Cheney's Mideast reality check

Iraq topped the vice president's agenda, but Israel was the focus for the leaders he met.

Vice President Dick Cheney returns Wednesday, after an 10-day swing through the Middle East, with a different set of notes in his portfolio from those he expected to bring home.

Move back the Iraq file. Move up the file on US efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

The reordering does not mean the problem of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction fell off the trip's agenda. But it does mean the Bush administration has a clearer picture of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict colors every other issue in the region.

The sum-up of Mr. Cheney's notes must include this point, specialists in the Middle East and American foreign policy say: The war on terrorism is not the driving order of business for the rest of the world. And if the US wants continued cooperation on tackling international terrorism, it will have to pay more attention to the issues that are uppermost in regions of keen interest to the US.

"At every turn, [Cheney] has been told that Iraq is not the first priority of the various states," says Judy Barselou, a Mideast specialist at the United States Institute of Peace here. "Their priority is the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis, so there is a disconnect on the larger war on terrorism."

By yesterday in Israel – from where he headed on to Turkey, his last stop – Cheney was focusing almost exclusively on the Mideast conflict. But he dashed Yasser Arafat's hopes of the vice president paying him a visit, instead telling the Palestinian leader he would meet with him if a cease-fire was arranged under the conditions of earlier US security-building plans.

When he set out on his trip March 10, Cheney had three central goals in mind: shoring up Arab-American relations that have sagged particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; rallying support for US action against the Iraqi regime; and progress in quelling violence and clearing a path to peace in the Middle East.

Cheney can argue that while the order of emphasis may have shifted, he made progress on all three, some analysts argue.

"The Bush administration deserves credit, because they saw the situation on the ground and corrected a foreign policy for the region that initially was too heavily focused on Iraq," says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.. "It's a testament to the flexibility and speed with which they can adapt to realities."

Arab leaders have been impressed by the way Cheney – an old hand at the Middle East – seemed to seek views instead of imposing them, as well as by the measures the US took over a short time to further regional peace efforts, Mr. Gerges says.

He points to the US-authored UN Security Council resolution last week that calls for a settlement where "two states," Israel and Palestine, "live side by side" – a step he calls a "milestone." Arab leaders also listened approvingly as President Bush rebuked Israel for occupying Palestinian towns last week, and as Cheney presented Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah with an invitation from Bush to visit his Texas ranch next month to discuss the prince's Mideast peace plan.

In return, the US may have actually heard pretty much what it wanted to concerning Iraq.

Yesterday in Israel, Cheney repeated that the US has made no decisions on a course of action to take against Iraq – soothing words to Arab leaders, who said publicly in one capital after another that hitting Iraq could further destabilize the region and ultimately work against US interests. Yet while his Arab interlocutors said Mideast peace must come before action against Iraq, Cheney also heard in several capitals that opposition to a move against Mr. Hussein would weaken if the case against him were developed more in terms of an international threat, rather than America's personal beef.

"The US hasn't been able to present anything tying the [September] attacks to Iraq in any concrete way," says Ms. Barselou, noting that the best evidence so far is a meeting hijacker Mohammed Atta reportedly had in Prague with an Iraqi official last year.

Arab leaders want more – though US officials say privately they are more supportive of action against Hussein than meets the eye.

In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, analysts note, Cheney heard that the international community must first put an ultimatum on the table: Hussein must accept weapons inspectors without conditions. "There's a consensus in the Arab world that if Saddam Hussein does not respond positively to the demands of the United Nations, then he would face terrible consequences," Gerges says.

Still, some observers believe the US is "engineering" a crisis with Iraq, by demanding a no-limits inspection program while knowing full well that Hussein will never accept it. The UN is scheduled to take up in May the question of getting weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

Cheney's visit may have furthered US goals in the Middle East, but America's image and long-term standing were not necessarily well served, some observers say. In a region where anti-Americanism is at a high point, public suspicions about US motives were only fed by Cheney's exclusive interchange with leadership elites struggling to maintain public support.

"It's significant that Cheney did not take the time to meet with a single non-official leader, no one from civil society, no editors, as if there is no public opinion to address," says Gerges. "We talk about public diplomacy, but I'm not sure the administration really understands what that means yet."

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