The vice president's Middle East expedition didn't help the war on terror

Reprinted with permission from the Weekly Standard, April 1, 2002

NOT SINCE Secretary of State Warren Christopher returned from Europe with egg on his face in May 1993 has a high-ranking American official had such a bad week abroad as Vice President Dick Cheney just spent in the Middle East. At least that's the way it looks from the outside. Christopher, you'll remember, was sent to Europe by President Clinton to seek allied support for an American plan to help Bosnian Muslims defend themselves against Serbian killers. Christopher failed to make a forceful case to the Europeans, who told him to get lost, and he went home empty-handed and humiliated. We had hoped and expected Cheney to do somewhat better at rallying support among Arab leaders, many of whom owe their survival to the United States. It's not clear he did.

Let's start with the subject of greatest importance to President Bush, the subject that Cheney's trip was primarily intended to address--Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein. Publicly, at least, the vice president had to endure endless embarrassing lectures from his Arab hosts, from Saudi Arabia to tiny Bahrain. Whatever may have been said in private, the non-stop Arab harangue hurt Bush's effort to gain support for his Iraq policy. Headlines in European newspapers read, "Cheney's Tour Adds to Doubts Over Iraq Action." Democrats like Tom Daschle and some Republican senators like Chuck Hagel and Pat Roberts will point to Arab criticisms as the best argument against any move on Saddam. Was this really what President Bush and his advisers had in mind when they planned Cheney's visit?

Nor is it entirely clear what message Cheney delivered to his Arab friends, even in private. We had hoped Cheney would approach the Saudi royal family with the same tough choice the administration presented Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf a few months ago: You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists. You decide.

Instead, Cheney seems to have avoided putting the Arabs on the spot. He told Arab leaders both publicly and privately that the United States had made no decisions regarding Iraq. This relieved the Arab leaders of the need to make a choice, at least for now. We have no doubt that Cheney made clear America's grave concerns about Iraqi weapons programs, and he described the kind of inspections regime the United States wants in Iraq. But this was hardly news to Arab leaders. Probably the most surprising aspect of Cheney's message, to those leaders, was that the United States still didn't know what it wanted to do. As the vice president himself put it at a press conference with President Bush this past Thursday, "I went out there to consult with them, to seek their advice and counsel to be able to report back to the president on how we might best proceed to deal with that mutual problem." Funny, that's just what Warren Christopher said on his failed trip to Europe.

The Arab leaders, meanwhile, had their own game plan for the Cheney trip, and they stuck to it with impressive unity and determination. On the eve of Cheney's arrival, Arab officials outlined their strategy to the Washington Post: "They intend to press the United States hard . . . to shelve any plan for a military strike against Iraq and to concentrate instead on [the Saudi peace plan] and on easing the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories." The goal was not to listen to American plans, but to change them, to force the United States to "re-examine" its policies in the Middle East. As one Saudi official told the Post, "The U.S. is concerned with an old issue, Iraq. They are making it a priority when it should not be. . . . Iraq can afford to be delayed. The other issue cannot." In the tiny United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan told Cheney he was against a strike on Iraq and demanded that the Bush administration "stop the grave and continued Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people." Just about every other Arab leader told Cheney much the same thing.

After a while, Cheney himself started repeating the Arab mantra. "I sense that some people want to believe that there's only one issue I'm concerned about," the vice president said in Qatar, "or that somehow I'm out here to organize a military adventure with respect to Iraq. That's not true. . . . [Iraq is] one of many issues we're concerned about." To prove the point, Cheney began shifting his focus dramatically. The last phase of his trip became consumed with one issue: addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just as Arab leaders had hoped and demanded.

As a matter of fact, throughout Cheney's trip, at the same time that Arab leaders were publicly bad-mouthing the Bush administration's policies, privately they were asking Cheney for help with their agenda. At the top of their list was the rescue of Yasser Arafat. Saudi crown prince Abdullah asked Cheney to secure Arafat's release from Ramallah, where Israel has kept him under virtual house arrest, so that Arafat could attend the Arab League summit in Beirut beginning on March 27. Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah declared: "We hope that the vice president, during his visit to Palestine and Israel, would take into consideration Yasser Arafat's presence in the Beirut gathering. This would be a credit to the United States that it has done something for the brothers in Palestine."

The Arab desire to secure Arafat's safe passage to Beirut gave birth, in turn, to the idea that Cheney should meet with Arafat himself. Prior to Cheney's visit to the Middle East, there had been no plan for a meeting with Arafat. President Bush had shunned Arafat for his entire presidency, and if anything the Bush administration had been moving closer to dismissing Arafat altogether as a useful negotiating partner.

But now, as a favor to the Saudi royal family, Cheney agreed to consider a meeting with Arafat. Note, however, that the key issue was not just the meeting itself, but its location. Cheney proposed that he meet Arafat not in Palestinian territory but in Cairo, for, as the New York Times's Michael Gordon explained, "If Mr. Cheney were to meet Mr. Arafat outside of Israel next week, that would force the Israelis to lift the travel ban on the Palestinian leader and make it possible for him to attend the Arab League summit meeting in Beirut next week, which was an important Saudi request."

