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What is the Bush administration Middle East policy all about?

Immediately after the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the Bush administration appeared to distance itself from Israel. The need to maintain Arab and Islamic government support in Bush's new "anti-terrorism war" coalition trumped the usual warm embrace of Israel, although U.S. economic and strategic backing of Israel remained quietly unchanged. Fearing even greater distancing, Israeli spokespeople launched a near-frenzied campaign of linkage, claiming unparalleled unity with Americans as common victims of terrorism and common Arab/Islamic enemies. It didn't work very well beyond the punditocracy, though, and in November, both Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush himself, at the UN General Assembly, paid significant attention to words the Palestinians and—more strategically—Arab governments and their restive populations, wanted to hear. Bush's call for a "state of Palestine" and Powell's "the occupation must end" appeared to herald a new, maybe even even-handed approach of U.S. diplomacy.

But that even-handed approach was not to last. As maintaining the coalition in Afghanistan became less important (when major cities under Taliban rule were already falling), the tactical pendulum swung back, and Washington returned to a more public embrace of Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. This took the form of an announced effort to "re-engage" in the "peace process." The first messenger was General Anthony Zinni, whose two brief visits at the end of 2001 ended in failure (once after a suicide bombing, once following the discovery of the shipload of arms en route to Palestine ostensibly from Iran). For a while the administration appeared unconcerned with the escalating violence, appearing to believe against all evidence that Palestine could burn, the supply of desperate young suicide bombers heading into Israel would appear unending, and the crisis would somehow stay contained.

But then by February 2002 or so Iraq reemerged as a central feature of U.S. regional efforts. The stakes were going up, a new round of regional shuttling was required to lay out the requirements and lay down the law regarding support for a U.S. attack on Iraq to Washington's Arab allies. General Zinni wasn't quite high enough in the administration hierarchy for this one, so into the breech stepped Vice-President Dick Cheney, an experienced Middle East hand from his years as secretary of defense in the Bush Senior administration. (Actually, Cheney's oil-driven loyalties were clear long before: as a member of the House of Representatives, Cheney supported the 1981 sale of AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia, despite Israeli opposition, and in 1979 he voted against the windfall profits tax on oil revenues.)

In the wake of September 11, with dependent and already compliant Arab regimes virtually falling over each other to climb on board the Bush anti-terror train, the administration seemed to anticipate Cheney's job would be a push-over. Sure there might be some unease in the palaces over how to deal with Arab populations already raging over the rapidly deteriorating crisis in the West Bank, but it was assumed that however much they twitched and weasled, Washington's Arab allies would stand reluctantly with Washington.

As it turned out, it wasn't quite so easy. The Israel-Palestine conflict stood in the way. While there was little doubt that at the end of the day the Arab kings, emirs, princes and presidents would indeed do as their patron ordered, public opinion throughout the Arab world had hardened not only against Israel and its occupation, but against its global sponsor, the United States. Arab governments, already facing severe crises of legitimacy, might do as they were told, but they would pay a very high price domestically for their alliance with Washington. Israel's escalation in the occupied territories provided what seemed to provide an easy dodge for the Arab royals: "how can you even talk to us about supporting an invasion or overthrow campaign against Iraq when Palestine is burning and you are doing nothing?"

So some time before Cheney's Air Force Two took off, someone in Washington realized what was about to happen, so General Zinni was sent back to the region. His mandate for Israel-Palestine had not changed, and there was virtually no chance he would "succeed," however that elusive word was defined, but that was okay. His real goal had far more to do with developments in Arab capitals than it did in Tel Aviv and Ramallah where he began a shadow shuttle. Zinni was Cheney's political cover. "What do you mean we're doing nothing for the Israel-Palestine crisis—we've sent General Zinni!" was the vice-president's new mantra.

Washington's diplomatic "re-engagement" was largely designed with war in Iraq, not peace in Israel-Palestine, in mind. As it turned out, that plan didn't work either; while Arab dependents were simply not willing to concede prematurely and risk further destabilization or even potential threats to their regimes. Cheney's trip fizzled, and the Bush spin operation focused on convincing an only mildly skeptical audience inside and outside Washington that the vice-president's trip was never intended to consolidate support for an attack on Iraq.

