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Challenges Far Tougher Than Afghanistan

By Stan Crock Give the Bush Administration credit: It has mastered the art of managing expectations. Team Bush always keeps them so low that they're easy to beat. Now, however, the exception to that rule may be emerging. Bush's foreign-policy advisers seem to have thrown their sage strategy overboard when it comes to the spreading Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq. These two issues -- even more than the war in Afghanistan -- now pose the biggest challenges for the President on the diplomatic stage.

While the Administration has made no claims that it can solve the Middle East conflict, Vice-President Dick Cheney is in the region and Special Envoy Anthony Zinni is about to follow on his own mission. Such heightened involvement from top U.S. officials will only raise expectations that Washington can somehow quell the Palestinian-Israeli carnage. At the same time, Cheney is trying to lay the groundwork with regional allies for action against Saddam Hussein.

Those are tall orders. For one thing, Cheney's mission to educate the allies on Administration thinking about Iraq -- never designed as a peace mission -- now has been complicated by all-out hostilities in Israel. For another, Zinni's narrow jurisdiction over security matters is not broad enough to address political issues in a way that could temper the conflict.

SCRAMBLED SIGNALS. Making matters worse, the White House may be sending out another mixed message, one that directly conflicts with its overall anti-terrorism campaign. Time and again, Washington has said terrorism will not pay. But the growing pressure on Israel from Bush Administration officials and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan suggests that rising terrorist violence is indeed paying off. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

To be fair, the U.S. and Annan have condemned both sides, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hardly innocent of provocations. But it's at best awkward and at worst hypocritical for the Administration to criticize Israel for the kind of preemptive moves that Washington itself is contemplating for Iraq.

Don't get me wrong. The Administration is right to take issue with Israel's decision to move tanks into Palestinian territory. Killing more Palestinians -- on top of the over 160 already dead in the first two weeks of March alone -- won't improve matters. But Washington also opposed Israel's more targeted approach of assassinating individual terrorist leaders. At least that tactic had the advantage of reducing the likelihood of civilian casualties.

WEAK RATIONALE. If Israel can't respond in either of these ways, how then can it fight terrorism, as the U.S. insists everyone should? Should Israel rely solely on Arafat's good offices as cafés get bombed almost daily? That won't wash.

Even more galling is the fact that Washington's strategy toward Baghdad is based on mere speculation that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and, at some point, may share them with terrorists. It's fair to assume that Saddam has developed weapons of mass destruction in the years since weapons inspectors left the country. But Iraq has not had the kind of contact with terrorism groups that Iran and some other countries have had.

Israel, in contrast, doesn't have to rely on speculation when it assumes it will be attacked. Israelis can feel the ground tremble from explosions and look at the morning headlines. It's hard to justify telling off Israel, given Bush's far more shallow rationale for targeting Iraq.

LOST CREDIBILITY. Right now, it may not matter what the U.S. or Israel does. Nothing seems to be working. The Saudi peace proposal was welcome but too late. Arab leaders hung back when Arafat negotiated with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, under former President Bill Clinton. They let Arafat climb out on a limb -- and since the talks collapsed, no one will ever know if they would have sawed it off if had an agreement been reached.

It's encouraging that the Arab leaders now clearly want some forward movement. Trouble is, Arafat as a negotiating partner has lost all credibility. The combination of his rejecting Barak's proposals and his support for the intifada makes it all but impossible that any Israeli leader will ever sign a meaningful pact with him.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration seems to be making Clintonesque missteps when it comes to its policy toward Iraq. It seems to be taking the tack of former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright -- deploying strident rhetoric and little else. Indeed, Secretary of State Colin Powell has griped that the U.S. has a goal but not yet a plan.

FORGOTTEN LESSON. It will take time to assemble the U.S. troops needed for an assault, to organize the fractious Iraqi opposition, and to present neighbors in the region with a reasonable vision for a post-Saddam Iraq. That means the Administration should have held its rhetorical powder in reserve until it's ready to execute a strategy.

Now, Bush and his diplomatic team face the prospect of going for months with bellicose talk backed up by very little. This is the opposite of what Bush's father did. A decade ago, it was important to watch what Bush Sr. did, not what he said, as he built up forces for Desert Storm.

While George W. isn't duplicating his father's successful war-making gameplan, he's avoiding one of the major pitfalls that did his father in. His approval ratings at home remain sky-high despite the growing number of casualties in Afghanistan, the failure to capture Osama bin Laden, and the slow economy. Unlike his father, whose Desert Storm popularity evaporated as the economy headed south, Dubya may see the economy bounce back before it does him any political damage. And the continuing war on terrorism could keep the patriotic foundation of the Commander in Chief's support strong.

Taking on Iraq and the Middle East conflict pose real diplomatic, military, and, ultimately, political dangers for Bush. Just think about the notion of peace in the Middle East for a moment. In the biblical story of Noah, God caused the flood because lawlessness -- in Hebrew, chamas -- was so pervasive in the land. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas took its acronym from the Arabic word for zeal, which has the same root. Several passages after Noah is the section on the Tower of Babel. You can read the Bible or today's front pages. Nothing has changed. Will it ever? Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

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