Washington as reluctant referee

Mideast conflict highlights the administration's cautious approach to foreign policy.

The Middle East conflict is offering clear insight into the Bush administration's new tack of reluctant diplomacy - the cardinal rule of which is to intervene only when the ability to achieve something looks certain.

The new modus operandi is: Save the big diplomatic guns for when they can have an impact. Otherwise, avoid debilitating embarrassment internationally and at home. In this vision, diplomatic prestige is a precious commodity that can be squandered, not an unlimited resource that grows with wide use.

The recent flare-up of violence among Israelis and Palestinians is putting this approach to the test.

By responding in a lower-profile manner than President Clinton, the Bush administration policy is more narrowly tuning intervention to strategic interests and political realities. With neither regional instability nor international oil supplies threatened by the conflict, the Bush approach is garnering support in the US and is likely to continue. This week's two-day occupation by Israel of Beit Jala, an area under Palestinian autonomy, makes a return to peace talks even more distant, observers say. It will likely take a further ratcheting up of violence - or an unexpected shift from either side's entrenched position - for the US to return to a high-profile role.

Administration officials "don't want to get involved in a way that could embarrass them," says Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland. And the kind of regional pressures that could force the US to intervene are so far not surfacing.

"The US has faith that Arab governments will act in their own interest and not let [public reaction to Isreali actions] get out of hand," says Mr. Telhami. He adds: "I don't see the escalation affecting the oil market."

Not ripe for intervention

With the streets and opinion polls suggesting overwhelming support in both the Israeli and Palestinian publics for violent measures against one another, now is not the time for stronger intervention, say officials and observers supportive of the administration's approach.

"When the conflict is ripe for settlement, intervention becomes much more effective," says Raymond Tanter, a security specialist in the Reagan administration and now a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan. "People have gotten used to thinking the United States is indispensable, but that's not true in the Middle East. Right now the US would only be squandering the currency of its reputation."

The State Department said Tuesday that while the US remains active in seeking a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, it is up to those two parties to take the first steps. "We can urge ... but the parties themselves have to start down that road," said Richard Boucher, State Department spokesman.

State officials say that although they can understand "confusion" that might have resulted from the Bush administration's approach, which contrasts with the Clinton administration's high-profile involvement, they insist the new approach is potentially more effective.

For now, public US actions are sparing - mainly pronouncements from the pulpit to convey administration thinking on the violence. Last week, Bush placed the onus on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, saying he had to act against Palestinian terrorism for negotiations with Israel to start up again. On Monday, after Israeli missiles killed a prominent Palestinian leader, the State Department said such "targeted" killings were "inflaming" the conflict. Mr. Boucher said the situation would improve only when Israel acted to alleviate "the hardship and the humiliations" of the Palestinian people.

Both the evolving vision for US diplomacy and domestic US politics explain the administration's lower profile in the Middle East, a number of experts say.

William Quandt, a Mideast expert in the Carter administration who worked on the Camp David accords, says the administration's thinking on conflicts that aren't "ripe" for intense outside involvement derives largely from Richard Haass, a diplomacy scholar who advised President Bush's father.

Mr. Haass argues that conflicts that aren't near resolution are best addressed by doing less. That means less futile pushing for solutions, but more groundwork, with both the involved parties and interested allies, for when intervention becomes opportune.

"That suggests we can't be a useful actor in the ripening process," Mr. Quandt says.

Lessons from Bush I

But he and others say Bush is mindful of his father's experience with the Mideast conflict. President Bush senior and his secretary of State, James Baker, were involved actors who pressured Israel hard and achieved the 1993 Oslo accords on sovereignty and territory - accords that some now, amid an 11-month-old intifada, are pronouncing dead.

Domestically, the effort spent on those accords is now seen by some Republican strategists as part of the "frittering away" of Bush's tremendous lead in opinion polls a year before he faced Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, observers say. It's not a road his son wants to follow.

The administration is also acting with one eye on Congress. "Congress is more pro-Israeli than the President," says Quandt. The controversy over Israeli use of US-supplied weapons in attacks that the US condemns exemplifies the Bush's difficult position, he notes. The US has expressed to the Israelis its opposition to seeing heavy weaponry it has supplied - F-16s, helicopters, missiles - used in the conflict in urban areas. The State Department's Boucher says legislation requires reporting to Congress any "substantial" violation of the terms for using such weaponry. But he notes that "no decisions have been made that such a report would be required in the current circumstances."

In any case, even if the administration decided the equipment was being used improperly, reporting it would be a futile exercise. "Congress would never put up with that," Quandt says.

Given the current level of violence and the distance between the two sides, observers say it would might take a shockingly violent event to prompt stronger US efforts.

Noting that the first intifada lasted two years, Jon Alterman, a Mideast expert at the US Institute for Peace, says the current violence "could persist for a long time." In this situation, he says the US is likely to work more behind the scenes than center stage "to break down the conviction on both sides that this is an all-or-nothing conflict, and make it a negotiable conflict again."

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