Diplomatic Diary: Whatever Happened To Mideast Stability?

Let's rewind the tape a few months. As the Bush administration geared up for war in Iraq, many senior officials spoke glowingly about what victory in Baghdad would mean for the Middle East peace process. "If there were a change of regime in Iraq, would it help us in the peace process?" Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Defense Secretary, asked rhetorically a year ago. "You bet it would."

So now that Saddam is out, what has happened to the peace process? Colin Powell, on his second trip to the region in as many weeks, is finding out the hard way. Monday's suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia underscored just how hostile the region remains to Americans and U.S. policies--a message the Secretary of State has been hearing at almost every stop. President Bush may have released the long-delayed roadmap to a Palestinian state, and he may have won an astonishingly fast victory in Iraq. But the Middle East has slipped back into its bad old political morass with the same astonishing speed.

In Cairo, Powell conceded that his visit to the region--intended to build support for the roadmap--was not exactly proceeding according to plan. When asked if the Israelis had accepted roadmap proposals such as the new Palestinian leadership, Powell tried to play down his obvious disappointment. "The Israeli side did not use the word 'accept'," he said. "It makes no difference whether you have a word 'accept' or not have the word 'accept'. What makes the difference is whether or not both sides find enough in common with the roadmap that they can begin the process of moving down this road."

That valiant attempt at optimism failed to convince the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, who was standing alongside Powell at the time. "It seems to me a little strange that if you are willing to do things, you are not ready to say that you are willing to do that," he told reporters with diplomatic understatement. "I think the word 'accept' is not a very difficult word to pronounce...It is important for both sides to indicate, at least their intention, to implement what is in the roadmap and the word 'accept' is not a dirty word."

Contrast that obvious discord with what happened after the 1991 war between the United States and Iraq. The coalition that fought that gulf war was exceptional, uniting American and Arab forces against Saddam Hussein. That in turn led to something even more exceptional: a shared experience between the Israeli and Arab governments. Saddam bombed both Saudi Arabia and Israel, and with Saddam defeated the region could readily understand the need for new stability.

That was precisely the platform George Herbert Walker Bush used to launch what became the Madrid conference, when he spoke triumphantly to Congress at the end of Gulf War I. "All of us know the depth of bitterness that has made the dispute between Israel and its neighbors so painful and intractable," he said a week after the ceasefire in Iraq. "Yet in the conflict just concluded Israel and many of the Arab states have for the first time found themselves confronting the same aggressor."

Less than one week later, eight Arab countries--including Egypt and Syria--endorsed former-President Bush's plans for stabilizing the Middle East. Among those proposals was the expansion of U.S. forces in the region, the principle of land-for-peace deals between Israelis and Arabs, and an economic plan to improve the lives of ordinary Arabs.

The current President Bush has had no such luck. In fact, his ambitions for the Mideast do not seem to match his father's. There were no Arab nations that endorsed the younger president's speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln. But then, his aircraft carrier address was intended almost entirely for a domestic audience, with no mention of the Middle East peace process but plenty of talk about victory in the war on terror.

As for the principle of land-for-peace, both Israeli and American officials look back on the Madrid and Oslo notions with scorn. That was the failed route of the past, say senior White House and Israeli officials. What we need now, they say, is security first before the Israelis start talking about giving up land.

Which leaves us with the economic plans. Those, remarkably, have survived a decade of peace talks and terrorism to the present day. Just last week President Bush said he wanted to create a free trade area between the United States and the Middle East within a decade. "By replacing corruption and self-dealing, with free markets and fair laws, the people of the Middle East will grow in prosperity and freedom," he said.

Those are noble words, and many European leaders share those sentiments. The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, spoke to Bush about the same ideas at the White House last week. Rasmussen said he discussed the creation of a new body--like the Cold War-inspired Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe--to promote human rights, education and free trade in the Middle East. "He seemed to be very interested," Rasmussen told a handful of journalists about Bush's reaction. "All these elements are crucial in maintaining peace and stability."

But even if Arab nations open their arms to cultural reforms, there is one huge obstacle to such plans--and it's the same obstacle that has kept these economic plans on the drawing board for the last decade. If there is one thing more complex and more emotional to negotiate than the historic rivalries of the Middle East, it's free trade. After decades of lofty talk and no action, the European Union finally pulled together one of its grand conferences in Barcelona to propose a free trade area with the Arab countries of North Africa by 2010. That conference was eight years ago, and since then the process has been bogged down in bureaucracy. Two years ago, Europe finally agreed to a free trade deal with Egypt. However that deal only covered manufacturing, not the agriculture and clothing industries that would actually export anything substantial.

So what are the chances that the United States could really deliver on free trade with the Middle East? At a time when it can barely agree on its own trade issues with Europe, those chances look slim. The best hope for the Bush administration's post-war strategy on the Middle East--whether it's the roadmap or free trade--is that it's just too early to tell if the region has truly changed its colors.

Diplomatic Diary: Whatever Happened To Mideast Stability? | News