Posted on April 08, 2002 in Washington Watch

President Bush’s April 4th speech, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, represented but one round in a long internal fight raging within this Administration.

For months now the upper hand in this policy debate has been dominated by the hard line former cold warriors who occupy key posts in the White House and the Pentagon.

Whether from the neo-conservative school or the religious right wing, these ideologues, many from the Reagan era, have wielded significant influence both within the Administration and as political commentators. The views of these hawks dominate on the nation’s televisions and the editorial pages of major newspapers.

The post-September 11 scene was made to order for their rigidly defined worldview. Seeing the world in absolute terms they helped to cast President Bush’s war against terrorism in language reminiscent of the way they had previously shaped President Reagan’s war against the “Evil Empire.” It was a battle between the forces of good and light on the one side and darkness and evil on the other. And in this battle several issues were clear: good must prevail; there could be no compromise with or appeasement of evil; and in the battle there was only black and white, no gray–‘you are either with us or against us.’

Just as those ideologues made the Cold War into an all-encompassing obsession, they have sought to do the same thing with the war on terror. During the Cold War, all regional conflicts were only understood through the prism of the U.S.-Soviet contest. Today, a similar effort is being made to paint all regional conflicts as struggles between the “free world and terror.” And in the minds of the new cold warriors, the hand of the “Axis of Evil” is everywhere.

When, in the midst of Vice President Cheney’s effort to cajole the nations of the Middle East to support a U.S. confrontation with Iraq, the region exploded in repeated Israeli-Palestinian violence, the new cold war hawks saw it as necessary to crush the violence so that efforts to focus on Iraq could proceed.

After the Passover bombing in Israel, a clear effort was made both in Israel and the United States to identify the Israeli and U.S. struggles as one and the same. The Israelis adopted U.S. rhetoric and they and their supporters pressed the U.S. Administration to give them a green light to end Palestinian resistance.

The problem, of course, is that reality is more complex than the ideologues will allow. Recognizing this, other voices within the Administration were heard pushing in the opposite direction. The State Department and others within the Administration who have been engaged in Middle East diplomacy have cautioned against imposing too simplistic a view on the very difficult realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than allowing the Sharon government a free hand to crush the Palestinian Authority, those realists have argued for a more determined and forceful U.S. diplomacy designed to press for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Following Secretary Powell’s Good Friday statement and President Bush’s comments the next day, it appeared that the ideologues had the upper hand in the internal debate. Sharon would get his green light and the U.S. would “understand” his “war on terror.”

In the face of the Administration’s disappointing stance and the intensified Israeli aggression against Palestinian cities, the Arab world came to an angry boil. Arab heads of state called to register their protests, demonstrations rocked almost every major capital, and U.S. ambassadors sent the State Department detailed cables expressing their concern with the growing alienation in the Arab world.
Recognizing that they had dug a deep hole for themselves, the Administration began to inch their way out. Each day there were signs of a slight shift in the U.S. position. After a ninety-minute meeting with the Secretary of State on the day before President Bush’s address, Arab American leaders emerged believing that the Secretary understood the gravity of the situation and that he was fighting for an approach more responsive to regional realities.

The Arab Americans had made specific recommendations to the Administration, many of which were included in the President’s final formulation of policy. Bush’s speech, while disturbing to Arabs for its failure to take a tough stand against the actions of the Israeli Prime Minister and its effort to focus blame on President Arafat, nevertheless, did contain some positive elements. More importantly it represents a slight assent of realist voices in shaping the Administration’s message.

What’s clear at this point is that the battle within the Administration is far from over. The speech has been given, but work must be done. Sharon is still rampaging through the West Bank. Powell will have heavy lifting to do to control the Israeli leader and bring him back to a real peace process. The question that remains is “will Powell be given the mandate to force a change in Israel’s behavior?”

The reaction from the ideologues has been hysterical. From outside the Administration, their pundits have denounced the President’s “appeasement” of Arafat. From inside they are working to deny Powell an effective mandate and to target Arab countries as supporters of terror, in an effort to shape the debate as larger than Israel and Palestine.

Over the past few weeks, several analysts have commented on the Administration’s “confusing signals” or on the Bush “policy muddle.” What, in fact, they were seeing were two distinct schools fighting to shape the U.S. policy toward the Middle East. The ideologues and the realists have each won partial victories–hence the appearance of confusion. What is at stake is vital for the security and stability of the Middle East, the future of the Palestinian people and, I believe, the ability of the United States to maintain healthy and normal relations with the Arab world.

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