WASHINGTON — 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.''
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.
The intifadah (uprising), they say, is likely to continue forcing more pragmatism on the PLO. ``They have to produce results or be left behind by their own constituency'' in the occupied territories, one specialist says. The intifadah will also continue to hammer home to Israel the need for a political solution.
A host of related issues - including floundering economies in Israel and Egypt and relations with Syria, - will complicate this process. Most troubling will be Lebanon. The chaos there spills out in the form of terrorism and drug trade. US specialists pledge to continue peace efforts for Lebanon, but hold little hope for rapid success.
Iran, Iraq and the Gulf. The new White House will consider what to do to ensure the war is not restarted. ``There is great potential for danger here,'' a senior US official says. ``It's hard to imagine that the cease-fire has brought an end to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Without movement, there will be a renewed threat as Iran and Iraq rearm and recover.''
Washington will also explore ways to turn the US-Iran relationship around. ``Is this a time to rethink our priorities with Iran?'' asks one top official. ``Some think we might unilaterally begin to dismantle some of the trade barriers erected during the war, to test the waters.'' But he adds that there is still the question of Iran's domestic politics: Will it allow any reciprocal gestures toward the US? And specifically, what is Iran willing to do to free US hostages in Lebanon?
One idea is that the new administration could have an opportunity to support the UN-sponsored peace negotiations and kindle a dialogue with Iran in the context of a broader US effort to stop the spread of missile technology and chemical weapons (CW) in the region.
``We might be able to help break the cycle of rearming and support the peace talks by trying to start a dialogue about confidence-building measures to prevent the future use of CW and long-range missiles,'' one well-placed adviser suggests.
Bush will also to have to address the desire of Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states to maintain a military-supply relationship with the US. The Saudis are reportedly interested in purchasing M1-A1 tanks and sophisticated aircraft. Bush must determine if he is willing to take the political heat expected from Congress to make such sales and maintain the leverage they give the US.
Afghanistan and South Asia. If the Soviets complete their troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by Feb. 15 and a new government emerges, the US will take a fresh look at its priorities there.
In Afghanistan, the US administration will have to decide how large a bilateral relationship to have with the new government. Specifically, Washington will be asked to transfer the funds that have been flowing to arm mujahideen (guerrillas) into development aid.
US priorities in Pakistan will also shift with the Soviet threat removed. Officials and congressional aides predict that Pakistan's clandestine nuclear program will get more scrutiny. Washington can also be expected to give renewed attention to easing tensions between Pakistan and India.
North Africa. The top priority here will be ``the Libya CW-terrorism complex,'' says a well-placed specialist, with US support for a settlement of the Western Sahara war next in line.
Washington policymakers say they would like to curb Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi's questionable behavior by coordinating economic and diplomatic pressures with the allies, and even the Soviets. But they predict that Bush will continue to find only weak allied support.