Despite its lineup of vastly experienced national-security experts, the Bush administration has learned a lesson in its first four months: It can't stand idly by while Israelis and Palestinians descend into near war.
What was first touted as a hands-off policy has in fact become a policy of negative consequences - both for the Middle East and for the United States, according to experts. As a result, Washington is being forced back into its traditional role as honest broker in the region.
"American involvement is unavoidable," says Shibley Telhami, Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "The question is, what role to play and how to play it."
That debate is still swirling in Washington, even as Secretary of State Colin Powell this week stepped up US engagement by announcing the appointment of a "special assistant" to the region. He also appealed for an "unconditional cessation of violence" and endorsed a report initiated in the Clinton administration as a road map to future negotiations.
Experts say the deteriorating scene on the ground, as well as its consequences across the region, has dislodged the Bush administration from its initial position of noninvolvement.
Strategic Arab nations have been livid over Washington's nonpolicy, interpreting it as automatically pro-Israel, he says. Saudi Arabia's crown prince, for instance, recently refused to come to Washington because of its hands-off stance.
"If you allow this to escalate, the chance of extension into the region is very high," says Mr. Telhami, who sees a ripple effect of Egypt and Jordan freezing relations with Israel, of violence extending to Lebanon, and possibly even war between Egypt and Israel. All of this, he says, would make US aims in the Mideast, including its policy toward Iraq, "impossible to implement."
The un-Clinton policy
Until this week, the Bush administration's nonengagement has stood in sharp contrast to the Clinton regime. Some observers even suggest the Bush team has taken this approach simply because it is the un-Clinton one.
But other factors have been at work, including the high risk of failure and the belief that, in the end, it takes both parties in the Mideast to want peace.
Now, however, "the conflict is ripe for intervention," says Raymond Tanter, former Mideast adviser in the Reagan and Bush administrations. The violence has escalated to the point of being "intolerable" for both sides, and Egypt and Jordan are more actively trying to halt the fighting. The report this week by former US Sen. George Mitchell - and now endorsed by Mr. Powell - gives an additional impetus in favor of US intervention, he says.
Still, the Bush administration is taking modest steps in that direction - and rightly so, says Mr. Tanter. He does not believe the US should return to the Clinton administration's "micromanaged" approach to the peace process. "The Bush administration is allowing the parties to manage their differences until the point where the parties are unable to do so," he says. "Then the administration is doing the minimum to get the violence stopped."
Indeed, this week Powell made clear that now is not the time for shuttle diplomacy, and that he has no plans to meet with any of the leaders. He will assess further steps, he said, after the new special assistant, US ambassador to Jordan William Burns, reports to him after having talked with Israeli and Palestinian officials. President Bush himself is not expected to be involved.
Critics, however, say these cautious steps are inadequate. Merely calling for a cease-fire is not enough, says William Quandt, who helped President Jimmy Carter negotiate the Egypt-Israel peace deal at Camp David. Neither is sending lower-level emissaries to the region.
"This is not going to make an impression on anybody," Mr. Quandt says.
What's needed, he says, is for the US to convey the consequences for various actions. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, for instance, needs to be told that if he complies with existing agreements and scales back the violence, "he'll be treated as a more legitimate guy," Quandt suggests. And Israeli leader Ariel Sharon needs to understand, for example, that if Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Gaza continue to grow, the US will scale back its economic aid.
Any other helpers?
Only the US, many experts say, has the history and status to intervene. With the exception of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, the US has been involved in negotiating every major Arab-Israeli conflict in the past two decades.
"The US has to be there," says Wayne Owens, former Democratic congressman from Utah and president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation. "People talk about the United Nations and the European Union being involved, but neither has one-tenth the influence of the United States."
But former Israeli negotiator Joel Singer sides with the Bush team's arm's-length policy. Negotiations never succeed until violence has subsided, he says.
Until that happens, the US is powerless to intervene. "I truly believe that no one can do anything ... before the violence has subsided," says Mr. Singer.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor