Bush's Mideast Bungle

His initial detachment and then inconsistent policy statements have done nothing to ease the region's deadly tensions

Howard Gleckman

How badly has George W. Bush mismanaged Middle East policy? His bungling has not only helped bring the region to the brink of war but it has also jeopardized the White House's own top priority -- its battle against terrorism.

The Bush strategy has sent a ringing message throughout the Middle East -- terrorism works. And that, in turn, has isolated the U.S. in its efforts to crack down on Iraq's Saddam Hussein. After reviewing the events of the past months, it's no wonder that Saddam and his Mideast surrogates think they have Bush on the run.

If the President is serious about a war on terrorism, he needs to become fully engaged in the Middle East. He must broker a cease-fire -- and use his clout to make it stick. One way: Crack down on those who are financing suicide bombers in Israel and the West Bank. Just as Bush has acted to cut off funds to al Qaeda, he needs to do the same for those who bankroll terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Fatah as well as nations such as Syria and Iran. He must also do something about the private funding that Saudi Arabia provides.


  Then, he must find some creative ways to build a more lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, preparing for the day when both Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are out of the picture. That will mean convincing Arab leaders to recognize Israel once and for all as a sovereign state, and selling Israelis on the idea that they can live in peace with a Palestinian state. Bush must also persuade Arab leaders to stop encouraging, in some cases funding, hateful textbooks and other education programs that indoctrinate Arab children, turning them into potential suicide bombers.

Tough assignment? You bet. But Bush didn't make it any easier by fumbling policy in the region since the day he took office. First, thanks to his almost obsessive desire to be seen as the un-Clinton, the White House chose to ignore the simmering tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. Where President Clinton struggled to pull off a peace agreement, Bush disengaged, allowing the cycle of killings to escalate out of control.

The U.S. finally got semi-serious about the region last fall, driven by the events of September 11 and Arafat's ill-fated effort to procure 50 tons of weapons from Iran. The White House belatedly tried to broker a cease-fire. And the U.S. warned Arafat that he risked becoming marginalized if he didn't crack down on Palestinian terrorists, many of whom were associated with his own Fatah movement.


  The Palestinian response: Turn up the heat. Increase the killing of Israeli civilians, and call America's bluff. It worked. Instead of cutting off Arafat, the U.S. increased contact with him. And when Sharon responded to Palestinian bombings of discos and shopping malls by sending tanks into the West Bank, Bush suddenly forgot all he had been saying about terrorism since September 11. On Mar. 13, he remarked that Sharon's military response was "not helpful."

At that moment, efforts to defuse the situation came to an end. By criticizing Sharon for taking military action even as Bush was doing the same in his own war on terrorism, the U.S. President erred yet again. To the tough-minded despots who run most Arab countries, the message was clear: Bush was not willing to mix it up in the Middle East, despite his talk about getting tough on terrorism.

"The intifada has given positive results," Hussein's gleeful representative said to the Arab Summit in Beirut late last month. And he was not just referring to Israel. He was talking about the impact on the U.S. as well.

Why? Because Bush compounded his error with yet another mistake. He let it be known that he would pay just about any price to get Arab support for his effort to get rid of Saddam. Vice-President Dick Cheney was sent on what became a humiliating visit to Arab capitals. In one stop after another, he got the same message: If you want us to back your war against Saddam, don't back the Israelis.


  And in case Bush still didn't get the idea, the Beirut Summit added the needed punctuation. The Kuwaitis and the Saudis -- the very people whose countries Bush's father went to war to defend against Iraq -- were now embracing Saddam. An attack on Iraq, the summit announced, was akin to an attack on all Arabs. There were hugs all around. Bush, frantically trying to get a handle on the mess, took a short break from his ranch vacation to criticize Arafat.

For now, Osama bin Laden must be feeling pretty satisfied. Sure, he lost Afghanistan and he's on the run. But somehow, just seven months after September 11, leaders of the Arab world are publicly united in support of terrorism. How could George W. Bush have let that happen?

Gleckman is a senior correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Tuesday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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