Islamic Crescent to Test Strategists. US FOREIGN POLICY
THE Middle East will gobble up much of the Bush administration's time and energy, whatever White House desires or priorities. ``We'd all like to sit back and wait for opportunities,'' a foreign affairs adviser to the Bush team says, ``but we can't. The boys in that sandbox will just keep throwing more sand our way until we pay attention.''Skip to next paragraph
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The strip of the globe stretching from Morocco to Bangladesh is chock-full of demands for US attention. And it's unpredictable.
``The challenge for the new team is to determine which are opportunities and where the trouble is likely to be the greatest,'' a ranking US official says.
``The heartening development,'' he says, ``is that many of the key actors are beginning to realize their limits. They are drawing the distinction between the way the world is and the way they want it.''
He and other specialists say the mood is still deeply suspicious and volatile around regional trouble spots. But they see the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the beginning of a dialogue between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the US, and even the reestablishment of a national unity government in Israel as signs of a certain degree of reality emerging over ideology. This gives the United States something to build on.
The top US priority will probably be the Arab-Israeli dispute. Close behind is the still simmering Iran-Iraq conflict. Afghanistan and South Asia demand US attention, as does North Africa, particularly Libya.
But it's not easy to separate one problem from another. ``The whole region is interconnected,'' a ranking US official says. ``Terrorism out of Lebanon can be related to the Gulf, to Palestine, or to Libya. The proliferation of chemical weapons and ballistic-missile technology similarly crisscrosses countries and issues.''
Indeed, stopping the spread of chemical bombs and missiles will be a top priority of the new Bush team, senior officials and Bush advisers say.
Another area of potential opportunity and importance is US-Soviet cooperation in the region. ``The distance between us and the Soviets is still there, but Moscow is showing signs of flexibility and of a responsible approach on the PLO and Syria that we need to explore,'' a top official says.
Arab-Israeli Dispute. This remains the most likely Mideast ``trigger for a broader confrontation,'' says a ranking specialist.
``We have a major psychological problem here,'' a senior US policymaker says. ``The Israelis totally distrust any moves the PLO or the Palestinians make. The PLO and Palestinians say they've made enough concessions and it's time for Israel to reciprocate. ... The preoccupation will be how to narrow this gap.''
The Washington consensus is that there are no quick solutions. ``This will require a long period of stage-setting and pre-negotiations,'' says a well-placed expert. ``It's probably going to be a messy process of subtle maneuvering on several fronts.
Yet experts queried say it can be worth the White House effort, with a major breakthrough possible several years down the line.
While they agree the US-PLO dialogue cannot be the focus of these efforts, it opens up new possibilities. ``We may be seeing the beginning of the de-demonization of the PLO in Israel, and we've undeniably seen something big happen with the Palestinians,'' says one.