Posted on February 15, 1993 in Washington Watch

President Clinton is personally involved in the details of his domestic economic program, which he plans to introduce in his February 17th State of the Union address to the Congress.

While there are numerous press accounts (so many that there can be no doubt they come with White House prompting) reporting that the President is being true to his campaign promise and focusing only on economic issues, his foreign policy team is launching a number of critical new initiatives. In fact, in the span of one week the Clinton Administration, without direct involvement of the President, will take dramatic steps in two important areas of foreign policy.

In the first area, Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s announcement on February tenth marked the beginning of direct U.S. engagement in efforts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia. While the details of that involvement are not yet clear, it is certain that “the full power and authority of the U.S. is now committed” to resolving the conflict.

Using language familiar to those who follow the Middle East peace talks, Christopher announced that “the only way to end this conflict is through negotiations. No settlement can be imposed upon the parties…each party must be prepared to accept a resolution that falls short of its greatest goals.”

It is widely understood that the Clinton Administration, while generally supportive of the Vance-Owen mediation effort, was not entirely pleased with the outcome of their work. The map for Bosnia-Herzegovina proposed by the Vance-Owen team brought such phrases as “punishing the victims”, “rewarding aggression” and “a recipe for future conflict” in the form of leaks from Administration sources. And although it is believed unlikely to put forth a proposed solution of its own, the U.S. is expected to put pressure on the Serbs to be more forthcoming in the future negotiations.

The Clinton Administration has proclaimed that the conflict in Bosnia is its number one foreign policy priority. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton repeatedly criticized President Bush for being too soft on the Serbs and too lax in his efforts to stop the bloodshed. Clinton did indicate during the campaign that he would consider lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia’s Muslims and would use U.S. air power to enforce the UN mandated no-fly zone over Bosnia.

For now, these two options are not on the table. Christopher termed them “not constructive to a resolution” of the conflict. This is primarily due to pressure from the United States’ European allies and the UN peacekeepers, who believe that additional force at this time would only aggravate the situation. Further, enforcement of the no-fly zone could endanger UN-sponsored relief efforts in territories under Serbian control. Without European support, U.S. options are somewhat limited—although U.S. commitment is not.

While ruling out use of force in the near term, Christopher did not hesitate to make it clear to the Serbs that force is not being ruled out in the longer term. For now, the U.S. is committed to “respond against the Serbians in the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serbian actions.” And “further actions” are being considered if the no-fly zone is violated and humanitarian aid to the Bosnians is impeded.

Some critics in the press have called the Administration’s response to the conflict “timid”, but most observers agree that direct U.S. engagement and commitment to ending the bloodshed is an important step forward.

With the outline of a new U.S. Bosnia policy on the table, Christopher and his foreign policy team are now actively engaged in preparations for the Secretary of State’s first trip to the Middle East. The goal of the trip is to restart the Middle East peace negotiations begun in Madrid sixteen months ago. And while Clinton’s pledge to continuity in the peace process seemed like one of his easiest foreign policy promises to fulfill, there is real concern in the State Department that things are no longer so simple.

The continuing fallout from Israel’s expulsion of 415 Palestinians to Lebanon has, to a great extent, endangered the entire peace process. Some U.S. policy-makers hoped that Rabin’s “compromise” would serve to resolve the issue and allow the parties to return to the peace table. Other policy-makers knew better. Israel’s offer was inadequate and the entire episode has made it virtually impossible for the Palestinian negotiating team to go back to “business as usual.”

Since it is now clear that more must be done on both fronts (redressing the expulsion issue itself and restoring Palestinian confidence in the peace process itself), intense effort is being put into developing new U.S. proposals in advance of the Secretary’s February 17th departure for the Middle East. At this point it is uncertain whether or not the Clinton Administration can muster the resolve to pressure Rabin into making genuine concessions, and whether the U.S. will provide the Palestinians with the assurances they require to reenter the talks.

Of course, it is instructive to compare the U.S. approach to the two sets of negotiations. While U.S. rhetoric on both issues are remarkably similar, the policy which flows from those words are somewhat dissimilar. And that can be attributed to one simple fact: “Politics.”

