Powell Better Remember to Pack a Defined Policy


Feb 23, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on February 23, 2001.

At the end of this week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell makes his first foreign trip, notably to the Middle East. But he should understand clearly what is expected of him in the region. Eight years ago, President Clinton's new secretary of State, Warren Christopher, went to Europe to discuss with the allies the war then raging in Bosnia. Perhaps unfairly, the views he presented were widely characterized by Europeans looking for clarity in U.S. policy as lacking a sense of strategy, purpose and commitment, and U.S. leadership was faulted for many months thereafter.

That lesson from Europe applies to the Middle East today: For a newly minted U.S. secretary of State, there is no such thing as a "fact-finding mission" to any major region abroad. At every stop on Powell's itinerary, his audiences will expect to gain a clear perspective on President Bush's thinking on the Middle East, from one end to the other.

Like their European cousins, leaders in the Middle East cut a new U.S. administration little slack just because it is fresh to the business of power and diplomacy. They are even less likely to do so this time because Washington has already stepped out boldly to refashion policy toward Iraq.

Its first move was to increase support for the Iraqi opposition in exile. It followed that with the first U.S.-British airstrikes outside of the Iraqi "no-fly" zones in two years. The president's characterization of the airstrikes as "routine" fooled no one and was probably not intended to do so. The signal was clear; now everyone in the Middle East wants to know what it portends, and they want to know now.

This impatience is produced in large part because the U.S. struggle to find a way of dealing with the regime of Saddam Hussein is not taking place in isolation. Already, the U.N.-mandated sanctions against Iraq are fraying badly. Hussein has shown that he can defy the international community's demand for inspections to ensure that he is not building weapons of mass destruction. He has worked overtime to portray the Iraqi people, not himself, as victims of the sanctions. He has shown that he is a force to be reckoned with in the global oil market--even evoking U.S. hopes that he will continue to "swap oil for food." And he has helped to fire up emotions on Arab streets to a pitch not seen for a decade. Even some Saudi leaders support relaxing economic sanctions, in recognition of their failure so far and in the faint hope that Iraqis who foresee better lives would then turn against Hussein.

The Iraqi leader's ace-in-the-hole within the region has been what has been happening at its other end. The renewed intifada in the West Bank and Gaza--and even in parts of Israel proper--is now in its fourth month, and the man almost universally believed in the Arab world to have triggered it, Ariel Sharon, is now Israel's prime minister. What with turmoil in the occupied territories, uncertainty about whether there will even be a peace process that offers hope to Palestinians and what appeared to all but the most engaged experts to be suddenly intensified U.S.-British airstrikes "out of the blue," Hussein is in his best political shape in the Middle East since the fighting stopped in February 1991. To top it off, he has Washington's regional friends running scared--notably Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and even Morocco's King Mohammed VI--as they face rising domestic criticism and begin to worry about internal instability.

Arriving in the midst of this mixture, a U.S. secretary of State cannot simply take the pulse of his counterparts and explore some ideas. If the U.S. does plan to step up pressure on Hussein, then Powell needs to give at least some indication of how this will be done, the key elements of a strategy, how far Washington is prepared to go and where such a policy could lead. He cannot simply ask for more robust enforcement of sanctions on Iraq--the U.S. does not even have unqualified support among its European allies for that. He will have to focus instead on some variant, such as sanctions tailored primarily to stop military and so-called "dual-use" imports. Having shown that it takes a no-nonsense approach to the Iraqi no-fly zones, the Bush administration may have gained itself more room to maneuver on other aspects of policy.

At the same time, Powell has to begin laying the groundwork for the administration's approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. He must make the essential pledges to Israel's security, now and for the future; but he must also repeat the Clinton administration's commitment to help secure Palestinian rights, as well, and--in time--the resolution of vexing issues like Jerusalem. This Pandora's box is now open, and ignoring it or taking a "time out" will not close it again.

Perhaps Secretary of State Powell would have been better advised to delay his first visit to the Middle East until the Bush foreign policy team is fully in place, there is a new Israeli government to deal with and the complexities of the choices facing the U.S. are carefully sorted out. But once in, Powell has no choice but to persevere. He will need a few good ideas, a demonstration of leadership, strong follow-through when he gets back home and a bit of luck to turn this trip to positive account.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior advisor at the RAND Corp., was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998.

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