Archive for Friday, December 7, 2001

U.S. can’t afford ‘sideshow’ in Mideast

December 7, 2001


— The latest round of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli retaliations raises new perils in the Middle East, raises new questions about how to battle terrorism worldwide, and raises the stakes for all of the principals in the conflict including, ominously, President Bush, who is commanding a separate terrorism war.

At the same time, the renewed violence in the Middle East exposes the vulnerabilities of the American position in its own terror war.

The escalating hostilities in the region endanger U.S. relations with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which are important members of the American-led anti-terror coalition, are vital in gaining intelligence against al-Qaida and are essential in the effort to freeze the terrorist organization's financial assets. But these hostilities may prove difficult to contain at a time when American forces themselves are in hot pursuit of terrorists who struck the United States less than three months ago.

In ordering strikes on Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's helicopter compound Monday after the weekend's two suicide bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon clearly embraced both the rhetoric ("a war on terrorism") and the response (air attacks) that President Bush used in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon.

But the terrorist episodes and retaliation of December, while inflaming world tensions and producing surface similarities to the attacks of September, actually served to underline the differences between the cycle of violence in the Middle East and the American challenge against al-Qaida and its radical Islam allies in their Central Asia redoubt.

In the Middle East, the conflict is between rivals who have been antagonists for nearly a century, but who nonetheless have been involved in a peace process and who are neighbors. In Afghanistan, the conflict is between rivals whose antagonism is of much more recent vintage, who are not partners in any conventional diplomatic process and who share no borders and few interests.

And yet the two conflicts, so different in tone and timbre, are not unrelated. Both, moreover, pose substantial challenges to President Bush.

Shock waves from the Israeli air strikes were felt around the world. They buttressed the notion, sown by Bush and other administration leaders, that terrorism cannot be tolerated anywhere or in any form. But American support for the Israeli tactics also buttressed the notion, sown by Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamic leaders, that there is little to distinguish American policy from Israeli policy.

The president has stated that the war on terrorism is worldwide and includes those who harbor terrorists as much as those who perpetrate terrorism a view that created an obvious opening for Israel's retaliation this week. The American assault against al-Qaida and its Taliban supporters and protectors made it virtually impossible for the United States to urge restraint upon Israel, which it plainly did not do over a weekend in which the administration's contempt for Arafat was manifest.

Moreover, the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11 gave Americans and the Bush administration far less patience with terrorism than they had before. That, combined with impatience with Arafat's apparent inability to control elements of the Palestinian movement, prompted the administration to give legitimacy, if not license, to Israel this week.

But those same attacks on New York and Washington also reminded Americans of the consequences of its role in the Middle East and of the part the United States can play in tamping down a dispute that is a pretext for and perhaps a cause of terrorist venom against this nation. Al-Qaida statements since Sept. 11 have embraced the Palestinian cause, and the presence of Arabs in the Taliban and al-Qaida forces underlines the ties between the two conflicts.

That is why the administration, which was content to let the Middle East peace talks languish, has stepped up its rhetoric and its involvement in recent weeks. Part of that is the necessity to bring the violence to a conclusion. Part of it, too, is to show that the United States cannot be defied by two parties determined to destroy each other at a time when American foreign policy can afford no distractions or, as diplomats call them, "sideshows."

The reluctance of Israel and the Palestinians to follow the American lead and to return to the bargaining table inevitably raises questions about American influence and the United States' power now more important than ever to control the agenda in world affairs. That control provides the order that superpowers require, prevents the surprises that superpowers dislike, and provides the stable markets that superpowers prize. It is the ultimate American stake in the Middle East and in Afghanistan.

David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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