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Middle East: Cheney Doesn't Win Arab Support For Harsh Iraq Policy

  • Andrew Tully

In late 1990, just before the Gulf War, Dick Cheney, then the American defense secretary, traveled to the Middle East to win support for a war against Iraq being organized by his president, George Bush. Now Cheney is the vice president for Bush's son, George W. Bush, and he has just completed a similar trip to the Middle East. But as our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports from Washington, the results are far different.

Washington, 21 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney concluded an 11-nation trip to the Middle East apparently without gaining support from Arab nations in the region for a harsher stance against Iraq.

But Cheney did manage to make some tangible progress in resolving the bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that has been raging for nearly 18 months. He promised to meet with Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, if Arafat acts to lessen Palestinian violence against Israel.

Cheney will report on his Middle East tour during a meeting today with President Bush at the White House. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, will attend the session.

Cheney's agenda, as publicly stated by the White House before he began the trip on 10 March, was to get Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait to back a whatever action the U.S. may wish to take against Iraq, perhaps including a military strike. Turkey also said it could not support a harsher policy toward Iraq.

But at least publicly, all the Arab leaders with whom Cheney met said they would oppose any military assault on Iraq. News reports said these leaders told the American vice president that to support such an attack would be unthinkable, at least while the fighting persists between Israel and the Palestinians.

When Cheney was the defense secretary for Bush's father a decade ago, he made a similar trip to the Middle East to help solidify the coalition of Arab nations to help drive Iraqi forces from neighboring Kuwait during the Gulf War. That trip was a resounding success, and Kuwait was quickly liberated.

But analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say Cheney's latest trip cannot be viewed as a failure even if he did not win support for action against Iraq.

One is retired Major General Edward Atkeson, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who now is a consultant with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an independent policy center in Washington.

Atkeson says Cheney and Bush are likely disappointed that they did not win unqualified support for a tougher approach to Iraq. But he says they did get something nearly as valuable: A better understanding of the mood of the Arab world.

"If his [Cheney's] objective was to go over and prepare the ground for work against Iraq, then I think it would be a stretch [implausible] to call the trip a success. But if you define it [the trip] in a broader sense -- that, yes, we have this interest that we want to pursue, but before we do that we want to find out how all these people look at it and see if there's other aspects that we have to take into consideration -- I think he did learn that, and so I think in that sense it's a success," Atkeson said.

Atkeson was asked if it was possible that a man as able as Cheney would possibly have made such a long visit to the Middle East without correctly anticipating how the American proposals would be received. He replied that he believes Cheney got no unpleasant surprises, but learned about some valuable nuances in the thinking of Arab leaders during his discussions with them.

"He knew what, essentially, other people were going to say, but as they say it you get insights into the intensity they feel about it, and they'll bring up other aspects of it that perhaps he hadn't considered before. It's the natural process of discussion and exploration," Atkeson said.

Atkeson says Bush and Cheney knew in advance that Arab leaders probably would not support a more aggressive policy toward Iraq as long as there is fighting between Palestinians and Israel. But now, he said, the two men better understand the Arabs' depth of feeling on the issue.

Nathan Brown agrees. He is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington. He says Cheney's task during his trip to the Middle East in late 1990, just before the Gulf War, was easier than it is today because the U.S. at that time was trying to drive an invading force from the territory of an Arab neighbor. And relations between Israel and the Palestinians were not as strained a decade ago.

"The big switch between now and 1990 is not so much with Cheney and his position, but much more with the regional context," Brown said. "The fact was that there was a strong confluence of interests between the United States and a set of Arab governments in 1990 that is much weaker or all but disappeared today."

Brown also says it is not surprising that the Arab leaders who met with Cheney kept bringing up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict every time Cheney mentioned Iraq.

"As much as the Americans tried to separate these two -- the Iraqi issue and the Palestinian issue -- the fact is, in the Arab world, they're very, very closely linked," Brown said.

According to Brown, during Cheney's visit to the Middle East, his hosts did not change the subject from Iraq to the Palestinians. They merely showed him that in their minds, they are simply two facets of the same subject.

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