October 17, 2000

October 17, 2000 | Commentary on Middle East

Clinton's Middle East Policy Meltdown

How ironic that President Clinton once held out hope that a Middle East peace accord would help seal his "legacy" on foreign policy -- now that his Middle East policy is collapsing on two separate fronts and threatening to combine into one dangerous crisis.

The first, of course, is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's "battle for Jerusalem," which has exploded the foundations of the U.S.-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and intensified a conflict that could expand into a war with Lebanon and Syria.

The second involves Iraqi's Saddam Hussein. Having outmaneuvered the Clinton administration on weapons inspections and economic sanctions, he is poised to make a big comeback in the Arab world.

On October 3, he called on all Arabs to help the Palestinians destroy Israel, stating Iraq alone could do so if given access to Israel's borders.

In short, the administration overestimated Arafat's commitment to peace and underestimated Saddam's ability to threaten U.S. interests in the region.

Arafat's orchestration of political violence to stake unilateral Palestinian claims on the heart of Israel's capital city has destroyed hopes for a negotiated settlement for the foreseeable future.

The Clinton administration contributed to this crisis by persistently pressuring Israel to make concessions that undermined its own security in exchange for Palestinian promises, which often have gone unfulfilled.

Instead of forcefully confronting the Palestinian violations of the 1993 Oslo accord and subsequent interim agreements, the administration repeatedly cobbled together new agreements, which the Palestinian Authority soon violated.

The administration's mild reaction to this chronic noncompliance, combined with its continued diplomatic pressure on Israel, undoubtedly led Arafat to conclude he could pocket whatever concessions he could extract from Israel at the negotiating table and then resort to violence to attain his remaining goals at minimal cost.

The Camp David summit in July, which set the stage for the latest Palestinian riots, failed in part because of the administration's inadequate diplomatic groundwork.

President Clinton apparently assumed he could forge an agreement by force of personality and underestimated the difficulties in reaching a settlement on the thorny issue of Jerusalem.

But the chief flaw distorting U.S. policy on the peace negotiations has been the president's wishful thinking about the strength of Arafat's commitment to the negotiations. Arafat cooperated as long as the negotiations went his way. When they bogged down, he was quick to resort to violence to prod Israel to make further concessions.

Clinton may have set a dangerous precedent by failing to denounce the orchestrated Palestinian violence following the Sept. 23, 1996, opening of an exit to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem. Although the tunnel exit was located 250 yards away from Moslem holy sites on the Temple Mount, Arafat used the opportunity to mobilize Palestinians.

He used official Palestinian television and radio stations to incite his followers and exploited the ensuing riots as a negotiating tool to gain leverage over Israel.

Given Washington's failure to denounce those tactics, it's not surprising that he repeated this pattern to provoke the current riots. The administration's approach may have raised Palestinian expectations as well.

For example, Clinton's December 1998 visit to Gaza had many of the features of a state visit. Palestinians even displayed banners featuring Clinton and Arafat that read, "We have a dream: Free Palestine." Saddam Hussein also has a dream, and it could soon become an American nightmare.

Saddam seeks to lead an inflamed Arab world against the United States and is belligerently rattling his saber by dispatching an armored division to western Iraq amid reports that half a million Iraqis "volunteered" to help the Palestinians destroy Israel.

Saddam's threats cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda. He made good on his April 1990 threat to attack Israel when he launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War.

He probably has reacquired the capability to do so again, this time perhaps with chemical warheads. Since expelling the U.N. weapons inspectors in 1998, Iraq has had more than two years to rebuild its missile force and weapons of mass destruction.

The Clinton administration claims Saddam has been put in a box, but it has dragged its feet on supporting the Iraqi opposition. Alarmed by this passivity, Congress passed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, authorizing the transfer of up to $97 million of military equipment and training to the opposition forces.

But the administration has not followed through and delivered this aid. Despite Saddam's growing boldness, the administration clings to its faltering containment policy rather than seeking to oust Saddam.

Because of such inept Middle East policies, Clinton's legacy is likely to be growing chaos and anti-American violence in the Middle East. Regrettably, he will leave his successor a more dangerous Middle East situation than any president since Jimmy Carter.

More wishful thinking about Arafat and Saddam will not bring stability and peace to this troubled region.

James A. Phillips is a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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