The closeness of the U.S. presidential vote suggests strongly that the next president will have very little even resembling a mandate to conduct foreign affairs. That lack of a mandate might prove a blessing if it is used to reassess current commitments and announce prudent steps to reduce US vulnerability to violence and conflict in other parts of the world.
Among the most fruitful areas where this could work is in the Middle East. An announcement from a new president would have to be couched in careful diplomatic language of course, and surrounded by assurances that the United States is still strong, still brimming with resolve and still committed to being involved in the rest of the world. Its just that right now domestic political considerations demand more concentration, so that the United States will be better prepared to lead the world in the event of a genuine crisis.
In the Middle East, two issues would yield beneficial results if so handled: the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the UN embargo against Iraq.
PEACE BLOWN UP
The very idea of peace in the Middle East, of course, became even more remote this week. Ironically, the renewed violence on Monday followed news stories suggesting that on Sunday clashes in the West Bank and Gaza strip had quieted a bit amid talks of a possible new U.S.-brokered summit meeting after a statement from Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
On Monday, however, a school bus full of children from the Israeli settlement of Kfar Darom in Gaza was hit by an explosion from a mortar shell rigged with metal shrapnel, activated by three people who fled. Two adults were killed and six children severely injured. Hours later Israeli helicopters and gunships hit Palestinian Authority targets, including power stations in Gaza, with gunfire and missile strikes. At least 40 people were admitted to hospitals but as of late Monday there were no deaths.
I talked to Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. The latest incidents, he says, "confirms again that little steps toward cooperation on peripheral issues cant bring a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. Eventually you hit a wall with one of the big, emotional issues like the status of Jerusalem and the process turns to violence with startling swiftness."
THE EVIDENCE OF THE RHETORIC
I have no crystal ball. All I can do is read a lot, call people, ask them questions and listen carefully to what they say and how they say it. In doing this about the Middle East over the years, Ive come to the conclusion that rhetoric matters. The two sides know one another well and know just what buttons to push. They know how to make demands they know will be rejected if theyre not in a mood for a settlement this month, and how to couch their demands in rhetoric more likely to be accepted on the other side if theyre interested in a short-term agreement.
My observation, from talking to Israelis and American Muslims, is that this weeks bombing and retaliation have been surrounded by the kind of rhetoric on both sides that bodes ill for a peace settlement or even a cease-fire in the near future.
Several people in the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles told us Monday that they were convinced the attack on the school bus was carried out by "Tanzim," a term Israelis use to describe a militant faction of Yasser Arafats Fatah party.
Along with many Israelis, the consulate workers believe Yasser Arafat could stop the violence or a substantial portion of it if he really wanted to. They believe Arafat is using violence as a fallback because negotiations werent going in his favor.
BARAK BLAMES ARAFAT AND VICE VERSA
Thus, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak told reporters that "The attack itself is, in our eyes, the direct responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. Thats why we acted today with power against the Palestinian Authority target in the Gaza Strip."
Palestinian leaders were hardly in a mood to apologize. The Palestinian Authority said, in an official statement: "The Palestinian leadership holds the Israeli government and Israeli army fully responsible for this criminal aggression" and called on outside forces the United Nations, the United States, Russia, the European Union, China, Japan to intervene to stop the "barbaric attacks."
Hassan Asfour, a Palestinian cabinet minister, went further, saying that "These strikes are a reaffirmation that the Israeli government is a government of killers and has chosen war as a path to implement its policies." Mr. Asfour continued that "The killers will pay the price," mentioning Ehud Barak, Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and army chief Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz by name.
With both sides believing the other side could stop the violence and willing to use such provocative rhetoric, it is hard to imagine them sitting around a peace table civilly attempting resolution. A cease-fire and eventually a resumption of negotiations will probably happen. But its difficult to see them coming any time soon.
Since fighting resumed Sept. 28, about 240 people have been killed, mostly Palestinians.
These latest tragedies reinforce the unwisdom of the recurring desire by some US officials to force a peace under American or U.N. auspices.
It was fine for US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to deplore violence on both sides. But to imagine that if only the United States can push hard enough from behind the scenes and make enough promises of aid to both sides it can eventually pressure unwilling parties to negotiate together looks less and less realistic.
Thats tragic. But at this stage of history, thats reality. The incoming president would benefit, perhaps even profit from acknowledging is and declaring that with the problems he will face bringing Americans together, it is best just now to let events on the ground play out before offering to function again as an honest broker for an Israeli-Palestinian accord. He could also make it clear that when the time comes, the US will function only as an honest broker, not as the designer of a peace package the folks in Foggy Bottom think is best.
He might even mention that when the time comes the United States will not finance he doesnt have to say "bribe" the two parties in the implementation of peace. We want a genuine peace when those in the area want it, when they see advantages in pursuing it without having to be subsidized. That could even be spun into a diplomatic triumph, which the incoming president with no mandate could use.
SENSE IN IRAQ?
As the news media continue to explain the distinctions (if any) between dimpled and pregnant chads, other foreign policy issues could help to to form a backlog that the new president might have to deal with sooner rather than later. The lack of a mandate, however, just might dictate that the next president be more prudent and sensible than previous presidents have been.
Take Iraq. Saddam Hussein has been a most satisfactory all-purpose villain for the Clinton-Gore administration, as he was for the previous Bush administration. But the messy aftermath of the Persian Gulf war, once the proudest moment of the senior Bushs presidency, seems to be unraveling quickly. Discretion suggests that the next president jump to the head of the parade before it leaves without him.
The United States is said to have won the Gulf war, and on the field of battle the rout was rather complete. But Bush officials ended the ground war once the Iraqis had been pushed out of Kuwait and chose not to pursue Saddams forces to Baghdad. Since then there has been an ongoing low-intensity conflict, featuring mostly US and British forces enforcing an embargo declared by the United Nations and enforcing a "no-fly-zone" in parts of Iraq with daily combat aircraft patrols and sporadic bombing. US Navy ships ply the Gulf, occasionally coming in to harms way.
NO GOAL, NO GLORY
The goal of these activities remains murky because insofar as there is one it is unattainable. It should be clear by now that inflicting economic harm on the people of Iraq through an embargo will not drive Saddam Hussein from power; indeed, the embargo probably reinforces his power. The likelihood that more pressure will force Saddam to allow UN weapons inspectors back Iraq is also low.
Last weekend Peter Hain, the British Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East, told the Times of London that he was seeking a way to get the embargo ended, perhaps through convincing the Iraqi government to allow something that can be described as UN weapon inspections. Mr. Hain said the "only vehicle" for getting "the sanctions suspended so that everything can move forward" is UN Security Council Resolution "1284, which in return for allowing inspectors back would trigger within months, literally within 180 days, sanctions suspensions."
Mr. Hain is both responding to recent events and echoing opinion in most of Europe. France has criticized the ongoing embargo. Commercial airline flights to Baghdad have not resumed, but planes fly in from Europe and from other Arab countries almost daily. Some trade has resumed with Iraqi neighbors. Like most embargoes, this one is breaking down.