April 25, 2002
It was a hot talk show topic: The Bush administration's Middle East policy zigzags are making analysts dizzy.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a "man of peace," the president says, even as he pressures the Israeli government to continue withdrawing from West Bank towns.
Yasser Arafat has been a grave disappointment, yet his administration continues to protect the besieged Palestinian leader, leading to widespread charges of a "double standard" that may undercut the U.S. war against terrorism.
That may be. But the double standard may be an inevitable result of the administration's decision to confront problems that several previous administrations have ignored.
Ironically, it may be because this administration wants to do the right thing on terrorism, while increasing support for Israel, that it now faces seeming irreconcilable goals.
The two most obvious examples: U.S. policy toward Arafat and Saudi Arabia.
Right-wing Jewish groups, always opposed to land-for-peace negotiations with the Palestinians, have long pushed the idea that the United States should cut off all ties with the grizzly old terrorist.
During the years when there was an active, forward-moving peace process, their anti-Arafat agitation was a thinly disguised effort to sabotage a peace process they loathed.
It makes sense to talk to ex-terrorists in pursuit of peace -- when there are indications they are genuinely "ex." But what's developed in the past few months is quite the opposite.
According to the Bush doctrine, it should be a simple proposition: Arafat has reverted to terrorism and incitement, so cut him off and let Israel deal with him.
But it's not so simple. If Arafat is removed, Israel could face a far more radical, implacable Palestinian leadership.
If Washington jettisons Arafat, it will spell the end of any serious attempt to enlist even modest support from Arab and Islamic countries for the next phase in the war on terrorism, a strike against Iraq.
Recently, after seemingly giving Israel the green light to deal with Arafat, the State Department received frantic cables from Arab governments fearing that U.S. policies would fuel unrest in their own countries that could topple their precarious regimes. That produced a renewed focus on the administration goal of Palestinian statehood.
But the administration's current attitude toward Arafat -- demanding that he curb others who are committing terrorism when he is, in fact, the primary instigator -- undercuts that same anti-terror effort.
Bush's great moral crusade becomes just another brush fire war if he starts making exceptions for some terrorists and not others.
The dilemma for the Bush administration is excruciating, and despite calls from both ends of the political spectrum, there is no easy way out.
The Saudi situation is similar.
The sheiks in Riyadh insist they're on our side, even as they encourage suicide bombers in Israel and undercut U.S. efforts to quell the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Washington, eager for their support in the anti-terror war and their oil, ignores each new indication of this perfidy. Sometimes the results fall to the level of tragicomedy.
Recent news stories described how a quasi-government group raised money for Palestinian "martyrs"; the White House spokesman, pressed on the issue, lamely insisted that the Saudis are being "helpful."
Conservatives clamor for a harsh U.S. response, but in the real world of foreign policy, there are no good options.
If we choose to treat Saudi Arabia as an enemy, we risk very real economic consequences, thanks to our thirst for foreign oil. The Saudis remain a top buyer of U.S. military technology, a market industry lobbyists are loathe to abandon.
If we cut off the Saudis or treat them harshly, we risk turning the war on terror into exactly what we wanted to avoid: a U.S. attack against the entire Islamic world, with no one on our side.
And we would increase the possibility of the corrupt Saudi regime falling, probably to be replaced by something even worse -- a corrupt, repressive radical Islamic regime.
But there's no denying that Saudi Arabia is, by any realistic measure, a terror-sponsoring state. Iran and Iraq are part of the "axis of evil"; what qualities make Saudi Arabia not evil? If the only answer is that "we need their oil," the administration's moral stance will be further eroded.
No easy answers, no safe alternatives.
The last administration wasn't troubled by such conflicts because it simply ignored the mounting terror threat while pursing its dream of Middle East peace.
But Bush, forced to confront the issue by the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon, laid out some moral absolutes: on one side are the terrorists and the nations that support them, on the other the good guys, with no in-between.
Now his administration has to find a better way to reconcile those principles with the convoluted political realities of that region. And it needs to avoid lapsing back into the comfortable, but ultimately destructive, policy of diplomacy by wishful thinking. Pretending that all our goals in the region are fully compatible won't make it so.