The challenge before U.S.

Print edition : April 13, 2002

The decision to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to West Asia marks a shift in U.S. policy, and President Bush is aware of the tough tasks ahead.

IT was considered a "breakthrough" in many quarters in the United States and overseas. When President George W. Bush appeared at the White House Rose Garden and made a statement that "enough is enough", he was not merely signalling a new phase in U.S. diplomacy in West Asia.

President George Bush with Secretary of State Colin Powell on April 4.-DOUG MILLS/ AP

Rather, after 15 months of playing it out on the sidelines the Republican administration has come to realise that there is much to be lost by staying out of the centre court, and not just domestically. Bush is politically smart enough to realise that he risked not only domestic criticism but a serious dent in American prestige, made especially by allies in Europe and the Arab world.

Bush and his advisers knew that slipping away from the goings-on in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip meant tradeoffs in the war against terrorism. The Arab "allies" who are in a tight spot over joining Washington's campaign against terrorism are finding themselves in a tighter situation following daily demonstrations against the U.S. and Israel.

In many ways the Bush administration had to break out of its mindset. While it had been fashionable to call on the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to "do more" in condemning and coming to grips with terrorism, the Republican administration could not sit back and endorse every one of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's actions which appeared to be getting out of hand.

With television footage of Arafat's compound in Ramallah showing frightening scenes of the siege, it was about time that Bush said something to Sharon as well. In continuing to make out the case that the U.S. would continue to stand by the Jewish state, Bush reminded Sharon that the longer-term interests of Israel were not served by the current military offensive. Quite explicitly, Bush called for an end to "Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Areas".

There was another element to the Rose Garden message: Bush ordered Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the West Asia region. In the last several days, the administration and the White House had come under varying degrees of pressure to despatch Powell to West Asia, but they were resisted. Many law-makers felt that the President must send someone of Powell's stature to signal the U.S.' seriousness. Powell, it was argued, would be able to complement what the U.S. Special Envoy Antony C. Zinni was doing in the region.

Powell will not be getting into immediate "negotiations" on the larger and broader question of West Asian peace. Rather, his first objective would be to impress upon the two sides to scale down tensions and to stick with any arrangement that is being put in place.

The Bush administration has been talking about establishing a truce under the Tenet Plan - drafted by George J. Tenet, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in 2001. The plan, among other things, calls for cooperation between the security services of Israel and Palestine, the arrest of terrorists and, in the case of Israel, the scaling down of the presence of its security forces.

After this takes place, Powell and others would look at negotiations for a "final" peace arrangement. In these two phases, they will be looking at not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but West Asian leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdelaziz Al Saud for some positive inputs.

A Palestinian youth burns a U.S. flag in Gaza.-SUHAIB SALEM/ REUTERS

In many ways, what the President did by way of effecting a change in his foreign policy was to acknowledge that his administration's stance of the past 15 months was a non-starter. For long the argument of the administration had been that the West Asia peace process was best brought about by the warring parties themselves, with the U.S. staying out of photo opportunities - a veiled criticism of the Clinton era.

The change of stance had the immediate approval and support of Republicans and Democratic Senators. "I think he was right on the mark," said Chuck Hagel, the Republican from Nebraska who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the past several weeks many law-makers were openly goading the administration into doing "something" to stop the spiralling violence in the West Bank, Gaza and other Palestinian cities.

While the new-found commitment was generally hailed, there has been some apprehension about whether the Bush administration understands what it has got into. The larger question that is raised is: Washington may now have a new commitment, but does it have a vision for West Asia? Some analysts are willing to go no farther than saying that the administration has taken on a high-stakes gamble, one that was not going to be easy for Powell.

Even if it is a new commitment minus the vision, in terms of party politics, Bush may have just boxed himself into a corner vis-a-vis the Grand Old Party's right wing. The conservatives, who have no use for Yasser Arafat, have been quietly unhappy about the fact that the administration was perhaps leaning too hard on Israel. The Rose Garden statements were not exactly what the right wing wanted to hear.

"The President is going to find himself with less and less manoeuvring room. Attitudes are hardening on the right of the Republican Party about this," conservative activist Gary Bauer remarked. The political Right has been wary of Arafat and had questioned the administration's attitudes towards the Palestinian leader in the context of the war against terrorism and Bush's endorsement of Arafat's relevance. Recently the President made the distinction and said that he did not consider Arafat a terrorist, for he had signed on to the peace process.

But one argument has been that it was not just a calculated change of strategy; rather one of being forced to move in that direction given what was taking place domestically. According to former Congressman Lee Hamilton, the declining stock market, rising oil prices and a threat of wider instability in West Asia were the determinants.

"I think the President felt that he had to protect American interests", Hamilton, at present the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said.

The goings-on in the West Bank and Gaza and the tightening of the military siege also came at a time when the Bush administration was hoping that the Saudi Arabian plan for the resolution of the West Asian crisis will strike root. But the rash of suicide bombings against Israel and the latter's military response only added more scepticism to the whole process.

Those who went through the President's statement carefully would make the point that Bush had something for both the Israelis and the Arabs. For instance, it has been pointed out that Bush had the toughest words for the Palestinians, their leader and their allies. "The situation in which he (Arafat) finds himself today is largely of his own making," Bush said, going on to warn hardline nations in the region not to foment violence.

However, the considered opinion has been that staying the middle line or striking a carefully laid out middle path is not going to pay dividends. Rather it has to be an engagement that would have to be both sustained and with a plan. "This is an indication that we're now in the game. The issue now is, what is the game plan?" asks Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who was Clinton's National Security Adviser.

In taking on a new challenge, the Bush administration is aware of two things: that while there could be mid-course corrections, walking away from the whole thing will be a political disaster; and that the West Asia peace process is by no means going to be a simple one with peace achievable in a few "trips" by a Secretary of State. "We have no illusions," Bush remarked.

Further, in terms of what has been said and done over the past many months, the administration will first have to remove the apprehensions and uncertainties among the Palestinians and in the Arab world. That is not going to be easy but the Powell visit, which began on April 8, will be the start of this process.

"It's going to be a difficult trip," Powell said on April 7. "I'm not going to come back at the end of this trip with a peace treaty in hand. I'm not even sure I'll have a ceasefire in hand. But that will be my goal."

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor