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U.S. Clout a Missing Ingredient in Mideast

Inexperienced and mistrusted in region, the administration faces a hard road, analysts say.

August 08, 2006|Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As the Bush administration seeks to negotiate a diplomatic end to the fighting in the Middle East, it finds it has a strikingly weak hand.

The war in Iraq, a halting U.S. response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and now the prolonged fighting in Lebanon and Israel have led to intense anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Alliances with longtime Arab friends are strained. And the U.S. lacks relations with two key regional players: Iran and Syria.

"The Lebanon crisis is the end of the myth that we can tell the world what to do and they'll line up to do it," said Nancy Soderberg, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. "They are going to have to do real diplomacy."

Adding to the challenge is, remarkably, inexperience. Despite 5 1/2 years in office, President Bush's foreign policy team has been involved in surprisingly few high-stakes negotiations in the region.

The draft U.N. resolution painstakingly crafted by the United States and France over the weekend was a first effort at negotiating an end to the fighting in Lebanon and Israel. But it took a long week for agreement to be reached, despite U.S. officials' constant assertion that it was just a matter of details. In that week, many Lebanese civilians died, leading many in the region to think the U.S. cares little about their lives.

The landscape looks grim for serious diplomacy.

Since U.S. forces captured Baghdad without a serious fight in spring 2003, fear of America's military might has melted away as its soldiers and Marines have been unable to control the insurgency or stem Iraq's escalating sectarian violence. The result has reduced America's aura of complete power and, with it, the ability to bend others to its will.

Successful diplomacy requires being able to broker between enemies by having the trust of both parties and enough force, moral and military, to enforce a deal. America's recent foreign forays have relied largely on force, but the military victories have been short-lived and unable to bring about the democracy that was promised.

"In the Middle East, historically people always go with the strong horse, but we don't look like the strong horse anymore," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "To Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, we look like we're short of breath."

Added Rand Corp. counter-terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman, "If they felt threatened then, they are emboldened now."

The Bush administration faces an unprecedented level of anti-American feeling in the Arab world, emotions driven in part by its image as an unquestioning supporter of Israel and by allegations of U.S. torture and abuse of Muslim detainees in places such as Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

One survey conducted eight months ago in Egypt, a U.S. ally, by the polling group Zogby International found that just more than 3% of those questioned had a "very favorable" opinion of the United States, whereas 71% had a "very unfavorable" view.

The result is a serious erosion of political goodwill and moral authority, both important components of diplomatic influence historically available to the United States.

Against this unsettling backdrop, a U.S. diplomatic offensive involving substantive negotiations to alter the map of the broader Middle East would be a first for Bush. Although few American presidents have initiated greater change to the political landscape of the Middle East than Bush has, little of it has come through consensus-building or negotiated agreement.

Political transformation in Iraq, like Afghanistan before it, followed a military invasion. The end of Syria's military occupation of Lebanon came mainly through international pressure triggered by the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister. And gradual expansions of political pluralism in countries such as Egypt came from high-profile rhetoric and a firm political nudge.

"This administration doesn't do diplomacy well," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They are like the Arabs: They say something and think it's been done."

In addressing the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the White House has not turned to a special U.S. envoy or bouts of intense diplomacy such as those employed by previous administrations to achieve breakthroughs. Instead, Bush chose to support former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral steps toward carving a Palestinian state out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, on Israeli terms.

The White House sees the struggle in the region fundamentally as one between the forces of good and evil -- freedom and terrorism. That, coupled with Bush's sense of mission to defend Israel and spread democracy to the region, leaves little room for the kind of compromise required for effective diplomacy, experts say.

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