Shifting sands of US foreign policy

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon calls it a war for Israel's survival. But so far, the results of the military incursion to isolate Yasser Arafat have been mainly counterproductive.

Mr. Arafat, back in his favorite role of pistol-packing guerrilla, with his back to the wall, has acquired a new political lease on life, thanks to the Israeli offensive. His television interviews, lit by flashlight, appealing to the world for salvation, have made the grizzled agitator into a figure of mythic proportions, at least in the Arab world. And that position is likely to be enhanced if Mr. Sharon decides to exile him.

The suicide bombing, that ultimate asymmetric weapon, is becoming institutionalized among young Palestinians. In Tulkarm on the West Bank, the family of a 23-year-old man responsible for the Passover massacre in Netanya, holds open house, receiving congratulations from a stream of friends and neighbors. In a West Bank refugee camp, a construction foreman says he had no idea that his 18-year-old daughter, a straight-A high school senior, was leaving home to blow herself up in a Jerusalem supermarket. Suicide bombing, originally introduced by the militant Hamas in 1993 to oppose the Oslo peace accords, begins to look like a youth cult, not necessarily to be shared with parents.

The Israeli siege of the Ramallah compound has also served to stall the Palestinian reform movement. Political science scholar Khalil Shikaki in Ramallah wrote in the January Foreign Affairs magazine that the "young guard" – emerging local leaders and veterans of the first intifada – were out to replace Arafat's corrupt "old guard" with a more democratic, more transparent government. The young guard also wanted to bring Hamas and other opposition groups into a national unity government that would try to force Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.

But, with Arafat riding high as a Sharon target, the Palestinian young guard has little alternative but to put its reform plans on hold and rally around the old warrior, now a nationalist icon.

The net result of the siege of Ramallah is to freeze political positions in place, both between and within the contending parties. And that leaves any idea of a future solution of the conflict in limbo.

The Israeli offensive has created a deep quandary for President Bush, illustrated by his denouncing suicide bombing as "simple terror" while refusing to label Arafat as a terrorist.

In a post-Sept. 11 epilogue to his President Bush biography, journalist Frank Bruni wrote that this easygoing president was trapped in a "labyrinth of obligations for which he was ambiguously prepared."

Nowhere is that more evident than in the Middle East crisis. Mr. Bush initially adopted a self-consciously un-Clinton posture of nonengagement. Then, under the pressure of events, he moved to cautious engagement with the United Nations resolution backing a Palestinian state and an American presence in cease-fire negotiations in the person of retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.

Since then, amid escalating violence, there have been signs of improvisation as the administration latched onto the Saudi Arabian peace initiative as the only peace game in town, and agonized about how much more deeply America had to become involved.

Indeed, on a variety of foreign- policy issues, the administration has changed course in a manner more pragmatic than ideologically pure. It has, at long last, conceded to Russia that nuclear-arms cuts will be agreed to, not simply by a handshake, but by a legally binding document. The Pentagon's latest nuclear strategy review moves American policy from deterring weapons of mass destruction to preemption, possibly with new, low-yield nuclear weapons. Tariffs on imported steel marked a break with pristine free-trade policy. Doubling of money to fight global poverty marked a break with the policy of not sending money down a rat hole. And don't look now, but military action against Iraq, that "axis of evil" renegade, is on a back burner, preempted by the Middle East crisis, and deterred by Arab League support for Iraq.

The policy shifts are sometimes hard to spot because the White House usually insists that the change is not a change. When Vice President Dick Cheney was making his conditional offer of a meeting with Yasser Arafat, spokesman Ari Fleischer said "the American position has been clear and consistent." As his "labyrinth of obligations" gets steadily deeper, the president struggles to remain on top of them. But in so doing, the administration is setting no new records for consistency.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.

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