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Former U.S. Security Aide Expects Fuller Mideast Engagement By Obama

Lindsay was on President Clinton's National Security Council.
Lindsay was on President Clinton's National Security Council.
As the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush comes to an end, there is bloodshed in Gaza. Since December 27, when Israel began its effort to end rocket attacks from the besieged Palestinian territory, the United States has called on both sides to show restraint.

With a very few exceptions, that's been the extent of the Bush effort for Middle East peace, and critics say he's squandered eight years by not being more fully engaged in the process. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully, James Lindsay, a former member of the White House's National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, says he expects more engagement from Bush's successor, fellow Democrat Barack Obama, who takes office on January 20. But Lindsay, now a professor of international affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, says it's too early to say how Obama and his designated secretary of state, Senator Hillary Clinton, will approach the problem.

RFE/RL: The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is complex and frustrating, and any president might be tempted to stay out of it. But do you expect that Obama will increase the U.S. involvement in the region?

James Lindsay: Barack Obama has made clear since he first went on the campaign trail that he intends to reinvigorate American diplomacy on a variety of issues around the world, and most notably in the Middle East. What we don't know right now is exactly how President Obama will conduct that diplomacy, but certainly I would expect a significant engagement early on in trying to tamp down violence and reinvigorate the peace process.

RFE/RL: Obama's secretary of state-designate is Senator Hillary Clinton. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was deeply involved in the Middle East peace process in the 1990s. Does that give her an advantage to bring something important to the United States' reengagement in the region?

Lindsay: Senator Clinton will bring two important qualities to the table. One, she clearly is a senior, established American political official. She has clout. Second, she has good relations with both Palestinians and Israelis, and that's going to count as well. I think both Israelis and Palestinians have good memories of her husband's presidency, and I think the one challenge that Secretary Clinton might face is living up to the expectations that many people on both sides of the conflict have for her and for President Obama.
Lindsay says anointed Secretary of State Clinton's good ties with Palestinians and Israelis are "going to count."

RFE/RL: Do you know of any people whom Clinton might bring into the State Department to specialize in the Middle East peace process, and how they might approach their jobs?

Lindsay: While we know that the Obama administration is going to make the Middle East peace process a priority, what we don't know right now is how they intend to do it. We don't know who Secretary Clinton is going to nominate for some of the key posts. There's been a lot of speculation about the Obama administration having special envoys -- that might happen, a lot of names have been bandied about. We just don't know. And so it's premature to figure out how those people might engage in the process and what strengths and weaknesses they might bring.

RFE/RL: You just mentioned the possibility of special envoys to the Middle East. From your experience, do such envoys help the process? Do you recommend them, or some other approach?

Lindsay: Special envoys are a tool. They can work in some circumstances, not work in others. A lot depends on how the administration intends to conduct its foreign policy. And advantage to having a special envoy is you can have one person focusing on an issue. That can work if that person is seen as having the full confidence and support of not just the secretary of state, but also the president. And envoy can be a great benefit to a secretary of state because at the end of the day a secretary of state has to be responsible for more than just one issue. However, if a special envoy is not seen as speaking for the president and the secretary of state, is not seen as having sufficient heft to get things done, then your experience with having a special envoy could be very disappointing.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with Bush's critics that the United States has lost ground by not being more involved with the Middle East peace process?
Lindsay accuses the Bush administration of "losing ground" in the Mideast.

Lindsay: Yes, we have lost ground, and the challenge facing the Obama administration is quite daunting. Just witness what we're seeing on the ground in Gaza today. This is a problem which has not gotten easier over the last eight years, it's gotten more difficult, and it is going to take an awful lot of diplomacy, but also a lot of movement on the parts of both the Israelis and the Palestinians to be able to move forward. And that's really the big question that's up in the air.

RFE/RL: Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, and Karl Schwarzenberg, the Czech foreign minister, are leading parallel efforts to broker a cease-fire in Gaza. Missing from this mix is the United States. Must Washington be involved? Is it too late for it to resume involvement?

Lindsay: The Bush administration has already signaled its position on this matter, and that is it's up to Hamas to take the first step toward a cease-fire. From the vantage point of Washington, there's no need for American engagement until Hamas takes that position. Perhaps the efforts by Mr. Sarkozy and the Czechs will do some good. What we do know is, based on past history, at some point we will get some sort of cease-fire. I think it's clear that the Bush administration wants that cease-fire to come on Israel's terms, and that's why it's taking the position it has.

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