President Bush is currently being assailed from all sides for his Middle East foreign policy. In his 15 months in office, the president allowed the Israeli-Palestinian situation to go from bad to worse with a baffling level of detachment. It would be easy to blame this on a president with a notable lack of foreign policy acumen. The Middle East peace process is complex and in the case of the current administration requires the moderation of the president between two camps in the administration at odds over the level of U.S. involvement, with one camp eager to look past it and take on Iraq.
It could be argued that Bush has simply opted for an arms-length approach to this situation. However, the administration has shown a disturbing tendency to remain on the sidelines in other critical international situations, waiting until situations explode before offering lukewarm involvement.
In the aftermath of September 11, the Middle East peace process spiraled to a two-year low, tensions between India and Pakistan threatened to erupt into war, Colombia fell into an all-out war with guerrilla insurgents, and North Korea became the anchor of the Axis of Evil. All of these situations were dealt with a striking lack of finesse and diplomatic creativity on the part of the administration.
When the administration signaled that it would not continue Clinton’s diplomatic efforts to reach a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, the violence surged, ultimately spiraling out of control. The administration’s preferred “just say no to violence” mantra did nothing to curtail the carnage.
“The signal I’m sending to the Palestinians is, ‘Stop the violence,’” the president intoned. As sound bites go, it’s on the scale of why bother. Even upon announcing renewed U.S. efforts to resolve the crisis, Bush still slipped into useless rhetoric. “Enough is enough,” he proclaimed, announcing Colin Powell’s trip to the region.
The disturbing paradigm of “disengagement,” however, has not been restricted to the Middle East.
The Bush administration initially announced and then retracted statements that it would pick up where the previous administration had left off talks with North Korea over its missile program. The concern was that North Korea was not adhering to principles in the Agreed Framework, and other “agreements” (that don’t exist) prompting the hilarious future agreements/that’s how the president speaks explanation from the White House.
Open diplomatic channels would be a preferable policy if the administration believed that North Korea is continuing to build a viable nuclear weapons program. Instead, the administration recklessly labeled North Korea as an “Axis” country, thereby completely blowing the diplomatic windfall that it inherited from the previous administration.
In the Americas, where Bush promised a strong foreign policy focus, the administration continued an inert policy, remaining on the sidelines in Colombia’s peace process. When the situation became critical after peace talks broke down earlier this year and Colombian troops were poised to retake a huge rebel-held demilitarized zone, a UN envoy and representatives from ten nations defused the situation without U.S. help. The peace process in Colombia eventually collapsed, though, and the administration is now scrambling to transform what has always been an impotent counternarcotics policy into a counterinsurgency policy so that U.S. funds and military hardware can be used directly against the guerrillas.
In South Asia, late last year, when tensions between India and Pakistan escalated, the U.S. yawned at the possibility. The New York Times gently suggested in an editorial that “Washington should intensify its efforts to ease the crisis… Mr. Powell, or some other American envoy, may need to intervene more actively.” In another story, the Times noted that the U.S. had not “volunteered to oversee negotiations, a role the United States has played so often in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
While British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited the region in hopes of defusing tension, Washington was very reluctant to dispatch the Secretary of State. The White House crisis policy follows a nonsensical cycle. Urge the two conflicting sides to work things out themselves. Observe that this will not happen. Wait until the situation seems to really be deteriorating. Announce U.S. involvement. Withdraw U.S. involvement at first sign of difficulty. Repeat. The administration has taken a puzzlingly long time to realize the ineffectiveness of this strategy.
The White House has implied twice now that Bill Clinton is somehow responsible for the current state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs. “It wasn’t all that long ago where a summit was called and nothing happened, and as a result we had a significant intefadeh…,” Bush said recently to ITV. His comments along with Ari Fleischer’s now retracted statements faulting Clinton’s Camp David efforts for the current level of violence demonstrate the administration’s backward diplomatic logic. Reticence to engage diplomatically at a high level underestimates the power the U.S. has as mediator at best or demonstrates indifference and an arrogant foreign policy at worst.
The administration has stood on the sidelines and watched too many international crises reach and pass critical points, offering only limited involvement even when U.S. interests are at stake. One hopes it has learned a lesson from the most recent bloodshed in the Middle East. As much as it hesitates to engage in difficult situations, the administration must leverage Washington’s power as mediator to prevent violent escalations in the future.