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U.S.: Bush Still Can't Satisfy Critics On Middle East Policy

  • Andrew Tully

Since he was running for the U.S. presidency in 2000, George W. Bush has espoused a Middle East policy that is more modest than those of many of his predecessors. As the violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalated in the past months, critics have called for Bush to become more involved in the region, and to espouse what some have called a more coherent approach to the peace process. Now he is sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East, and has outlined his vision for peace. But some of his critics are still not satisfied.

Washington, 5 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a 15-minute speech yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush managed to compress his vision of the first and perhaps most crucial steps toward a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

It was clear to all observers that Bush intended his remarks to answer critics who say his policy in the region has been muddled and even, at times, non-existent. But some critics say one speech cannot erase the mistakes they say the American president has made since he came into office in January 2001.

In fact, his approach to foreign policy goes back to his campaign for the presidency in 2000. Bush repeatedly said he was reluctant to maintain a strong American presence abroad. He spoke of drastically reducing U.S. forces in the Balkans, for example, as well as playing a less emphatic role in the Middle East.

As it turned out, Bush has maintained the American military presence in parts of the former Yugoslavia. And of course he has vigorously pursued terrorists and their hosts in Afghanistan, while increasing diplomatic contacts elsewhere in the world in support of this war.

But until recently, his involvement in the Middle East peace process has been modest. And only several weeks ago did he send his chief Middle East negotiator, retired General Anthony Zinni, back to the region.

Similarly, Bush and his senior foreign policy aides, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have not been consistent in their assessments of the situation. Sometimes they urge restraint by both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but mostly they condemn only Palestinian terrorism.

During the past week, critics have accused him of acting too late to achieve any meaningful progress. Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, Bush's predecessor, said that given the current level of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Bush should do no less than to send his own secretary of state, Powell, to the region to add impetus to the peace process.

Yesterday, Bush announced he was doing just that. But he introduced this announcement by outlining his entire Middle East policy. He even addressed the political aspirations on both sides of the conflict -- the Israelis' desire for security and the Palestinians' desire for a sovereign state of their own.

"When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying -- the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people."

The president maintained his criticism of Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestinian Authority who remains under siege at his headquarters in Ramallah on the West Bank. Bush said Arafat himself is to blame for his current situation because he has done to little to end terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians.

"The chairman of the Palestinian Authority has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists. At Oslo and elsewhere Chairman Arafat renounced terror as an instrument of his cause and he agreed to control it. He has not done so. The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making. He has missed his opportunities and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he is supposed to lead."

At the same time, Bush spoke sternly of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's response to terrorism. He said that it must be understood that the incursion into Palestinian lands should not be considered a "long-term" position. And he said Israel must be more sensitive to the rights of innocent Palestinians.

"America recognizes Israel's right to defend itself from terror. Yet, to lay the foundations of future peace, I ask Israel to halt incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas and begin the withdrawal from those cities it has recently occupied."

Bush's remarks went beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. He said Arab states in the region must help Arafat's effort to end the terrorist attacks. And he said they must stop using state-owned media to promote terrorism.

"I call on the Palestinian Authority and all governments in the region to do everything in their power to stop terrorist activities, to disrupt terrorist financing, and to stop inciting violence by glorifying terror in state-owned media or telling suicide bombers they are martyrs. They are not martyrs, they are murderers, and they undermine the cause of the Palestinian people."

Despite the clarity of Bush's remarks, it was unclear that he had answered his critics' complaints that he had brought coherence to his Middle East policy. One such critic is Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington.

"Coherence is probably too generous a term, but it's certainly a little bit more -- I mean, if 'balance' is a word you want to use, perhaps. When I heard his speech, what I thought is, you know, 75 percent of this is just the same thing that we heard a week ago, which is an almost unlimited backing to the Israeli military campaign. And then there's 25 percent about talk of a Palestinian state, sending, you know, Colin Powell, and a call for a [Israeli] withdrawal, that sort of thing."

Brown told RFE/RL that he is less concerned with Bush's speeches and more concerned with what Powell will find in the Middle East when he arrives next week. For instance, he wonders if Israel will allow Powell to meet with Arafat. On 3 April, Sharon's government forbade Arafat to meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who not only outranks Powell, but also now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Brown says he wonders how successful Powell's trip can be if he, too, is not permitted to meet with the Palestinian leader.

A similar concern was expressed by retired General Edward Atkeson, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who now analyzes foreign policy and international security matters with the Center for Security and International Studies, an independent Washington policy center.

Atkeson told RFE/RL that he believes the president admirably outlined his goals in the Middle East. But he says that in the context of Bush's early inaction, and his more recent vacillation on how to assess the violence, the world cannot expect the president to adhere to this vision for long.

"If this were all I had to judge it by, I would say, yeah, that sounds pretty clear to me. But the problem is that we get a different note every time a signal is given."

Atkeson says he is bothered by the Bush administration's step-by-step approach -- addressing the violence first, then addressing the political issues, in particular the removal of Israeli settlers from Palestinian territory. He says that to achieve a cease-fire before a settlement on land gives the Israelis what they want immediately -- security -- while the Palestinians must wait longer for their dream of a homeland.

"What you have is two contending parties there: one that wants security, the other wants a country. It's not rocket science to say, 'Well, let's give each one what he wants.' The devil's in the detail, of course. And so long as you say, 'Well, I want you to stop the fighting first,' that gives one party what he's after, and it only holds a sort of a faint glimmer that the other side is ever going to get what he wants."

He says that until Bush and his aides grasp this, the suicide bombings may never end.