In some ways, as complex and as deeply rooted as the conflict in the Yugoslavian successor states is, it is easier for U.S. policy-makers to address—though not necessarily to solve. The absence of domestic political pressure allows policy-makers with room to maneuver. While they must still contend with pressure from allies and the realities of regional politics in Central Europe, there is no domestic lobby applying pressure that would limit options. President Clinton yet to receive a letter signed by 66 Senators warning against imposing sanctions on the Serbs.

On the other hand, the entire U.S. debate on Middle East issues is severely skewed by domestic political pressure. As a result, policy-makers are constrained by the limits of what is acceptable in the U.S. political framework.

While all this is old news in the Arab world, there does not appear to be a strategy that takes this troubling reality into account.

This fact was brought home to me this week in a discussion with UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. A small group of Arab American leaders (Metropolitan Phillip Saliba—head of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in the U.S., Edward Said, Zahi Khoury and myself) met with the Secretary General to compliment him for his report to the Security Council in an effort to bring enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 799; and to hear his prognosis regarding future Security Council action to enforce the resolution and bring about the return of the Palestinian expellees to their homes.

His report is now before the Security Council. We know that in the view of most nations his views are correct: the expulsions are a violation of international law, 799 must be implemented, Palestinian rights must be protected, and there is a growing view that the UN Security Council applies a double standard in enforcing its resolutions. Boutros-Ghali’s response to our question as to what will now occur in the Security Council was simple, frank, and stunning. Nothing, he noted, will happen unless there is pressure.

It appears that the Israeli “compromise”, to which the U.S. has agreed, has effectively ruled out any certainty that the Security Council would act. Only vigorous and organized pressure from the Arab states, the non-aligned bloc, Muslim or other countries committed to enforcing 799 will bring the issue back to the attention of the world body. Either that or vigorous, organized pressure from within the U.S. to counter pro-Israel pressure and bring about a change in U.S. policy.

While public opinion in the U.S. supports Palestinian rights and greater balance in U.S. Middle East policy, that public opinion is not organized in such a way that it can exert pressure strong enough to force a change in U.S. policy. George Bush discovered when he took his initial strong stand against granting the $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel, public opinion supported his policy. But he backed away from that stance during the presidential campaign, in part because Republican strategists feared that organized pressure from the pro-Israel community would outweigh the diffuse public opinion that supported his tough stance.

Most foreign policy decision-makers in the Clinton Administration do not support Israel’s expulsion of the Palestinians, neither were they prepared to enter into a head to head conflict with the Rabin government this early in the Administration. The agreement with Rabin seemed to offer a way out. But they do not want to see the peace talks collapse on their watch, so they are applying pressure to restart the talks on the basis of a “compromise” agreement.

What can add a new element to the equation that produced these limited options?—pressure from the Palestinians and the other Arab states to force the U.S. to consider other options if they, in fact, do want to get the peace negotiations restarted.

For example, given the desire of the Christopher team to insure success for the Secretary’s first trip abroad, and given the continuing and stated commitment of the Clinton Administration to see that the peace talks not only continue but succeed, it may be possible to constructively engage the U.S. to be more forthcoming in meeting Palestinian needs.

Some U.S. policy-makers feel that since the U.S. offered a “ladder to Rabin”, they must now offer some new assurances to the Palestinians. It is important, therefore, for Palestinians to propose which specific assurances they will require before agreeing to restart the talks. It is equally important, however, that the assurances sought be within the realm of political possibility.

For example, the U.S. has already made it clear that it will not support sanctions against Israel—that may be regrettable but it is nonetheless a fact of political life in the U.S. However, there may be a more creative way to use a Security Council resolution to hasten the return of the expelled Palestinians and reaffirm that illegality of expulsions. It may also be possible to explore ways to secure an upgrading of U.S. recognition of Palestinian national rights and of the U.S.-Palestinian relationship. The U.S. might also be successfully pressured to secure greater flexibility from Israel on some of the commitments Palestinians had sought from Israel during the last round of negotiations.

If these options fail, then other and more critical decisions will have to be made by the Palestinians and the other Arab states involved in the peace talks.

The lesson in all of this is quite clear. Politics is the art of knowing and acting on what is possible. At present, what is possible with regard to the Middle East peace process may not be everything that the Arab side both needs and desires. Knowing that is important, but complaining about it is not useful. Working to change this disturbing reality, to expand the definition of what is possible, is what is called for.

Only when effective counter-pressure is applied, either domestically or internationally, will political options become broader. And only then will there be balance in U.S. Middle East policy and consistency in U.S. foreign policy.

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