The hard options

As the administration prepares to receive Prime Minister Begin of Israel in September, it is likely, if past experience is any guide, that none of the "hard" or unthinkable options in Middle East policy are being formally considered.

Critics of American foreign policy make three points: US policies infrequently reflect the views of those who know an area best; policy planning does not seem to foresee or consider the more difficult contingencies; and new policies seem often to spring full blown without adequate consultations with Congress or allies.

There are explanations for each.

Specialists can communicate to policymakers assessments of the conditions or attitudes of a country or a region. The policymaker must consider not only these factors, but the domestic climate and circumstances in other countries and areas of the world as well. Why propose something which is almost certain to be rejected by other countries in the region or run into political trouble at home?

But, should not the alternatives viewed favorably in the area of the world most affected at least be given a thorough airing? Perhaps new insights would appear, new options developed.

One answer lies in the difficulty of maintaining the confidentiality of policy discussions within the US government. The speed with which advocates or opponents of a policy ferret out and surface pieces of paper circulating within the government contrary to their perceived interests has been demonstrated time and again. This fact creates a strong inhibition in policymakers to commit anything to paper but the feasible and the accepted. As a result, as policies are being formed, the hard options are rarely considered. If they are, they are discussed without committing anything to paper. If ideas are committed to paper , they are circulated by hand to a very few -- which may or may not include the specialists dealing with the area.

In those rare cases when new and previously unthinkable policies do emerge -- such as the normalization of relations with China -- the decision is frequently a surprise to all but a handful within the executive. Congress and close allies complain about a lack of consultation. Given the vulnerability of unusual ideas to preemptive exposure outside the policy councils of the Us government, there may be no alternative to the surprise approach.

So -- as preparations for Mr. Begin's arrival proceed -- it is unlikely that serious thought is being given to a workable Palestinian option in the Middle East. Merely to ask on a piece of paper such questions as "What would be the position of the PLO toward (blank) in a Middle East negotiation?" or "If the PLO were included in negotiations, what would the extreme wings of the Palestinian movement do?" or "What elements in Israel might favor talks with the Palestinians?" would be to raise signals that would quickly turn to headlines.

The problem is not confined to the Arab-Israel issue, although the intensity of the political emotion on that issue is probably the highest.A paper on Afghanistan that might propose US cooperation with the Soviets in a phased withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan or one that would suggest talks with the Vietnamese would risk raising similar alarms.

The issue of placing the unthinkable on paper and looking at the hard options does not arise solely because of the reluctance of officials to face the resulting controversy. Surfacing ideas likely to be considered sensational, even if only for the purpose of discussion, often requires public explanations or denials that can further inhibit the examination of the issue and the flexibility of US diplomacy.

There is an argument that there is little purpose to be served in examining that which is almost certain to be rejected or to be found impractical. On the other hand, such inhibitions mean that all aspects of an issue are seldom fully aired. It means that government policymakers and planners may not have the benefit of those occasional insights that come from looking at that which is initially considered impossible.

Whether it be in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, or in Indochina, the alertness of advocates or opponents and the readiness of both to take their case to the public are inclined to leave the policymaker with few options to consider beyond those which are already acceptable for public discussion. The luxury of a free-ranging consideration of all possibilities is one seldom open to US official.

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