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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

May 30, 2003

Missing Mideast Momentum

Wall Street Journal editorialized, The Bush administration needs an assertive policy.
In the wake of the U.S. victory in Iraq, the Bush Administration's transformation agenda for the Middle East gained new credibility. The "momentum of freedom is growing," President Bush said in a speech in South Carolina this month outlining his vision of a free Mideast. The U.S. "will seize the moment."

So what's stopping us? The announcement last month that the U.S. would withdraw its combat troops from Saudi Arabia and the tough talk on Syria and Iran were good starts. The region's dictators were put on notice that their behavior had to change, and that the U.S. is determined to support the aspirations of more Muslims to live in freedom.

But now the momentum seems to be faltering, if not yet slipping away. Seven weeks after the fall of Baghdad, a State Department that largely opposed the war is beginning to set the agenda again--and the new Mideast is in danger of becoming the old Mideast. The last thing the region needs is a reversion to the pre-Bush status quo, with the U.S. pursuing the French agenda of supporting the region's dictators and assuming the road to stability goes through Palestine.

The deja vu begins with the President's decision to invest his personal prestige in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. If the President thinks he can accomplish the hitherto impossible, he's certainly earned the right to try. And unlike the cynics in Europe and on the American left, we think Mr. Bush is genuinely committed to the effort.

But we also hope he won't fall for the State Department-Saudi line that peace will occur once Israel makes enough concessions. Palestinians have to recognize Israel's right to exist, and at a minimum that means abandoning the "right of return," which is really the right to drive the Jewish state into the sea.

Our other main concern is the continued presence of Yasser Arafat as a major player behind the scenes. Mr. Bush once promised he'd never again do business with the old terrorist, and it's true that Arafat has been partly marginalized in favor new leader Abu Mazen. But it isn't clear he's totally out of the picture, and he may yet succeed in scuttling talks next week among Mr. Bush, Abu Mazen and Israeli leader Ariel Sharon.

Syria policy is another case of deja vu all over again. "We haven't changed their behavior much," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Journal editorial board this week. It's still harboring fugitive Iraqi officials. It's still helping Iran with Hezbollah. It's still sending arms to terrorists in Israel. It's still occupying Lebanon. Just what, we wonder, was the purpose of Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent visit to Damascus if there's little or no progress on any of these scores?

Iran poses a similar threat. "They are clearly attempting to influence what's taking place [in Iraq], especially among the Shia population," Mr. Rumsfeld told us, and "we don't intend to let them do it." The country is also harboring al Qaeda members.

Mr. Bush clearly needs to line up all of his advisers behind a single Iran policy. That means dropping the illusion that "engagement" with Tehran's mullahs, or with some illusory "moderates," will cause Iran to drop its nuclear program. That is going to require consistent U.S. and world pressure on the regime, including vocal Presidential support for the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. As of now, the State Department and Pentagon have been sending mixed messages that the mullahs understandably think they can ignore.

We're not suggesting the U.S. has to go to war in any of these places. The demonstration effect of Iraq ought to help U.S. diplomacy achieve its goals without resorting to force. But that means a consistent U.S. policy that makes clear that the old Mideast habits of supporting terrorism won't be tolerated. Maybe someone at the White House should tell Foggy Bottom to read Mr. Bush's speeches.