"They view world politics as a billiard-ball table"

Experts struggle to explain the Bush administration's off-and-on Mideast policy.

By Damien Cave
Published April 3, 2002 1:48AM (EST)

Trying to understand the gyrations of the Bush administration's hands-off, then hands-on, then hands-off again Middle East policy has been a challenge over the past month.

Salon asked foreign policy analysts and experts to interpret.

Richard Curtiss, publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs:

It certainly appears that Bush is unable to make up his own mind. At times, when Colin Powell gets control of his head, he does the right thing. But he's also squelched often, so we go into moments of total confusion. Then Powell comes again and attempts to make it less deleterious.

But I really don't know when Bush is going to decide who he is. As you know, there are only two countries in world, Israel and the U.S., who feel one way, and the rest of the world feels another way.

It's a miraculous form of political blindness. I cannot figure out for the life of me why he's entering these periods of confusion. Zbigniew Brzezinksi [national security advisor to President Carter], in the last couple of days, has spoken with amazing clarity, trying to explain that there is no choice -- that the U.S. has to make up its mind and side with the rest of the world.

It's extremely dangerous not to, because the U.S. is like a giant child. It doesn't understand what the disastrous situation will be for the U.S. if we go down this road too long. I fear it's going to hurt us very badly. I hope it's just political consequences that we'll suffer, but there are other options.

The Arab countries may eventually have no choice but to initiate an embargo, which will only hurt us. Or what if the Saudis say we have to leave? We have a huge defense strategy that could be in shambles in minutes if the Saudis simply close down what we've tried to do there. And if that happens, you can be sure that no other Arab country would pick up the gauntlet, because they'd be ostracized.

I hate to even get into this because talking about this makes me feel that the U.S. is extremely vulnerable. But if the U.S. keeps doing things in such a heedless way, you could have human bombs all over the world, including in the U.S.

Also, I've spent many years in the Middle East and elsewhere so I know the advantages of good relations, in terms of things like getting the police to share information. And we could lose all that in an instant. This is an extremely dangerous time. I find George Bush terribly confused and the fact that Ariel Sharon is calling the shots in Washington is a terrible development.

Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at Brookings Institute, and a staffer in Clinton's National Security Council from 1995-1996:

They have a particular view about the nature of world politics. They view world politics as a billiard-ball table in which balls are states of different sizes, and the U.S. is the cue ball. The way you get things done is by bumping up to other balls and getting them to move because of your size and force.

The idea is that America is so powerful that it can do what it wants. So because the world is really about balls, states and mass, that's all you need to know. Whoever is the most powerful state does what it wants. That's basically the view that the Dick Cheneys and Rumsfelds have; you can cooperate but only to the extent that it gets you what you want.

Where this comes from is the absolute power that the U.S. has, and an absolute conviction that whatever the U.S. stands for ought to be acceptable to others. We don't have to examine whether we're good. We are. Either everyone will accept that, or they won't because they're misguided.

The problem is that the reality of the world is more complicated. And when reality hits them in the face, they're stuck with sticking their head in the sand or adjusting. And so far, they've been good at adjusting. An example is foreign aid. This was an administration that came into office believing that foreign aid was social welfare for poor countries. But the president doubled the aid budget this month in Mexico.

As for the Middle East, it seemed a week ago -- when you had the combination of Cheney's visit, Zinni's redeployment and the president's strong words that it's not helpful [for Israel] to be in Ramallah -- you had a sense that the administration was engaging in the Middle East conflict in a way that all administrations have done since 1973.

But in the last 72 hours, they have reverted to type. If you take the statements of Powell Friday and Bush's statements to the press today, they're characterizing what's going on in Israel as if it was the World Trade Center. They've adopted the same language as Sharon; it's all about terrorism. There's no regard for the causes of terrorism, or the idea that the way you deal with terrorism is through political process.

It is a reversion to type. If you want to characterize the administration's soul as a fight between ideology and pragmatism, it seems that there was a short period -- from Cheney's visit until last week -- where pragmatism won out. But since the Passover massacre, they've reverted to ideology and moralism. It's good vs. evil, the Western world versus terror. They've reduced a highly complicated 50-year-old conflict to good vs. evil.

