Indecision hampers US policy on Mideast

After two weeks of talks with key Mideast players, the Bush team has yet to stake out a clear course.

For an administration long accused of an overly unilateralist approach to the world, the Bush White House has taken consultation with international players on the Mideast conflict into overdrive.

But despite two particularly active weeks of Middle East diplomacy, a growing number of experts say division – and its consequent indecisiveness – within the administration hampers its ability to clearly articulate a policy course.

Last week's US idea of an international Middle East peace conference, billed by some as a "surprise" advance, was subsequently downgraded by some White House officials to just another meeting in a series. That was followed this week by the idea of a substantial institutional reform of the Palestinian Authority – something players in all camps would like to see. But there's been no US movement toward such tough decisions as when serious peace negotiations might begin and where President Bush's promise of a "viable Palestinian state" fits in.

Failure to settle strongly on policy allowed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to return home from his Washington visit this week saying the administration accepted many of his conclusions. That, according to Mr. Sharon's comments to the Israeli press, included his stance that no talks can include Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat – something adminstration officials deny.

The resulting confusion has some experts worrying that the administration is simply promoting the "idea of the week" to make it appear that momentum is on the side of peace, even as US officials grapple with different proposals without a set roadmap for moving forward.

The administration "continues to be very divided over where to go, how fast, and with whom," says William Quandt, who was part of the National Security Council team that negotiated the Camp David accords during the Carter administration. "This is a president who remains uncertain of whether he really wants to take this on, surrounded by the people closest to him who don't agree [on how]."

Stream of visitors

Reviewing the steady stream of Middle East players who have passed through the White House recently – the latest being Jordan's King Abdullah II Wednesday night – Mr. Quandt says, "at least it suggests the adminstration has started to think hard about what it should be doing."

Adds Ian Lustick, specialist in Middle East affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, "American policy is looking like the ball in the pinball machine. It's all over the place."

Administration officials say the principle of a two-state solution remains the guiding goal for all parties to work under. "How you get there, how quickly you get there, what steps you have to take to get there, that's the reason that we're consulting" with so many leaders, says a senior adminstration official.

But others say the administration is feeding confusion by taking different positions on details that are key to reaching the two-state goal.

One example is the basic issue of Israeli settlements, which some administration officials have criticized as roadblocks on the road to peace. Judy Barselou, a Middle East expert at the US Institute of Peace here, notes that recently such officials as Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice have been sounding as if they're reading from very different pages on the settlements.

"If they could get on the same team as to what the important issues are and what US policy on them is, that would be a big step forward," she says. "But that's not happening right now."

One problem with unclear policy that appears to be in its formative stages is that it remains reactive and subject to events on the ground.

Analysts like Quandt say some progress was made "up to" the latest suicide bombing in Israel Tuesday night, but any further moves are now on hold in anticipation of the retaliation Sharon has promised.

Public support for strong US role

Ironically, the Bush administration's hesitation on a course of action in the Middle East looks all the more glaring as evidence mounts that the American public is increasingly supportive of a firm US role to resolve the conflict.

A substantial new poll that goes deeper into national opinion than earlier surveys finds that not only are Americans sticking by their desire for an even-handed US role in the peace process, but they are ready to see tough US sanctions against any party – Palestinian or Israeli – that doesn't start making concessions to peace.

"Americans clearly hold both sides equally responsible for the current situation and are willing to increase pressure on both sides to achieve a peace deal," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, that conducted the survey.

The poll found that most Americans see the conflict as one between two people with national security interests and aspirations: Only 17 percent view it as part of the war on terrorism, while less than 25 percent believe the US is playing the evenhanded role Americans want.

The poll suggests "the adminstration has a lot more wiggle room ... in constructing its policies than what it has assumed," says Shibley Telhami, a Mideast expert at the University of Maryland.

"But the president has to make the fundamental decision to end this conflict rather than just manage it," he adds, "and that's a big decision."

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