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America Becomes the Permanent Presence

August 28, 2000|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter, senior advisor at the Rand Corp., recently visited Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, including the West Bank

President Bill Clinton on Tuesday visits Cairo to try jump-starting the Arab-Israeli peace process. But this visit to President Hosni Mubarak is more than just an attempt to salvage last month's abortive Camp David summit. It is also recognition that the United States is now the preeminent power in the Middle East, with all the responsibilities--for now and the years ahead--that this implies. This complements the renewed U.S. role as a European power, underscored by the re-creation of NATO in the 1990s and by the struggle to reconcile a host of competing U.S. policies in the Pacific.

The U.S. now has decisively moved beyond a decade of reluctant engagement abroad--the "peace dividend" from the collapse of European communism and Soviet power. Willingly or not, its sheer power and presence compel it to assume new requirements of leadership. The next president take note.

A trip around the Middle East during the Camp David summit underscored one central theme: The U.S. is henceforth expected by all and sundry to play the decisive political and strategic role in the region, far beyond anything it has done before. The difference from the past was marked by the lack of traditional demands in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the West Bank that the U.S. simply "deliver" Israel to a peace settlement. Even those Arabs and Israelis who did not think Camp David would succeed--or for whom fears of a post-settlement future still outweighed hopes--have begun thinking about what comes next when this century-old conflict finally leaves center stage.

The Saudis are appealing to Washington to get their nation admitted to the World Trade Organization, key to modernizing the desert kingdom now that the days of oil largess are over. They also expect the U.S. to draw Iran back into the Middle East balance and to find a formula for constraining Saddam Hussein, despite what is widely perceived in the Middle East to be progressive erosion of U.N.-mandated sanctions against Iraq. Once worried that permanent U.S. military power in the region would be unsettling, both domestically and regionally, the Saudis (and other Western-oriented states) now welcome the U.S. 5th Fleet, with its aura of permanence.

The Jordanians, meanwhile, see the U.S. as the only salvation from Saddam Hussein's pressures, which are causing Jordan to suffer almost as much from sanctions as Iraq itself. And Amman expects Washington to lead the world's wealthy states in ensuring that the entire East Bank of the Jordan--not just the 1.5 million Palestinians who also live there--gain from the hoped-for benefits of a final settlement with Israel.

The Palestinians, for their part, see the U.S. as shepherd to a profitable long-term relationship with economically dominant Israel, after Washington brokers a peace.

Israel not only looks to the U.S. to protect its long-term interests in regard to its immediate neighbors but also to keep the pressure on Iraq and to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, while also exploring positive trends in Iranian politics. This includes Israel's urging Washington, as a top priority in its relations with Moscow, to convince Russia to stop providing nuclear aid to Iran.

For the U.S., this is not the stuff of temporary engagement, a part-time peace broker's role, to be wrapped up once the last Arab entity (the Palestinians sooner, the Syrians later) become reconciled to Israel's existence, at peace, in the region.

Since Camp David, even Washington's role as peacemaker, which has been less strategically compelling since the risk of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation disappeared, is no longer a discretionary act, as it was perceived to be at the beginning of the second Clinton administration. With the president's leadership in breaking new ground, he has committed his successor to deep, continuing and personal engagement with the Israelis and the Palestinians until they can reach a final, lasting agreement.

The emerging U.S. role as permanent presence and leading arbiter throughout the Middle East reflects a further shift from the Cold War, when U.S. thinking was dominated by the need to defend against palpable threats. Now, Washington is expected to create and exploit opportunities, not just to foster regional stability, but also to help the Middle East join the ranks of globalizing societies.

As the U.S. has already discovered in Europe and is beginning to understand in the Far East, in the Middle East it is also being challenged to think strategically, to create a coherent, regional framework for policy and to build institutions and practices far beyond anything it thought necessary in the quiet years of the 1990s.

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