« Previous  
 Next »

Has American leadership failed in the Middle East?

04/05/02 12:00AM By Olin Robison

For the first 3 or 4 months after the tragic events of last September there was broad international admiration for the way the Bush Administration handled the aftermath. They were given high marks in other world capitals for a remarkably sure-footed and deliberate decision-making process the net effect of which was good leadership.

Now, almost seven months later, most of that sense of approval has vanished-this time because of a broad perception of a failure to lead.

The Bush Administration's refusal to intervene in any consequential way to stabilize and de-escalate the appalling violence in Israel or, if you prefer, in Israel and Palestine has left government leaders and opinion makers in Europe and elsewhere in a state of dismay.

The conventional wisdom internationally is that the United States is the only country with the capacity to calm that deeply troubled situation. And so it follows that failure to do so can only be laid at the door of the White House.

I have been in Europe this last week and indeed am still there. European reaction to the events in the Middle East in general and in Israel specifically is, to the say least, different from what one hears and reads in the States.

The European press generally tends to judge Israeli actions towards its Palestinian minority more harshly than do their American counterparts. Political leaders say little publicly but more often than not reflect the same opinions privately that one reads in the press.

Here in Europe, I have neither read nor heard, publicly or privately, any support for Ariel Sharon's policies. That doesn't, by the way, mean that there is much admiration for Arafat who is mostly seen as a man whose time has passed. But it is the broadly held assumption that Sharon could do what he is doing only with the implicit support of George W. Bush, and that Bush's failure to condemn Sharon's policies is tantamount to his endorsing them.

When Bush was running for the presidency he was sharply critical of Bill Clinton's personal involvement in efforts to craft an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Upon entering office, Bush announced that his approach would be somewhat more removed.

He has of course been helped in that stance by a steady drumbeat from the right-wing of the Republican Party for him to hang tough, not to be drawn into the conflict, to give Sharon the running room to beat the Palestinians into submission.

Sharon, seizing the moment, has pronounced the long drawn out, complex, historically difficult relationship with the Palestinians to be his war on terror which he will pursue with the full might of Israel's considerable military.

And so while Bush has held back the situation in Israel has become progressively more grim. Nobody wins. Everybody loses. The President's inaction has now turned into the mirror image of a few months back. His inaction today is seen as a failure to lead when only his leadership can make a constructive difference.

Late this week we have heard that the President has reluctantly decided to try to do something, to become more involved, perhaps more directive but the delay and indecision will certainly have made peacemaking even more difficult than it already was.

This is Olin Robison.

--Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. Audio versions of Olin's commentaries are online at Salzburg Seminar.
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter