Posted on November 24, 1997 in Washington Watch

As events of the past few weeks have made clear, the twin pillars of U.S.-Middle East policy (the Arab-Israeli peace process and the dual containment of Iran and Iraq) are in trouble. It is now become imperative for the U.S. to reassess its approach to the region and reformulate its policy. The existing policy was based on too limited a view of the political dynamics in the region and some assumptions that, I believe, have now been found to be flawed.

For example, for domestic political reasons, the U.S. attempted to construct the peace process using a framework that ruled out both direct U.S. input and the use of any direct U.S. public pressure on Israel. Since there was an asymmetry of power in the region between Israel and its Arab negotiating partners, the asymmetry of U.S. pressure (applied, at times, only to the Arab side, but not to Israel) resulted in a deformed process. Absent balanced pressure, in order to succeed, the process required mutual good will and a recognition by all the parties of each others respective needs.

After languishing for months under a Shamir-led Likud government, which really had no will to move the process forward, the process was rescued by the Labor government of Yitzak Rabin. But all was still not well with the peace effort. In order to stave off challenges from their anti-peace opposition, both Rabin and his successor Shimon Peres, at times, required displays of U.S. pressure. This would have helped them to steer a more direct course toward implementation of the peace accords. But needed U.S. balancing pressure was not forthcoming.

Rabin’s assassination and the defeat of the Labor government have virtually ended all movement in the peace process. The Netanyahu government has amply demonstrated its refusal to accept the premises on which the process was based or to implement its provisions. Since the process was left to the good will of the participants, absent good will, the process began to unravel.

While the White House is still averse to the use of direct public pressure, it is clear that a reassessment is underway. The White House used some pressure to press for a Hebron agreement, and following Secretary Albright’s visit to the region, the White House has continued to send unmistakable signs of displeasure to the Netanyahu government. It was no accident that the President did not meet with the Israeli Prime Minister during his recent visit, he did find the opportunity to meet with Jordan’s King Hussein. And just this weekend the President hosted a White House luncheon for Shimon Peres Leah Rabin and 100 Arab American and Jewish American leaders. At that event, the President forcefully laid out the underlying principles of the peace process including his call for a “time out”, an Israeli redeployment and confidence building measures to improve the Palestinian economy. The address was carried live on U.S. and Israeli television.

In part, the White House has been compelled to move in this more forceful direction both to save a floundering peace process and in an effort to restore badly needed support in the broader Arab world.

The degree of Arab alienation from the U.S. was brought home in the past few weeks by their absence from the Doha Economic Summit and by their resistance to the use of any military solution to the standoff with Iraq.

Not only did the US’s major Arab allies urge restraint in the confrontation with Iraq, but many have even begun to call for an end or, at least, an easing of economic sanctions regime that has been in effect against that country since the end of the Gulf War.

Yet a further blow to the U.S. will come next month, if, as expected, the majority of Arab states, including important U.S. allies, attend the Islamic Summit in Teheran.

In some ways, dual containment was not a policy but the absence of a policy. Iran is one of the region’s most populous states. While many Arab states are threatened by not only the current policies of the Iranian government but its long-term strategic ambitions as well, they know that it is not possible to isolate Iran from the region.

Iraq is not viewed as a long-term threat. What is of concern regarding Iraq is the current regime. The sanctions program has not damaged the rule of Saddam Hussein or weakened his hold. On the contrary, it has created a resentment and a bitterness both in Iraq itself and among many in the Arab world who have become horrified at the staggering toll that sanctions have taken on the innocent people of that country.

The U.S. efforts to isolate Iran and punish Iraq are floundering in the Arab world in part because both goals are undefined and both are now being questioned in the face of Israeli intransigence in the peace process.

It was significant that the U.S. worked with its Security Council partners to find a way to defuse the Iraqi standoff. It is also important to note that while the U.S. remains resolute that weapons inspectors have unimpeded access and all U.N. Security Council resolutions be enforced, there may be forthcoming an increase in humanitarian aid and a more clearly defined path for Iraq to find its way out of the current complete sanctions regime.

What recent events have made clear is that goals, absent a realistic strategy to realize them, can be frustrating. The stalled peace process, the dismal attendance at Doha, the tattering of the Gulf War coalition, growing Arab restiveness over the conditions of the Iraqi people, and the crumbling of regional support for the dual containment policy have all brought home to the U.S. the need to reassess its approach to the Middle East. There are some recent signs that point to the changes that are underway, but more elaboration will be required in the months to come.

For comments or information, contact

comments powered by Disqus