Mideast balance


SECRETARY OF State James Baker says he is going to the Middle East to listen and consult, and not to present an American peace plan or impose solutions. But that is what all our secretaries of state say en route to selling U.S. peace plans.

Indeed, in his next breath, he admits he has a two-track approach for direct talks between Israel and Arab states and for dialogue Leslie H.Gelbbetween Israelis and Palestinians.

The theory here seems eminently sensible, and he and President Bush are understandably eager to use victory over Iraq to shape a peaceful future for the Mideast.

But their speed of action hints at something troubling: Bush and Baker also may be overeager to please their partners in war and are therefore embarking on a vast and delicate diplomatic enterprise before digesting how the war has altered the strategic landscape in the Mideast and how those changes affect American interests.

Though the fighting ended a mere week ago, two features of the new landscape are already clear: With Iraq cut down to size, no new Arab state stands on the horizon powerful enough to threaten its neighbors and U.S. concerns. With Soviet power sharply reduced, Washington has less cause to worry about Arabs running off to Moscow.

These features, in turn, suggest that the Bush administration should think hard about exactly what the U.S. would gain from pressuring Israel to trade land for a potentially risky peace.

To begin with, the war has leveled the Arab playing field. For the first time since the early 1960s, no single Arab or Muslim figure now looms over the region. There is no Nasser, no Anwar Sadat, no Ayatollah Khomeini, and Saddam Hussein is only a shell of his former self.

For some time to come, Washington does not have to run around gathering up Arab allies to thwart a brother Arab from acquiring too much power, power that could be used to control oil and threaten the survival of Israel.

Egypt has the manpower but lacks the money. Saudi Arabia has the money but not the manpower. Syria has no money and a middling military force. Iraq is diminished. Islamic fundamentalism emanating from Iran presents a genuine threat to stability, but it cannot be combated by alliances.

The war also clearly revealed that the Soviet Union has become a less central player. Since the end of World War II, the overriding objective of U.S. policy in the Mideast has been to limit Moscow's influence over Mideast oil and geography.

American support for Israel often got in the way of this larger goal. Arabs would turn to or threaten to turn to Moscow for arms and side with Moscow's policies to punish Washington.

The U.S. swallowed these costs because its commitment to Israel sprang from deep moral and political roots, and because Israel represented a strong military friend in an unfriendly region. But for the most part, Israel seemed more a strategic liability than a strategic asset.

Now, with the Soviet Union weakened internally and its arms discredited in combat, the U.S. can help Israel without fearing the Arabs will reach out reflexively to Moscow.

These happy strategic facts -- no dominant and unfriendly Arab state and declining Soviet influence -- should not become grounds for complacency. There is still considerable potential in the region for upheaval within Arab states.

Would U.S. pressure on Israel to empower Palestinians significantly affect those internal struggles? It might. But it is more likely that the fates of friendly Arab leaders will pivot on whether they provide their people economic hope and political dignity.

It may well be that Arabs and Israelis need peace in the Mideast far more than the U.S. The debilitating mutual hatred and cost of arms prevents both from seriously addressing their internal problems.

Israel, in particular, will have to find funds from its limited resources for settling Soviet immigrants who represent the nation's future. Israelis and Arabs also ought to worry a lot about the growth of nuclear and missile arsenals in a climate of hate.

For peace, these common interests have to sink in, and the Bush administration can help that process along. But the U.S. is blessed now with a strong strategic position and does not have to rush off to twist arms and make new commitments.


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