Their approach is not going to last because it can't. It's only going to get worse. We will have a suicide bomber every day. People already cannot walk on the streets in Israel for fear that they'll be attacked. Eventually, the world and the Israelis will turn to us and tell us to resolve the conflict, and Mr. Bush will get involved. We'll have to recognize that, while trying to get a cease-fire, you also need to engage in the political process.

Or, if the conflict were to hit home here [in the form of suicide bombers on U.S. soil], it could go one of two ways. We could see the Sept. 11 reaction -- fury, designed to destroy those who did this. The other option is to question why we're importing another country's problems.

If I were a betting man, and I'm not, I'd bet that the Bush administration would go with cold fury. I'm struck, reading what Bush said on Saturday, that the way he analyzed this conflict is antiseptic. There is no political context. It's remarkable. And it underscores a larger point; it exposes the hollowness of their war on terror. They've identified terror as a kind of behavior and they either have ignored or downplayed or denied that this behavior can be caused by different contexts.

I agree with the administration that al-Qaida is the kind of group that needs to be destroyed. We didn't receive a note with political demands. But we do know why these people [in Israel] are committing suicide; it's a political conflict.

Dan Goure, senior fellow at the Lexington Institute:

I wouldn't argue that it's ideology over pragmatism. It's a return to their basic beliefs, as of Sept. 11. There was an effort to placate the Arabs in the context of the Cheney trip and getting the Arabs on board for an attack on Iraq, but frankly, I don't think they believed it would work for a minute.

I'm not sure that there's that strong a division within the administration. They're all taking their lead from the man in charge, and my sense is that the administration is increasingly of the mind that they may have to tolerate Arafat for pragmatic reasons but that, in their view, he and the PLO are a terrorist organization. The administration would say that if you do anything to reward the Palestinian Authority, you will do exactly what the Bushes claim that Clinton did -- allow the terrorists to get a pass. They see this in terms of Clinton, and in terms of their belief that every time you don't stomp the terrorists, you virtually guarantee that you'll have more terrorism on U.S. soil. The argument has been made that it was a lackluster reaction to Khobar Towers, the embassy attacks and even the first World Trade Center bombing that made sure that this would keep up.

It's a strong argument. This is not terrorism spawned of desperation; if it was, you'd see more violence like in Africa. This is organized, directed terror. That's what concerns people. If you read Thomas Friedman, even he comes to the conclusion that at the end of the day, you will come to a political solution, but in the meantime you can't allow terrorism to be a useful piece of policy. It's a deliberate attack on purely civilian targets for the purpose of terrorizing the people, and it can't be allowed.

Where the thing became a problem was that there was not enough pressure put on Sharon, when Arafat seemed to be showing some success at limiting the attacks, in December and January. We should have had serious questions for Sharon at that point. But that's the standard. There's a legitimate argument that can be made that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have not done enough compared to what they did earlier to incarcerate or stop terrorist groups.

I wouldn't be pragmatic in all of this. For both sides, a lot of this is in the symbolism. Telling Arafat to go out on TV and call for an end to the violence in Arabic -- that's a symbol. He can pass a note to everyone around him off camera saying, "Ignore what I'm saying," and it would still be powerful. The arrest of the 35 names on the Israeli list of terrorists, or the turning over of the four people who shot the minister, may matter more than the complete cessation of terrorism. What this thing needs is good symbols. And that's why it's been failing. There is no symbolic evidence of cooperation and that's important. It doesn't finish the job, but we should not underestimate the importance of symbols.

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow, Brookings Institute:

It's a very hard situation to get right and, just as Clinton did, they're trying to retain some sense of evenhandedness while putting more pressure on Arafat. That's been the U.S. policy since Clinton's summer 2000 effort and it's still in place. It wasn't 9/11 or Bush's ideology that started it; it's got a good year and a half of history behind it.

I do think that Israel and the U.S. are more linked in security terms than we ever realized before. The fallout in Israel affects the U.S. not just politically but also in terms of security. But the broader question is, What do you do about it? Israel antagonizes the Middle East but their very existence antagonizes many countries, so we're not going to cower before every grievance. There is this broad cultural or civilization divide at some level but I would not make too much of it. It's not primarily due to the U.S. policy and there's not much we can do about it. It's not a systemic problem; it's a problem in perception, not reality.

