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The Threat of a Wider War Distances Our Arab Partners

November 08, 2001|EDWARD S. WALKER | Edward S. Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, was assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from 1999 to 2001

As a veteran diplomat of 30 years, I have long thought that little is as profoundly affecting as observing one's country from a distance.

Now, albeit temporarily, I find myself back in the Middle East. I write this from the desert oasis of Riyadh after two weeks of travel in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority-controlled lands and Israel. In each place, I was struck by the obvious concern and, quite often, despair expressed for the future of the region and U.S. relations there.Yet, while the vast majority of Arab governments have expressed support for our campaign against terrorism, there is a real hesitation about becoming too closely tied to our efforts.

Why? Given the struggle of almost every one of our supporters with their own brand of extremism, the reluctance to engage us more robustly might seem contradictory and even a bit self-serving.

But that is not the whole story. In fact, I heard on numerous occasions a very real desire to be more committed and more publicly supportive. And this would be possible but for the lurking fear that this military campaign will widen its sights and strike Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Libya. The growing suspicion in the region that Washington is actively planning to expand this war and "settle the score" with old enemies is sustained by the public statements of a number of senior Washington policymakers. When Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) speak, the region listens. And, unfortunately, there's often less attention paid to statements emanating from the White House or the State Department.

Just as the U.S. media tend to overemphasize the negative commentary that can be found in the region, so too does the Arab press highlight the less authoritative but more headline-worthy news from Washington.

Coalition erosion and resulting U.S. isolation are not inevitable. Our partners are right to expect a clearer picture of how we intend to pursue this campaign. Are we going to carry the shooting war in Afghanistan to other countries?

We already have created consternation by appearing to define terrorism in terms so broad that it includes the entire intifada and even the kids who throw stones at Israeli soldiers. Are we now saying that no form of resistance to occupation is acceptable under international norms? This is in clear contradiction to our previous support of such activities in other corners of the world.

We suffered a grievous loss Sept. 11, and we asked the world to join us in a campaign to eradicate those who would use terror against innocents. We asked for different thinking, for an end to the activities that we have determined contribute to the cause of terrorists.

But this is not a one-way street. If we expect the world to have changed Sept. 11, then so too should the world expect that we have changed as well.

Clearly redressing the crime against our fellow citizens deserves our utmost effort and attention. But this should not prevent us from making clear who the enemy is.

And it should not prevent us from attacking as well other problems of the region that are of the deepest concern to those whose support we need--issues like the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

At minimum, we must sit down with our partners, explain ourselves and hear them out. Let's frame U.S. national interests more comprehensively, taking into account all the voices of the region.

When we do that, even just taking a few tentative steps in that direction, I can assure you the positive and welcoming response will be thunderous.

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