Clinton's ambition, Arafat's war
Clinton's zeal for a Nobel Peace Prize has brought the Middle East to the brink
of war. Neither presidential candidate has what it takes to undo the damage.
by Seth Gitell
Some political observers are calling the recent burst of violence in the Middle
East an "October surprise." Many presidential campaigns have had one: Nixon's
"secret plan" to end the Vietnam War, the possibility of American hostages'
being released from Iran. But there's nothing surprising about what's been
taking place over the past two weeks.
On the contrary, anyone who's followed news of the Middle East peace talks has
been expecting something like this. President Bill Clinton, who's governed with
one eye on opinion polls and the other on the history books, has orchestrated
the peace process for the past five years. It was only a matter of time before
his superficial approach -- motivated in large part by the accolades he
believed he'd get by negotiating peace -- led to armed strife. People who
follow the situation carefully are wondering why it didn't
The question now is whether his successor -- Vice-President Al Gore or Texas
governor George W. Bush -- will repudiate Clinton's failed tactics and
articulate a strong foreign policy for the Middle East. The next president
could repair the considerable damage Clinton has done -- or worsen it.
As a close observer of Clinton's role in the Middle East peace talks (I covered
the Middle East for four years at the national Jewish weekly the
Forward), I can say with confidence that since Clinton realized he might
gain special recognition for his role in the peace talks -- perhaps even win a
Nobel Peace Prize -- his strategy has been to ignore simmering hostilities in
the region in favor of high-profile signing ceremonies whenever possible.
(Since he's been in office, we've seen at least seven of these ceremonies --
not including the Balkans' ill-fated Dayton agreement. That's more than those
held by the previous three presidents combined.) In negotiating these signings,
Clinton seemed to operate on the theory that if he treated Yasir Arafat, the
chairman of the Palestinian Authority, as if he were a statesman -- ignoring
considerable evidence to the contrary -- then Arafat would act like one.
Unfortunately, reality has wedged itself between Clinton and his dreams.
Clinton's ambition led him to get involved with every aspect of the peace
negotiations. In most successful bargaining sessions -- such as the one that
produced the original Oslo agreement -- you let the small fry work out the deal
and don't bring in the big cheese until it's done. But Clinton not only wants
to be there at the end, he wants to do the job of Dennis Ross, the State
Department bureaucrat who has worked on this issue since the Bush
administration. Clinton likes to be in on these talks because he thinks his
personal skill and charm -- which have wooed friends and disarmed Republicans
-- will win the negotiators over.
The president has treated the centuries-old hostilities in the Middle East as
if they were the budget deal or welfare reform. On those domestic issues,
Clinton could "triangulate" against Newt Gingrich and the Republicans and come
out looking good. But you can't spin bloodshed in the Middle East. That
strategy failed miserably with Arafat and the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria. And
unlike cutting deals with congressman, engaging in the nitty-gritty with such
people can be dangerous: once these guys rebuff Clinton, they've got nowhere
else to go but to the streets.
For years Clinton has been giving Arafat the Steven Spielberg treatment: invite
somebody to the White House enough times, he seems to believe, and you can get
him to agree to anything. That may work on Hollywood types and big campaign
donors, but it doesn't resonate with a thug like Arafat, who survives on a
combination of daring, wit, and brutality. Still, Arafat has been to the White
House during Clinton's tenure more times than any other foreign leader.
(Remember that just a few years before Oslo, Arafat was advising Saddam Hussein
and engaging in terrorist activity such as approving the hijacking of the
cruise ship Achille Lauro.)
Both Gore and Bush are well aware of Clinton's policy and how it's failed. So
when it comes to the political implications of the recent violence, it's not
enough for these candidates to utter buzzwords about the "peace process" and
the need to play the "honest broker." The best way for America to restore order
to the region -- as some advisers in both Democratic and Republican circles now
say -- is to take a time-out from the negotiations. In response to what's
happened, both candidates need to make the case that they will stand by Israel
-- our Democratic ally in the Middle East -- and hold Arafat to his word. But
so far, both George W. Bush and Al Gore have gone out of their way to support
Clinton's handling of the Middle East. As conditions there worsen -- and don't
expect Tuesday's "cease-fire" in Sharm el-Sheikh to solve anything -- the
candidates will be forced to confront the ugly realities about Clinton's
"This opens up brilliant opportunities for both Bush and Gore," says one
Washington-based foreign-policy specialist. "There is a sense out there that
foreign policy is out of control." By repudiating Clinton's policy of coddling
Arafat in exchange for incremental and temporary progress, Bush could transform
himself into a tough-minded leader in the mold of Ronald Reagan. And Gore could
become his "own man" on a matter of substance rather than sizzle.
But at this juncture in a presidential race marked by caution, it doesn't look
as though either candidate will do the right thing. By late Tuesday night, it
appeared that the Gore campaign was running away from the Middle East. Before
the third presidential debate, Lieberman told a group of Jewish Democrats that
"our campaign slogan has to be `Next year in Washington.' " The obvious
implication of Lieberman's call -- which never mentioned the words "Israel" or
"Middle East" -- was that the Democrats wished the whole issue would just go
away so they could focus on domestic issues. Later, when the subject came up
during the debate, Gore at first didn't respond to the question, then said that
he had taken part "in the meetings that charted the president's summit
meeting." Bush, for his part, hinted at a critique of the president, saying he
would not "dictate" terms and that negotiations had to proceed on their own
Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.
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