Posted on April 02, 1993 in Washington Watch

With the ugly and dangerous war in Bosnia threatening to become even uglier and more dangerous, and with post-Cold War Russia in turmoil, it is fascinating to see the extent to which the Middle East remains a number one foreign policy priority for the Clinton Administration.

While other world issues continue to receive their fair share of attention, the record of this Administration’s first two months in office is filled with Middle East related activity.

·· The first foreign trip made by the Secretary of State was to the Middle East to visit five Arab countries and Israel, in Secretary Christopher’s words, to:

· Restart the peace process;
· reassure Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that U.S. policy towards Iraq has not changed;
· recognize and support progress being made in Lebanon;
· promote U.S. commercial interests in the region; and
· express U.S. support for human rights and democratic processes.

·· Among the foreign dignitaries to visit Washington and meet with the President and/or the Secretary of State were Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel; a high-level Palestinian delegation led by Faisal Husseini; and President Mubarak of Egypt.

·· The United States and Russia have invited all parties to resume the Middle East peace talks in Washington on April 20. If these talks do reconvene they will dominate U.S. attention for weeks.

·· The Secretary of State has, in recent weeks, focused on a new round of public diplomacy. First meeting with Jewish American leaders and then, in an unprecedented follow-up, with Arab American leaders at the White House. On March 30 Christopher gave a wide-ranging presentation to the Senate Foreign Operation subcommittee, most of which was focused on various aspects of Middle East policy. And just last week in a coordinated presentation in Washington and at the UN, the U.S. Department of State issued a detailed backgrounder outlining the Clinton Administration’s policy toward Iraq.

What comes through clearly in all this activity is that the Clinton Administration is focused—just as the Bush Administration was—on the Middle East as a foreign policy priority. Not only that, but while differing slightly in style and emphasis, there is a fundamental continuity between the principles and policies of this Administration and the previous one.

To drive this point home, the Clinton Administration has made a determined effort to spell out this commitment to continuity in several areas of Middle East policy.

Middle East Peace Issues

Despite continued Arab anger over the U.S. handling of Israel’s expulsion of 400 Palestinians to Lebanon, escalating violence in Israel and the Occupied territories and the resurgence of Israel’s right wing extremist parties, the Administration has continued to stress the importance of reestablishing the Middle East peace talks. And it is taking steps to bring this about.

As was hoped, the Clinton Administration has reaffirmed to all parties the principles contained in the letters of assurance that brought all the parties to Madrid. Further, in a departure from the past Administration, they have asserted their intention to play an active (though still undefined) role in the talks.

Secretary Christopher restated once again this week that the Administration opposes all expulsions, but feels that the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 799 is underway and should not be an impediment to continuing the peace process. Again, in something of a departure from previous policy, the Secretary noted that at the peace talks the Palestinians could press a human rights agenda and for an improvement in the conditions in the Occupied Territories—something that was not always encouraged by the Bush Administration.

It is not clear what the Administration has up its sleeve with regard to peace talks, or even if there is anything there at all, but Administration officials continue to push for an April 20 restart of the talks and express optimism that breakthroughs can occur on all fronts.

In fact, Christopher has repeatedly stated his belief that 1993 could not only be an important year for peace, but that it may be the last opportunity, in the near future, to reach a breakthrough on any front. To add urgency and to underline U.S. commitment to the process, the Administration is noting that its active role will insure that there will be movement. They seem to realize that a stalemate would be as dangerous as no talks at all.


As Christopher recently noted, his trip to Lebanon was, itself, a message—a message of support for the government of Lebanon, its independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and right to be free of all foreign forces. The principles of support remain the same from the Bush Administration, but with a little extra meat on the bones.

For example, while there was no change in U.S. rhetorical support for Ta’if (to be interpreted “in spirit and letter”) and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 425, this Administration seems as willing as the last to allow lapses in implementation—unfortunately seeing Lebanon’s “integrity” as secondary to movement in the peace process. Nevertheless, this Administration has cleared the way for a modest increase in U.S. aid to Lebanon, and to restart the IMEP (training of military personnel in the U.S.) program. There is also an active review of the issue of the ban on travel to Lebanon—an issue that is being pressed hard by Arab Americans.

