One issue is Washington's desire to mobilize support for tougher U.S. policy options toward Iraq. Those options are said to range from applying increased Arab political pressure on Baghdad to prove it has given up mass destruction weapons programs to a U.S.-led campaign to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime by force.
The other issue is the spiraling violence between Israel and the Palestinians and how to restart the peace process. The talks between the U.S. vice president and Arab leaders are reported to be focusing in part on a recent Saudi proposal to exchange Israeli withdrawals from Arab land for Arab recognition of the Jewish state.
So far, Cheney's trip has generated a variety of official statements by the governments of the Arab countries he has visited so far -- Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, and Oman.
Jordanian King Abdullah warned Cheney against attacking Iraq and urged Washington to focus on stopping the Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed instead.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak promised to push Iraq to accept the return of UN inspectors to hunt down prohibited weapons.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh described his talks with Cheney as "fruitful and successful," while keeping most of the content secret. But a presidential adviser (unidentified) told Reuters later that, regarding any action against Iraq, "We don't want more oil on the fire. [We] need to solve the Palestinian question" instead.
And Oman's government said nothing publicly at all, other than that the talks with Cheney focused on "prospects of cooperation [in] various domains."
Cheney, who today is remaining in Oman on a private stay, is due to visit Saudi Arabia tomorrow. After that, he goes to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Kuwait, as well as Israel and Turkey -- though not necessarily in that order. For security reasons, his upcoming destinations are being announced only one stop at a time. The trip has been variously reported to be between 10 and 12 days long.
With Cheney's tour -- which started with a visit to Britain on 11 March -- still only halfway complete, it may be too soon to judge how much support the U.S. official is collecting for new U.S. initiatives in the region. But some analysts say that the U.S. administration is likely to feel encouraged by Cheney's progress so far.
Patrick Clawson, a policy expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in Washington, D.C., says that the tour is giving the U.S. administration a chance to persuade Arab leaders to accept the fact that Washington is determined to stop Iraqi weapons programs, including by force if necessary.
Clawson says: "We don't have a very good idea what is happening [in Cheney's closed-door meetings]. But that said, I would be surprised if he is unhappy with how the discussions are going so far, because it would seem to me that the public statements that we are hearing so far are the sort you would hope for, which is that a number of governments in the Middle East think that it is a mistake for the United States to attack Iraq but [they] recognize that is probably going to happen."
He continues: "The Bush administration understands that the Arab people in the region disagree with the United States that armed force is going to be necessary. On the other hand, what the Bush administration is trying to say to the people in the region is that, look, something has to be done about Iraq and unless we can find some way to convincingly disarm Saddam of his weapons of mass destruction, then the U.S. will be compelled to take military action."
Clawson says that the U.S. administration is likely to be particularly pleased by Egypt's commitment to press Saddam on the return of arms monitors. That helps mobilize Arab political pressure on Baghdad which, if rejected by Iraq, would make it easier to argue that Saddam must be dealt with by force.
The analyst also says that Cheney's trip may be having some success convincing Arab leaders that Washington is focusing on the escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence. If so, that success could help defuse Arab criticism that Washington is wrongly neglecting the Middle East crisis as it concentrates on Iraq.
This week, U.S. president George W. Bush criticized Israel's recent ordering of tanks and troops into West Bank refugee camps, and most recently the city of Ramallah, as "not helpful [to creating] conditions of peace." Bush also sent envoy Anthony Zinni back to the region on a new mission to broker a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians.
At the same time, the UN this week adopted a U.S.-sponsored resolution affirming the right of a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel. That resolution also welcomed the Saudi peace initiative calling for Arab states to offer Israel recognition if it withdraws from all Arab lands occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
As Cheney tours the region, Baghdad has branded his mission an effort to launch a new war against Iraq. The daily "Babel" newspaper, run by Saddam's eldest son Udday, wrote yesterday that Cheney is a "messenger of war" who "will harvest nothing from his tour but an increasing rejection to the American endeavor to launch a new war."
Baghdad repeated this week that it will not readmit UN weapons inspectors, who were banned from the country in late 1998 when U.S. and British planes bombed Iraq for not cooperating on arms monitoring.
Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan called the arms monitors "teams of spies" and said Baghdad's rejection of their return is "firm and won't change." He spoke after Iraq and the UN last week held their first discussions in over a year regarding a wide range of issues, including arms inspections. Another meeting is due next month.
Still, it is unclear if Iraq will stick to its rejection of arms inspections in the weeks ahead, since that almost certainly would increase the chances Baghdad could face U.S. military action.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week that Iraq's public refusals might not necessarily reflect Baghdad's real negotiating position. Annan was quoted as saying: "As far as I am concerned, the discussions are taking place behind closed doors and these public statements may not necessarily reflect what will happen when we get together."