Then it was Secretary of State Powell's turn. Following Cheney's failed trip the Bush administration called a brief time-out in the new game of engagement. The press focused largely on the messenger. Was General Zinni simply too far down in the hierarchy to have the requisite clout with Sharon and/or Arafat? Would Bush send General Powell, ratcheting up the four-star factor? But what was largely left out of the debate was the reality that it was not the messenger, but the mandate that would determine the success or failure of the mission. Zinni failed not because he wasn't of high enough rank, but because he had no mandate to seriously dictate terms to Israel. As it turned out, neither did Powell. Two suicide bombings in late March, killing dozens of Israeli civilians inside Israel, raised the stakes; Washington clearly was going to respond.

But before any new U.S. decision was announced, March 29th brought the unprecedented Israeli military offensive across the West Bank, with mostly U.S.-provided Israeli tanks, helicopter gunships, armored bulldozers and F-16s punching into Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkarem and tiny villages in between. It looked, on the Israeli side at least, like what UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called "a conventional war," even though it was the mighty israeli army operating in civilian areas.

At that point Bush himself jumped into the fray, in a major speech in the White House Rose Garden on April 4th. He announced he would send Powell to the region, and outlined a vision, if a bit skimpy and more than a bit blurry, of what a peaceful settlement might look like. "The outlines of a just settlement are clear: two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security."

For long-term thinking, the words were all there: Israel must stop settlement activity, and "the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries—" Four days later Bush said he told Sharon, "I expect there to be withdrawal without delay." The words were strong. The key action, though, was limited to sending Powell back to the region. There would be no real pressure on Israel: no cut in the billions in military aid, no brake on the pipeline of military equipment being used against civilians, no reversal of the Israel-backing veto in the Security Council preventing the deployment of international protection or even observer forces. Bush talked the talk of serious pressure, but he refused to walk the walk.

The real limits of Bush's intentions were made clear in the timetable. Powell would go to the region, but he would take his long sweet time getting there. Arriving first in Morocco the young king welcomed Powell with the question "why are you here, why aren't you in Jerusalem?"

Powell's languid pace, from Morocco to Madrid, to Jordan, to Egypt, before arriving almost a week later in Jerusalem provided what amounted to a week-long green light for Sharon's assault on the cities, villages and especially refugee camps of the West Bank. Yet when Powell returned, President Bush welcomed him home with the claim that U.S. goals had been met, that the trip was a success, that all was well with the world. It was an Alice in Wonderland moment, with Bush announcing straight-faced that "I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace."

Israel's assault gradually wound down in some of the West Bank refugee camps, even as tensions mounted around Bethlehem's besieged Church of the Nativity and Arafat's tank-encircled presidential compound in Ramallah. But the goal of the Bush administration, the aim of the Zinni, Cheney, Powell shuttles as well as those of their underlings who took over when the big men went home, had failed. The objective of stabilizing the region sufficiently that Arab regimes could safely endorse a U.S. military strike against Iraq without fearing domestic upheaval, had not been reached.

And at home, the Bush administration faced its first serious foreign policy challenge from the right. Christian fundamentalists and other components of the Republican Party's hard right edge moved into an even tighter embrace of Ariel Sharon's government, rejecting even Bush's rhetorical pretense of concern for Palestinian rights. Paul Wolfowitz, ardent pro-Israeli hawk and Bush's deputy chief of the Pentagon, was booed by tens of thousands of pro-Israeli demonstrators when he had the audacity to mention as a brief side-light that Palestinian children might be suffering too. The danger of a serious split within the Republican Party, with its right-wing backing Israel, while the Bush-oriented "moderates" cling to their traditional ties to big oil, the Arab regimes, military assault on Iraq, loomed as a Texas-sized nightmare for the president.

By mid-summer, Iraq war fever was epidemic in Washington. Competing battle plans for diverse military operations were leaked by competing administration factions to competing newspapers. Powerful Republicans in Congress, the pages of the New York Times, the State Department, former Republican officials, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected the increasingly belligerent war cries of the Pentagon's civilian leadership. But as the debate wore on, supplanting most other international stories on the front pages and top of the news shows, the crisis in Israel-Palestine ground on with no end in sight. There was no U.S. effort to craft new peace talks aimed at making real the president's rhetorical commitment to ending the occupation and creating an independent Palestinian state.