Commentary: Say Good Bye To Pax Americana

The fighting in Israel and the Palestinian areas has already left scores dead and hundreds injured. But many analysts think that if this turmoil is not stopped soon, it will have widespread repercussions across the Middle East and the oil-rich Gulf states. And it could have a profound impact on U.S. policy in the region.

In fact, a new political era may well be dawning in the Middle East. The painfully slow peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel look dead--at least in their recent form. Of course, President Bill Clinton might still pull off a miracle. But if the peace process is over, the Palestinians and Israelis will go their own ways: The Israelis would try to seal themselves off from Palestinian areas with electric fences and listening devices. And Yasir Arafat would declare his long-promised Palestinian state. But it is unlikely to be economically viable and may prove politically unstable as well.

The result may be a serious decline in American influence in the Middle East. Already, Arab governments around the region seem to be rethinking the close ties that have prevailed between many of them and Washington since the 1991 war with Iraq. "This is the end of the current formula for American hegemony in the region," says Yahya M. Sadowski, an analyst at Petroleum Finance Co., a Washington consultancy. "The Arabs have been put in a position where they can't afford to be seen collaborating with the U.S."

LAME DUCK. It seems the decade-long Pax Americana is breaking down throughout the region. With President Clinton's authority waning by the day, he is going to find it difficult to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian National Authority chief Arafat together, let alone bridge the widening differences between the two sides. "Very strong, atavistic feelings have been aroused that will be hard to contain," says Rashid I. Khalidi, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago.

One worrying sign is anti-Arab rioting in Israel. Another is the growing strength of Islamic militants such as the Palestinian Hamas group. The current conflict has also strengthened younger, more hard-line local leaders of secular groups such as Marwan Barghouti, who directs an organization of toughs known as the tanzim. That shift in the Palestinian political galaxy will complicate any future negotiations. Arafat is going to have to satisfy his angry and frustrated constituents or they will just shrug off his instructions.

Moreover, the shock waves from the turmoil are already spreading beyond Israel and the Palestinian areas. Violence has erupted on Israel's border with Lebanon, which had been quiet since May. And the constant stream of broadcasts showing Israeli troops firing on demonstrators is putting all the Arab governments on the defensive. That makes it hard for them to cooperate with the U.S.--Israel's chief backer.

CLINTON REBUFFED. Signs of diminishing U.S. influence are popping up daily. Egypt, which has received tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid since the 1979 Camp David accords, has been stiffing Clinton's request to host a last-ditch peace conference. Instead, it's arranging an Arab summit that would likely include Iraq, which the U.S. has worked hard to isolate since 1991. In symbolic protests against the U.S.-led anti-Iraq sanctions, Jordan, Yemen, and others in the region have sent sanction-defying planes to Baghdad.

But the demise of Pax Americana could have as many economic as political repercussions. The U.S. has to be particularly wary of losing touch with its Gulf allies, especially the Saudis. On Oct. 9, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah warned Israel that the kingdom would not stand idly by if it attacked Lebanon or Syria. "Nobody should think that the kingdom would just watch with its hands tied," he said. His comments raised fears that Saudi Arabia might cut its oil production. At a time of tight markets, that was enough to give a sharp upward jolt to prices once again.

Indeed, there is an eerie resemblance between the present and 1973, when the Arabs punished the West and the U.S. by slashing oil production. Once again, conflict in the Middle East is occurring at a time when there is little spare oil production capacity. That means the oil markets are listening closely to the words of the Saudis, the largest producers, and other big players, trying to divine their intentions. While it seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia would participate in a new embargo, it might come under pressure to be less forthcoming on producing even more oil if that is called for down the road.

Certainly the tight oil situation gives clout to the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, who is posing as champion of the Palestinians. It would be difficult for the world to replace the Iraqis' 2.1 million barrels per day of exports. That gives credibility to Saddam's bellicose statements and hints that he might stop the flow--even if, as some analysts think, he has no intention of halting supplies. The bloodshed also makes it difficult for the Saudis and Egyptians, America's closest Arab allies, to keep Saddam isolated. His rhetoric appeals to the man on the street.

Given all these cross currents, it's close to impossible for the U.S. to find a quick remedy. Of course, Washington must try to to use whatever clout it has with both the Palestinians and the Israelis to bring a halt to open conflict.

More important, the U.S. also needs to rethink its entire approach to the Mideast. Many analysts think that Clinton, despite his recent diplomacy, is in danger of letting a golden opportunity get away. The Israelis and Palestinians presented him with a gift in 1993 when they reached the Oslo agreement. Of course, Clinton had bad luck in the form of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995 and the 1996-99 prime ministerial term of the obstructionist Benjamin Netanyahu. But Clinton's Mideast negotiators also frittered away time with touchy-feely diplomacy that, until the near miss at Camp David in August, added little.

A reexamination of U.S. policy toward the region is in order, including a hard look at the increasingly ineffective 10-year-old sanctions against Iraq. And there should be some straight talk with the Saudis and Egyptians about what they expect of the U.S. and what the U.S. expects of them--in particular when it comes to the peace process. It's too late for the dying Clinton Administration to carry out such a reappraisal. The election of a new President will provide a fresh start.

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