But as much as I sympathize with Israel, we have to demand more from them; we have to demand that they give back all of the settlements and that they stop the raids. As long as they [have] a state that is real and recognized, which should be the standard, then they have to start worrying about security -- not just for them or the Palestinians, but also for the U.S. And yet, as much as I'm not a fan of Sharon, and believe that the raids are counterproductive, the Palestinians do in fact deserve the primary blame for what's now going on. Arafat is the one who deserves more of the blame for leaving proposals on the table.

Antony Blinken, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of Clinton's National Security Council from 1994-2001:

There are a number of things going on and none of it is easy. Bush came in and for some understandable reasons decided to put the U.S. on the sidelines in the Middle East because his predecessor got burned. There didn't seem to be a lot of political upside.

As a political matter that's understandable. But our virtual absence for the past year or so has made it easier for violence to spiral out of control. Bill Clinton didn't succeed at Camp David, but he did succeed at keeping the parties talking for years -- and when they're talking, they're less like to be killing each other.

Bush is coming around to this idea. But the administration has a couple of big problems that make navigating difficult. They want to be consistent with the president's policy since Sept. 11 -- so with that perspective, taking a tough line on the Palestinians is the logical choice. But they also want to build a coalition to attack Iraq. There's inherent tension in anything the administration does.

What's going on is the classic thing that anyone in government understands -- that whatever is most urgent crowds out your strategy. Right now, their inbox is full with a huge conflict between Israel and Palestinians. So I think you're going to see a focus on stopping the violence. It may not be the most important goal of some people in the administration, but it is the most pressing.

Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council for Foreign Relations and author of "Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World":

One can't help but sympathize with Israelis; on the other hand, suicide bombers raise the basic problem ... which is how are the Israelis and Palestinians going to live together. You will not solve the problem of terror attacks until you find a solution to that problem.

What you haven't heard from Israel is its vision -- what does Sharon want as the final status? What is that offer that he's holding up? But the origin of this iteration of the intifada was an unprecedented series of concessions by Israel: Barak's offer, and the earlier peace process. So you can't argue that Israeli conciliation leads to peace, and Israeli harshness leads to suicide bombings. There's plenty of evidence showing that intifadas begin in the middle of peace processes.

It's important to understand that these suicide bombers are attacking the possibility of living a civilized life. People think it's very hard to have suicide bombers -- but most people who go into battle accept the high likelihood of dying, so people who believe in a cause enough to take on a suicide mission are not that hard to find. And what you really want to create is a worldwide policy saying that this tactic does not lead to success.

None of this is to suggest that what Sharon is doing makes sense; a lot of the knee-jerk reaction deserves to be scrutinized. But for the Bush administration, there hasn't been much of a shift. The Bush administration has put down a clear marker -- don't hurt Arafat -- and Israel is saying that they're not going to touch him.

What a lot of people in the Sharon government would like to do is remove Arafat. The Saudi peace proposal is not really what the Israeli right wants, either. Territorial compromise has been a very bitter issue in Israeli politics, but the U.S. has been very supportive of that policy. The U.S. has not backed away from encouraging the Saudi initiative.

So, on the specifics of how to react to terror, the U.S. is with Israel. But on the larger questions, the Bush administration seems to have a lot of continuity with the last 30 years, which is to encourage a peace process based on territorial compromise.

The U.S. also remains committed to the view that dealing with Saddam is central to any stabilization to the Middle East and represents a vital interest for the region and the U.S. The Bush administration thinks he's building weapons of mass destruction and the clock is ticking. They feel that dealing with Iraq has to be part of a broader political approach. So in spite of the upsurge of public sympathy for Israel, I don't think the Bush administration has lost sight of its core view that you need to deal with Hussein, and that you don't get to do that by escalating the violence in Israel.

The U.S. always has this problem with small regional allies that feel they're in more danger than the U.S. does. Taiwan is an example. The U.S. would like them to be more laid-back -- but if the U.S. goes too far, then you run the risk that if your ally loses faith in your willingness to stand up for them, then the ally becomes not more compliant but rather more intransigent.

With Israel, a country that has nuclear weapons, it's not clear what would happen if the U.S. told Sharon that Israel had to forge a settlement. Israel might just say, "Circle the wagons and point the nuclear weapons at the enemy." People who criticize the U.S. policy often don't fully grasp the constraints.

Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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