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Middle East Conflict Blurs Bush's Anti-Terrorism Focus


WASHINGTON — Since the shock of Sept. 11, President Bush has pursued a sharply focused foreign policy agenda with single-minded zeal: Terrorism was civilization's mortal enemy, he said, and his historic mission was to stamp it out, beginning in Afghanistan and moving on to Iraq.

"My job isn't to try to nuance," Bush said recently. "My job is to tell people what I think. And when I think there's an axis of evil, I say it. I think moral clarity is important."

But Bush's one-track agenda appears to have been hijacked by events in the Middle East--and by Arab and European allies who want less attention to moral clarity and more to the nuances.

As a result, the president finds himself stepping grimly into the nuance-ridden landscape of the Arab-Israeli conflict. On Saturday, that meant taking the unfamiliar step of scolding Israel for ignoring his plea to withdraw its tanks from the West Bank.

The president has continued to make his larger aim clear: to keep the global war against terrorism on track. That still includes overthrowing the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Bush said Saturday.

But the Bush administration's road to Baghdad now appears to run through Jerusalem.

The uproar over Israel's military offensive in the West Bank could endanger the stability of Egypt and Jordan, key allies that the United States wants on its side for any action against Iraq.

Stopping the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians will be difficult enough. But as Vice President Dick Cheney discovered on his trip through Europe and the Middle East last month, none of the United States' major allies is yet willing to join in a public threat of war against Iraq.

If the road to Baghdad leads not only through Jerusalem but also through Riyadh and Paris and Moscow, it might be a long journey.

"Almost every Arab state and the Europeans were uncomfortable with the logic of the war on terrorism and where it was taking them," said Leslie H. Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Refocusing on the Arab-Israeli conflict "was a way to reestablish the old game. And they won."

"We had some clarity with Bush's proposition that a terrorist is a terrorist," Gelb said. "But as soon as you go back to foreign policy as usual, you're back to fighting and talking at the same time. And that's going to make it difficult to maintain the cohesion of the war on terrorism."

In a sense, Gelb said, the Bush administration has run up against the limits of U.S. power to persuade allies--let alone adversaries--to adopt American priorities for the world. "The limits were always there," he said. "But people refused to recognize them through the first triumphalist months of the war."

"The lesson is that the United States can do anything that depends on our military strength, but it's much harder to get anything done when it depends on the political strength of others," said Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.

"The coalition against terrorism never did amount to much," he said. "We did most of the fighting. There was never any indication that the same coalition could be mobilized against Saddam Hussein.

"We see the limits of superpower power not just in the Arab Middle East, but in Afghanistan and Pakistan," he added. "It's one thing to roust the Taliban. It's quite another to put together an Afghan government stable enough to survive . . . or to persuade the government of Pakistan, a government that's presumably friendly, to act against terrorists."

To Democratic foreign policy experts, the administration's struggle with the ambiguities of the Middle East was an occasion for both satisfaction and sympathy.

"What happens to this administration happens to everybody; they came up against reality," said James B. Steinberg, an aide to President Clinton. "When you run for office, it's tempting to have a clear-cut, fairly black-and-white view of the world. It makes for a more effective campaign, and it gives clarity. Then, when you come into office, it becomes complicated.

"Then 9/11 happened," Steinberg said. "It seemed it [was] a new opportunity to return to the black-and-white world. It suited the tenor of the times and the president's instincts and made it easy again; it allowed a simplified vision of national strategy."

With the president's decision to get involved in the Middle East, Steinberg said, he in effect acknowledges that the focus on the war against terrorism is too narrow a framework.

"What they recognized, which they had shown no awareness of until now, is that it's in the U.S. interest to have stability between Israel and its neighbors in a way that is independent of Israel's interests," he said. "So when we said we can't want peace more than the parties, that was wrong. We actually do want peace more than the parties, but for independent reasons."

To some of Bush's conservative allies, however, the president's shift in focus was cause for concern.

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