Iran and Terrorism

Several Administration officials have made clear their increased concern over the role that Iran is playing the Middle East today. High on their list of concerns is Iran’s rearmament program and its support for extremists and terrorist organizations and activity, most especially in countries which support the peace process.

Seeking to distance the Administration from the rhetoric of others, the Secretary of State himself reiterated that the concern the U.S. has with some parties in the Middle East is based on their activities and not their beliefs. Repeating the important 1992 policy statement of Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian, Christopher made it clear that “Islam is not our enemy—fanaticism that breeds violence is.” The Secretary also pointed out that it is not only a concern of the U.S., but of several Middle Eastern leaders as well.


In some of the strongest statements of the past few weeks, the Administration has sought to lay out as clearly as possible its policy on Iraq. While seeking to “depersonalize” the issue, the U.S. reaffirmed that the core of its policy is to secure full Iraqi compliance with all UN Security Council Resolutions.

In order to illustrate U.S. concerns, this week the State Department issued a booklet which gave detailed information on Iraq’s non-compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions. In all, the package contains documentation of 47 examples of Iraqi behavior that fall outside of UN guidelines. The package contains a lengthy list of very recent Iraqi violations and six facts sheets on what Iraq must do to be in compliance.

Of special concern to the Administration are UN Security Council Resolution 687 (which establishes the Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Demarcation Committee and calls for: the return of Kuwaiti detainees, the return of Kuwaiti property and for compensations for losses incurred during the invasion and occupation of Kuwait); and Resolution 688 (which calls for and end to repression of Iraqi citizens and provides for unimpeded humanitarian assistance.

In an effort to make clear U.S. concern for the suffering of Iraqi people, the package also contains a section on those UN Resolutions which provide for assistance to Iraqis even under the sanctions regime. It begins with the text:

“Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990 created a difficult problem for the international community: how to compel the Baghdad regime to comply with its demands, while at the same time preventing undue hardships from being inflicted upon Iraqi civilians.

“The UN Security Council has made every effort to resolve this dilemma. Unfortunately the Iraqi government has rejected each proposal, and, instead, cynically diverts humanitarian imports to regime supporters and uses the suffering of civilians as a means of evading compliance with Security Council resolutions.”

The document goes on to outline how implementation of Resolutions 687 and 688, and most especially Resolutions 706 and 712, would specifically provide for an international effort to support the needs of the Iraqi people even while the sanctions remain in effect.

By pointing out the continued efforts of Saddam’s government to violate UN resolutions, the Administration sought to accomplish one objective: depersonalize the U.S.-Iraq policy and focus instead on the details of Saddam’s non-compliance with the UN. In this way the Administration has succeeded in personalizing the Iraq policy in another way—not on Saddam the person but on his policies.


The simple bottom line is that Clinton’s Middle East policy is, in fact, largely a carry-over from that of the previous Administration, with some slight modifications. The Middle East remains a high priority and there remains a deeply felt urgency to move forward on a Middle East peace agreement. There is continuity in both principles and policy.

Critics have reason to argue with some of those principles, most particularly the special treatment extended to Israel and the lack of balance shown toward Arab concerns—for example the Palestinian right to self-determination or Israel’s nuclear capacity. There is still a justified anger in the Arab world over the unfair deal that Christopher made with Rabin in an effort to “defuse” the expulsion issue, but it must be recalled that this deal was no more unfair than was the deal that Bush made with Rabin to settle the issue of the $10 billion loan guarantees.

These two cases are very similar. In each case a U.S. Administration sought to support and resolve a problem for what they perceived as a “friendly but beleaguered” Labor government in Israel. In each case the U.S. agreed to accept a short term extension of Israel’s violation of U.S.-supported international law in hope of modifying Israeli behavior in the long term. And in each case, as unfair and unprincipled as the agreements were, they were driven by need (to solve an urgent problem for Israel while maintaining at least a fig leaf of credibility) and expediency (to limit the potential for political damage to the Administration in a domestic political context).

The latter of these two needs is always a critical factor in shaping policy. For, as I have argued in this column previously, there are U.S. domestic political considerations which American policy makers take into account when making policy choices. This was the case with the Bush Administration, and it is the case with the Clinton Administration as well. This continuity, at least in the short term, will apply to both those U.S. Middle East policies which are balanced and fair as well as those which are unbalanced and unfair.

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