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Standing Tall May Mean a Mideast Minus Americans

May 04, 1986|Charles William Maynes | Charles William Maynes is the editor of Foreign Policy magazine.

WASHINGTON — It would be a supreme irony if the principal result of the U.S. air raid on Libya was to enable fundamentalist and radical Arab forces in the Middle East to succeed in driving all evidence of America from their presence. Yet the U.S. attacks on Libya seem to be having this effect. Americans are afraid to travel abroad, certainly to the Middle East. The U.S. government ordered home unnecessary personnel plus dependents from exposed countries like Lebanon and the Sudan. Instead of standing tall, Americans all over the world are afraid to go out in public.

Sometimes a person is forced to do something that he knows may turn out to be unwise. President Reagan was in this position when he received firm intelligence that the Libyan government was encouraging terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities.

He must have known that a U.S. military assault would unleash even more terrorism, but how could he do nothing? Neither his friends nor his opponents would have forgiven him.

It will be important, however, not to draw the wrong lesson from this painful follow-on to the air raid on Libya. The lesson for Americans is not that the President took the wrong decision regarding Libya. It is that the Administration, through a series of missteps over several years, has transformed the image of America in the Middle East--from that of a power friendly to Israel but striving for a fair settlement to the Arab-Israeli struggle, to a power that is the enemy of the Arab people, particularly the Palestinians.

The mistakes started immediately on the assumption of office by the new Administration. The President, overturning the U.S. position under several administrations, proclaimed in his first official press conference that Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank were "not illegal." Errors then proliferated. The Administration announced a strategic consensus with Israel, leading Arabs to conclude that Israel had U.S. backing for any military step it might take against an Arab state. Then-Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., whether through ineptitude or design, gave a green light to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The United States promised the Palestine Liberation Organization that if it withdrew its fighters from Lebanon, America would look after the safety of the remaining Palestinian civilians. The Administration then stood by helplessly as Falangist thugs butchered unprotected Palestinian civilians.

Other missteps in Arab eyes include the initial U.S. endorsement of the Israeli air raid on Tunis, massive increases in economic aid to Israel with no political quid pro quo demanded and a failure to fight Congress for passage of arms packages promised to Arab states.

But most critical has been the unwillingness of the President himself to play a positive role in Middle East policy beyond a single speech in September, 1982. In the U.S. system of government, if the President does not play a positive role, the center of gravity for policy shifts to Congress, which has always followed a rigidly pro-Israel line. In the Reagan Administration, this problem has been compounded because the secretary of state has failed to play his traditional role. Haig leaned almost exclusively in Israel's direction. At first, some people were afraid that George P. Shultz, in replacing him, would lean too far the other way and the United States would end up with a pro-Arab policy. But Shultz blundered badly in his direction of U.S-Lebanon policy and basically disengaged from the process.

With no countervailing force from the executive branch, U.S. policy has tilted almost wholly toward Israel. Small wonder that, in light of this record, officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, are proclaiming that a revolution has taken place in U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, that the United States is now allied formally with Israel. Arabs draw the same conclusions.

Unfortunately, even saying such things after a terrorist attack often draws the rejoinder that mentioning any American missteps, instead of concentrating single-mindedly on the terrorists' crimes, is in effect an excuse for terrorism. But unless the United States wants to be driven out of the Middle East entirely, it is time for straight talk.

Today, in discussing Middle East terrorism, Americans often find themselves in the same kind of sterile debate that takes place over the issue of domestic crime. Liberals contend that miserable social conditions spawn the tremendous amount of violence in American life. They ask for government programs. Conservatives contend that bad people commit crimes. They ask for government protection. Of course, both are needed.

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