As it happened, before Cheney even got back to Washington, a terrorist had blown himself up on an Israeli bus, killing seven and wounding many more. But as one of the top officials traveling with Cheney told reporters, "I think the attack this morning, if anything, reaffirms the importance of getting on with the whole Tenet implementation plan." In other words, one terrorist attack wasn't going to get in the way of our doing this big favor for the Saudis.

How about two terrorist attacks? Or three? The very next day, a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in downtown Jerusalem, killing three Israelis, including a pregnant woman, and injuring dozens more. Taking credit for the attack was the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group directly under the control of Yasser Arafat's own Fatah organization. This led to a stern phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Arafat, and some strong words from the White House, too. Then on Friday, another Al Aqsa terrorist blew himself up at an Israeli military checkpoint. Despite all that, as this magazine goes to press, Cheney's meeting with Arafat in Cairo has not been definitively canceled. And either way, Arafat has been relegitimized and the war on terror compromised, because his use of terror has been rewarded by the American government.

WE UNDERSTAND perfectly well the sophisticated defense of American diplomacy last week. It's all tactical, we're told. Never mind what the vice president says, and never mind what the Arabs say. In order to win Arab acquiescence in an attack on Iraq, the Bush administration needed to quiet things down in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president needed to look like he cares about Arab sensitivities. And absent some U.S. effort to revive the peace process, we'll never get Arab leaders on board for an assault on Iraq.

It's a clever argument, but we think it's wrong. The Arabs will not be so easily bought. Nor is it possible to build up Arab goodwill with a few gestures here and there. Even now, it looks like Cheney's improvisational diplomacy has put the administration in a no-win situation. Either Cheney goes ahead with the meeting with Arafat in Cairo--in which case he will be sending a clear message that the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists under Arafat's authority is of less concern to the United States than appeasing Arab opinion. Or the meeting is canceled. The Arab summit will then become an anti-Israeli and anti-American free-for-all.

How's that for calming things down? The administration could actually be worse off than before Cheney's trip. Arafat will have gotten a new lease on life, but the conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Meanwhile, having accepted the central Arab claim--that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of Iraq are inseparable, and that the former must take precedence--the administration will have to persist in the hopeless effort to bring peace to the Middle East. Either that, or it will have to reverse course and make clear to the Arab leaders that Iraq is our top priority, not the peace process.

Which is precisely what the vice president should have done on this trip. Why didn't he? A year and a half ago, Tim Russert asked Cheney if he ever regretted not taking Saddam out during the Gulf War. "The fact of the matter is," Cheney told Russert:

"the only way you could have done that would be to go to Baghdad and occupy Iraq. If we'd done that, the U.S. would have been all alone. We would not have had the support of . . . the Arab nations that fought alongside us in Kuwait. . . . Conversations I had with leaders in the region afterwards--they all supported the decision that was made not to go to Baghdad. They were concerned that we not get into a position where we shifted instead of being the leader of an international coalition to roll back Iraqi aggression to one in which we were an imperialist power, willy-nilly moving into capitals in that part of the world taking down governments."

The Arab leaders, of course, feel pretty much the same way today. At some point, the Bush administration is going to have to turn them around. But appeasing their impossible demands for renewing a dead peace process is not going to do the trick.

Unfortunately, the vice president still seems to believe that success lies in creating the closest possible relationship with the Saudi royal family. Cheney was pleased to report that his dinner conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah was "one of the warmest sessions I have ever had, frankly, in Saudi Arabia." That's too bad. What's needed is a frosty session with the Saudi royal family--the funders and supporters of the Taliban, of radical anti-American Islam around the world, and the rulers of a kingdom that produced 15 out of the 19 September 11 hijackers, whose newspapers reprint the Jewish blood libel, and which refuses even now to let the United States use key military facilities to conduct the war in Afghanistan.

Fortunately, President Bush seems to see things more clearly. There was an interesting moment at the Thursday morning press conference at the White House. A reporter asked Cheney whether the Arabs would support strong action against Iraq, and Cheney responded with his line about how he had only gone "out there to consult with them, seek their advice and counsel." At that point Bush intervened, unbidden, to make a very different point. Cheney's trip, Bush insisted, was aimed at making the Arabs understand that "this is an administration that when we say we're going to do something, we mean it; that we are resolved to fight the war on terror . . . ; that we understand history has called us into action, and we're not going to miss this opportunity to make the world more peaceful and more free." In other words, Bush intends to get rid of Saddam, and Arab leaders had better adjust themselves to that reality.

The episode revealed a lot. For one thing, it showed how far Bush has gone in transforming himself into a strong and confident leader. It's hard to imagine the Bush of a year ago stepping in to correct the vice president on a matter of foreign policy. More important, it showed that Bush knows exactly what he's doing. While the Middle East hands try and fail to fashion a sophisticated policy to woo the Arabs, Bush has a much truer and deeper understanding of the way the world works. The Arab leaders will turn around when the United States shows convincingly that it will not be deterred, distracted, or delayed.

There is thus good reason to believe that while Cheney's trip may have hurt the cause, the damage will turn out to be temporary. The decision on Iraq and the prosecution of the war on terror remain in President Bush's steady hands, and we have every confidence he will do what's right.