WASHINGTON – As President Bush plunges headlong into efforts to calm the Middle East, America has a lot riding on the outcome, including plans to oust Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, momentum in the war on terrorism, volatile oil prices in a shaky economy and even Bush’s global credibility.
Neither a new Arab oil embargo nor another all-out war between Israel and the Palestinians is likely.
However, failure to quell the escalating conflict between Israel and Palestinians ultimately could weaken moderate Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan, ignite a protracted guerrilla war and threaten U.S. strategic interests.
The greatest danger, however, may be that if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon succeeds in dismantling Yasser Arafat’s secular Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, the political void will be filled by radical Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who oppose any negotiations with Israel.
In much the same way, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which also was engineered by Sharon, drove Arafat and his fighters into exile in Tunisia but helped make the Iranian-backed Hezbollah a political and military power on Israel’s northern border.
The crisis has jolted the White House into intense action and immersed Bush in a conflict that he had long sought to avoid.
“If he does not prevail, his prestige suffers,” said former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., a respected authority on U.S. foreign relations. “The Middle East tests the president much more than the war on terrorism.”
The Middle East has bedeviled a long line of presidents. Most of them enter the White House eager to avoid being drawn into the region’s morass of violence, hatred and intractable differences.
But involvement is unavoidable: Israel has enormous public support and influence in the United States, and political stability in the Middle East is a strategic necessity for America to maintain global access to essential oil supplies and to fight global terrorism.
While the risks loom large for Bush, some analysts say he had more to lose by doing nothing than by entering the fray.
“You don’t have to succeed. You have to be seen as being engaged. That can get you awfully far,” said Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates who is president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, a centrist policy research group.
Without high-level U.S. involvement, a cease-fire is unlikely and peace may be impossible.
“The Israelis and the Palestinians have not been able to solve the conflict themselves. Historically we’ve been the ones that have been best able to help them. That’s all on the line,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
Bush waited until the eleventh hour before inserting himself forcefully into the latest quest for peace, but last Thursday he intervened.
He deployed Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region. He bluntly blamed Arafat for failing to live up to his commitments and called for other Arab leaders to lean on him. He publicly scolded Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for refusing to withdraw his troops “without delay” from Palestinian territories. And he pledged to remain engaged until a solution emerges.
Some analysts fear Bush may have waited too long to intervene in a region boiling with rage, much of it aimed at Washington for its unwavering support of Israel.
“What we’ve seen in the last few days is an outpouring of anger across the Arab world. People are furious,” said Laurie Brand, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California.
Street protests erupted in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and other countries, including Bahrain, the Persian Gulf nation that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, where protesters breached U.S. embassy walls last week. Anger in the Arab populace threatens the stability of key Arab allies, specifically Jordan and to a lesser degree Egypt, experts said, forcing their leaders to distance themselves from Washington.
Among the casualties of rising Arab anger were U.S. military plans to move quickly to topple Iraq’s leader.
When Vice President Dick Cheney visited the region last month, Arab leaders wanted to talk mainly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not about Saddam Hussein.
“If you really want to do Iraq,” said William Quandt, a former U.S. negotiator in the Middle East now at the University of Virginia, “this whole Israeli-Palestinian thing is a big intrusion.”
Saddam appears to have won at least a temporary reprieve.
“There’s nothing (Saddam) would like better than for us to be totally diverted by the Israeli-Palestinian situation,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The U.S.-led war on terrorism is eclipsed for now as well.
The post-Sept. 11 global consensus that Bush knit together against terrorism has fallen apart across the Arab world, where many people liken Israel troop incursions into Palestinian territory to state-sponsored terrorism.
“If we’re not able to get this situation under control, it’s going to make it very hard for us to continue to prosecute the war on terrorism,” said Lawrence Korb, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “You want the Arab countries to dry up financial support for terrorists, you want them to arrest members of al-Qaida and to get to the root causes of the problem that led to the attack on the World Trade Center. There’s no way they’re going to work with you when this is like a festering sore.”
Another concern is that suicide bombings might spread from Israel to the United States, Israel’s main ally.
In another way of looking at that possibility, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a rival of Sharon in the right-wing Likud faction, warned Wednesday in Washington that if Palestinian suicide bombings succeed in wringing concessions from Israel, extremists will begin using the same deadly tactic in the United States.
“If not destroyed, this madness will strike in your buses, in your supermarkets, in your pizza parlors, in your cafes,” Netanyahu told a bipartisan group of U.S. senators.
Another concern affects American wallets.
The price of gasoline is rising fast as the summer travel season approaches. Gasoline prices spiked by about 25 cents per gallon as crude oil prices jumped from $21 to more than $28 per 42-gallon barrel over the last six weeks. Those price spikes largely reflect market fears that instability in the Middle East might interrupt global oil supplies.
A repeat of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo remains unlikely, analysts say. Saudi Arabia, the world’s dominant oil producer, has stated repeatedly that it will not use oil as a political weapon.
Other major Persian Gulf producers such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar generally follow the Saudi lead.
Still, independent actions by more hard-line states, such as Iraq’s decision this week to suspend its oil exports for 30 days in support of the Palestinians, can keep oil markets unsettled, adding a few dollars to the price of a barrel of oil.
Whatever unfolds, President Bush will traverse a rocky path as he attempts to corral Arab leaders behind him and nudge Sharon and Arafat toward substantive peace talks.
Israel has staunch support on Capitol Hill. American supporters include two religious groups that do lobbying – Christian conservatives, who read biblical references to Israel literally, and Jewish Americans.
In the Middle East, he also is meeting resistance.
“His credibility, his prestige, his ability to wage war against terrorism depend on their willingness to take orders. So far none of them is,” Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas-Austin. “Israel is not withdrawing, Arafat is not denouncing terrorism (and) other Arab countries are not calling on Arafat to get with the program.”