Bombs Can't Make Up For A Bankrupt Mideast Policy

The impending attack on Iraq may achieve Washington's short-term goal of reducing the immediate threat that Saddam Hussein poses to his neighbors. Air strikes can curb his ability to build and deliver chemical and biological weapons. But after the last bomb drops, even bigger problems may loom for the U.S.

America needs to rebuild its Middle East policy from the bottom up. Its two main planks are in ruins. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has run into the sand. And the dual containment strategy of bottling up Iraq and Iran is crumbling. Even if Saddam surprises the world and avoids conflict at the last moment, the U.S. faces the daunting task of creating a new political consensus in the Middle East. Administration officials insist they have a long-term strategy, but they aren't disclosing it. Outside experts, however, say the options are limited.

The top priority should be energizing Mideast peace talks. Arab nations are irked that the U.S. can no longer force concessions from Israel. That's one reason Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright hasn't able been to whip up more enthusiasm for bombarding Iraq. Despite Albright's best efforts, Mideast sources say, no Arab state--except Kuwait--backed U.S. plans to attack Iraq. "The U.S. will attempt to push the peace process forward to regain credibility with the Arabs," says Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Tel-Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

LUKEWARM SAUDIS. Such progress is key to getting Saudi Arabia back on board. During Albright's recent visit, the Saudis didn't even commit to allowing American forces to use its bases for operations against Iraq. Albright met with Crown Prince Abdullah, likely successor to the ailing King. She may have gotten a taste of a more hard-nosed attitude to U.S. policy in the region. Analysts say Abdullah is certain to be less slavishly pro-American than some of his predecessors.

Bringing America's Arab friends back into the fold demands a change in tactics toward Israel. Repeatedly, Albright was told of Arab perceptions that the U.S. is far too pro-Israel. As a result, predicts Amatzia Baram of Haifa University, the U.S., to show evenhandedness, will step up pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While it would be risky, inching closer to Iran could also bolster the U.S. position. Although countries such as Saudi Arabia remain suspicious of Tehran's mullahs and their true intentions, Iran is a key player in the region. Recent hints of openings from both Iran's President Mohammed Khatami and the U.S. may be comparable to the early stages of the shift in relations between Washington and Beijing. To make real progress, the U.S. would have to abandon the embargo of Iran. That might have a bumpy ride in Congress, but it would improve relations with Europe considerably.

Trade politics are keeping the Europeans from following U.S. leadership. They are particularly irked by attempts to extend embargoes against Cuba and Iran to non-U.S companies. A shift on economic sanctions that gives Saddam a higher priority than Castro or the mullahs would help efforts to isolate Iraq.

The U.S. could also pay more attention to Turkey. Clinton has largely ignored the possibilities it offers. If Washington tries to prop up Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq to step up pressure on Saddam, for example, it will need Ankara to stop hounding its own Kurdish population.

If the U.S. is to score a real victory over Saddam, Clinton's diplomacy needs rethinking. It will have to become smarter than the bombs the U.S. is threatening to drop on Iraq.

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