U.S. Clout a Missing Ingredient in Mideast

Times Staff Writers

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.

“The U.S. has to begin to start thinking of gray resolutions that would end the current conflict and keep that border quiet for years,” said Paul Salem, director designate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Center.

Those who have been involved in the administration’s decision-making say there is little airing of contrary views.

Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s chief of staff, said Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dominated national security issues, and neither displayed an inclination for the tiresome work of diplomatic consensus-building.

“Powell tried on a number of occasions to rub [the president] the other way, but if you have the president leaning one way and the vice president leaning the same way, there’s not a lot you can do,” Wilkerson said.

A sense that Bush’s strong support of Israel has cost the United States its image as an honest broker between Arabs and Israelis has led some of the State Department’s most experienced Arab experts to leave the government. Others, viewed as overly sympathetic to Arab arguments, have been transferred.

“Those are the people who would be mounting limited dissent, dissent that would be in Condi’s face, telling her what the [political] costs of this kind of policy is in the Arab world,” Wilkerson said, referring to Powell’s successor, Condoleezza Rice. “Those voices aren’t there.”

Whatever foreign policy team the U.S. fields, exerting its influence won’t be easy.

At first, Iran and Syria were shaken by America’s invasion of Iraq and worried they might be next. They no longer see such a danger. Similarly, after the invasion, Islamic militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas reduced militant activities and talked of joining a political process, but now have resumed the fight.

The perception of U.S. indifference to Arab suffering has only hardened during the current conflict as the administration rejects calls for an immediate, unconditional cease-fire, insisting that any formal halt in hostilities include the outlines of a lasting political settlement.

Although Rice and others have defended the move as necessary to break the cycle of violence, it has been widely viewed in the Arab world, and elsewhere, as a cynical delaying tactic to allow Israel to degrade Hezbollah’s fighting capabilities.

The backlash has been so intense that Rice’s abrupt departure from the region last week after an Israeli airstrike killed at least 28 Lebanese civilians was caused in part because she had few other places she could go. Even three normally pro-American Arab governments -- Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon -- signaled that public emotions were running too high for Rice to come. (A State Department official said Rice had not considered a stop in Amman, the Jordanian capital.)

“The people back home and in all Arab countries are really outraged about the course of events,” said Egypt’s U.N. ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz. “It is as if the Lebanese people should die to protect Israel.”

Such troubled relations with friendly Arab countries and a lack of substantive ties with Iran, Syria or Hezbollah -- three key players in the crisis -- have left America’s diplomatic clout with Muslim nations of the Middle East diminished, analysts say.

“The U.S. isn’t trusted as a broker in that part of the world today,” said a U.N. diplomat in New York, who requested anonymity because he did not have the clearance to talk on the subject. “There were days when there were ambassadors going back and forth and they were more engaged on the Palestinian issue. But today they’ve burnt their bridges. It started with Iraq, but it’s been deepened by the lack of engagement on Palestine and now Lebanon.”

Developing a relationship with Syria is viewed as crucial if the U.S. hopes to succeed in achieving long-term peace in the region, experts say.

“Lebanon is just a pawn in this,” Soderberg said. “Syria and Iran are the main actors there, and the idea [the administration] can solve the problem without dealing directly with them is fantasy.”

Despite the difficulties facing the administration, it does have one important trump card: For all its problems in the region, the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world.

“What the U.S. has going for it,” Salem said, “is that there really is nobody else -- in making war or making peace.”

Marshall reported from Washington and Rubin from New York. Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.