US Must Take a Risk on Mid-East

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 8, 2002

As world leaders and experts around the world debate the reasons for and ways to stop the violence that is spinning out of control in the Middle East, they seem to agree on only one thing: the United States needs to do something, and fast.

All these observers, of course, have different views as to what that ?something? should be, and the United States itself, reluctant to take the political risk of failing, seems unable to decide among the options.

President Bush?s decision last week to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region for consultations, and his phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, were positive steps toward greater engagement, but with the situation rapidly spinning out of control the most striking thing about the US initiative was its modesty.

The impression of an America reluctant to get bogged down in the Arab-Israeli dispute results in part from the Bush administration?s initial philosophy about the conflict. Bush saw how much his predecessor, Bill Clinton, invested in seeking a resolution to the conflict, and he also saw the result: a failed Camp David summit and fighting on the ground.

With other foreign policy priorities—building a national missile defense, changing the regime in Iraq, and after September 11 of course the war on terrorism—Bush had little desire to tackle the situation between Israelis and Palestinians. The administration put the conflict in the “too hard” box, significantly downgraded the level of engagement, and hoped that things would work themselves out, or at least that the violence would not get out of hand.

That approach is now unsustainable. With the death toll on both sides continuing to rise, order in the Palestinian territories rapidly disintegrating, and the entire Arab world erupting with anger at Israel and the United States, the costs of American inaction are rapidly becoming greater than the costs of action, whatever the risks.

It is, of course, unfair to blame Bush or any Americans for what is going on. The responsibility for the current conflict lies primarily with the parties on the ground, their predecessors over the past years and decades, and the basic structural factor of different peoples wanting to live on the same land.

Still, while there is no guarantee that greater US engagement from the start would have avoided or limited the current violence, it should have always been clear to the administration that leaving the parties to themselves was not going to work—and it is certainly not going to work now.

Even more clear is that by appearing to stand aside, Bush gave the impression to the world—and especially to the Arab world—that the United States, obsessed with Iraq and beholden to Israel, did not really care about Palestinian casualties or the Palestinian state of affairs. The result is that Bush is that being blamed for the tragedy unfolding during his watch, whether he could in fact have done anything about it or not.

So what to do now? The current approach, of insisting on a cease-fire before any serious political process begins—or before senior administration leaders get directly involved—will not work. Bush and other administration officials can keep repeating the need to stop the violence and to implement the Tenet and Mitchell plans until they are blue in the face, but doing so will have no effect, however right they might be on the level of principle.

Another option the administration is considering—to unambiguously support Sharon?s efforts to use force to crush the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure—would also fail. This approach, reportedly backed by a range of administration hard-liners, would have the merits of showing the Palestinians that terror does not pay, would be consistent with the principles of Bush?s war on terrorism, and would presumably be popular with pro-Israel voters at home.

The problem, however, is that, like the current approach, it would also have little prospect of bringing about long-term success. Palestinian violence and terrorism would continue, Israelis would get stuck trying to manage several million unwilling Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, and US cooperation with the Arab world—not least for a potential military operation in Iraq—would become vastly more difficult.

Thus the only real option for the administration is a risky one: to try to start a political process at the same time that it seeks a cease-fire, seeking to offer both sides a way to save face, claim victory, and go home.

To do this, Bush would probably have to take the political risk of calling for an international conference—perhaps together with Arab and European leaders—that would seek to offer Israelis and Palestinians a track toward a political outcome that they will now never agree upon by themselves.

Bush and the other leaders would have to put themselves on record as supporting a peace plan not too different from the one Clinton offered in his final weeks in office, and which almost everyone agrees must be the basis for a final settlement. With broad international backing—perhaps including a UN seal of approval, American peacekeeping forces, European and Arab money for reconstruction, and an end to conflict based on a two-state solution—the parties might, just might, end their logic of war.

There would be no guarantees, and of course Bush could end up with a failed summit on his hands just like the predecessor whose efforts he once scorned. But with the situation on the ground rapidly deteriorating, risking potential failure seems wiser than accepting the certain failure unfolding before our eyes.