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Archive for Thursday, May 7, 1998

POLITICS DOMINATES U.S. POLICY

May 7, 1998

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— In the six years since Secretary of State James Baker III has been out of office, the man who authored the Oslo Peace Accords has barely spoken about the Middle Eastern diplomacy of this administration. Now, as the accords are breaking down at every turn, he has expressed his views in ways that make one wish one could relive the past.

His first point, as he spoke here at a small meeting of top-level Middle Eastern diplomats, scholars and journalists, is so basic to any nation's foreign policy that it should never need to be repeated. It is simply that the United States has broad-ranging interests in the Middle East and it has the responsibility to declare them and to stand up for them.

``I think we neglect at our peril the fact that the Middle East sits in the middle of an arc of crisis from Algeria to Poland,'' Baker told the group gathered by the Middle East Insight magazine. ``There is not a single American interest in the Middle East that is not impacted by the peace process, and that process now stands the risk of failing.

``The U.S. is not doing what we historically must do if there is to be progress toward peace in the Middle East. We seem to be almost impotent. We are paralyzed about putting forward our position.'' He paused, then repeated what would seem almost laughable in any other administration.: ``The U.S. is entitled to putting forward its position!''

Baker, visiting Washington on a rare break from his legal work and from overseeing his Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, stressed that the United States had -- and would always have -- an irrevocable commitment to Israel. But that that ``does not mean that the U.S. cannot have policy positions put forward as the positions of the United States of America.'' In fact, he said, ``you take a poll in Israel, and you find that the vast majority favor peace, just as the vast majority of the Jewish community in America wants peace.''

As the parties to the peace process met in London this week to try again to reconcile Israeli and Palestinian interests, the ``powerful'' United States remained hesitant even to confirm any real plan of its own for the peace process. And yet this is the same peace process that the United States and this same president not only oversaw, but guaranteed, with the famous handshake on the White House lawn in 1993.

Baker's message urgently underlined the need to reassess an American foreign policy under Bill Clinton, which is so passive toward the world that the United States seems to dream-walk through these crises, acting more as an arbiter of others' demands than as a great power. Baker feels that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would like to have a more active role in the world, but she too is stymied by the essential passivity of this president, whether in Bosnia, in Rwanda or in the Middle East.

That lack of leadership from the center has in turn resulted in American policy being taken over by special-interest or ethnic-group lobbies. In The Chicago Tribune's remarkable recent series, ``Fumbling Giant: America's Aimless Foreign Policy,'' writer R.C. Longworth wrote cogently of this alarming new trend.

``A fragmented, hyphenated nation plagued by interest-group politics is projecting a fragmented, hyphenated foreign policy dominated by so many lobbies and interest groups that, on any given day, there seem to be hundreds of policies out there, baffling the rest of the world.

``The Irish lobby has pushed the Northern Ireland settlement. The Jewish lobby has propelled U.S. actions against Iran and Iraq. ... The Cuban lobby dictated the Helms-Burton Act, which has infuriated America's best friends. The Armenian lobby has organized American restrictions on aid to Azerbaijan, which sits on top of some of the world's biggest oil deposits, and in cooperation with the Greek lobby works daily to humiliate Turkey, one of America's best allies in the eastern Mediterranean.''

In our Middle East diplomacy today, the power of those ethnic-interest lobbies has advanced another step. Today, most of the top American diplomatic positions are filled by diplomats who were actually the leaders of the pro-Israeli lobbies. While some are pro-peace process and some are against it, the fact is that they cannot be expected to be automatically in step with an agenda responding purely to American interests in the Middle East. But then this administration has not bothered to enunciate such an agenda!

That is why, particularly at this moment of reassessment and of danger in the Middle East, Baker's approach is so welcome, if only because it is representative of classic American diplomacy between nations, with its sophisticated balance between interests and ideals.

In the end, he said simply of where America's position should be, ``It's a question of standing up and saying, `This is right, so this is what we're going to do.' Sometimes, even the mere telling of truths can be helpful.''

-- Georgie Anne Geyer is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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