As George W. Bush takes the reins of government this week, he is faced with an international environment that is less threatening than the one his father found when he entered the White House twelve years ago.
In January 1989, when the Soviet Union still dominated Eastern Europe, it maintained large military forces in East Germany and had nuclear missiles targeted at U.S. cities. North Korea continued to threaten war against South Korea, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein demanded that neighboring Kuwait settle a border dispute or face the consequences.
Today Russia's status is but a shadow of that held by USSR as a superpower. China has decided to engage in the global economy instead of launching risky adventures that might trigger a U.S. response. North Korea is holding negotiations with South Korea to reduce tensions on their border. And Iraq's ability to threaten its neighbors is now greatly reduced.
Still, the world of 2001 has danger spots, including Kosovo in the Balkans where armed Kosovar militias challenge U.S. and NATO forces patrolling the border with Serbia in the Presevo Valley. Another flash point is Kashmir where Pakistani guerrillas and Indian troops clash regularly, although their governments so far have resisted pressures to engage in open warfare.
But the most dangerous, potentially explosive, situation facing President Bush lies in the Middle East, specifically the Near East countries bordering the Mediterranean. This area includes Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, and also Jordan which borders on the Red Sea. The danger is an escalation of current Israeli-Palestinian violence into a large Middle East war.
The Persian Gulf countries form another sector of the Middle East and, because they control a major share of the world's oil production, are a crucial dimension in the outcome of the Palestinian struggle to establish a homeland that would include the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem as its capital. Americans who doubt a connection between oil and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should recall the long gas lines and increased oil prices that they paid during the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, after Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States reacted forcefully to President Nixon's decision to airlift military help to Israel during the October War with Egypt.
What makes the coming months dangerous is the upcoming election for prime minister in Israel, on February 6. Bill Clinton had hoped to announce before leaving office that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLA leader Yasser Arafat had tentatively agreed on the outlines of a final arrangement to end 50 years of tension and bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians. Clinton recently suggested a peace plan for the division of Jerusalem and hoped it would gain the acquiescence of Barak and Arafat. If accepted by both sides, Clinton believed this would help Barak achieve reelection in Israel and then lead to a peace agreement this year.
Instead, Israel is more likely to see the election of Ariel Sharon, the hard-line leader of the Likud Bloc who recently called the Oslo peace process "at an end." If Sharon becomes prime minister, he will likely cancel further negotiations with Arafat and, if the intifada violence persists, use military force to crush Palestinian resistance in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel. Sharon will also call on President Bush to support Israel with arms shipments and intelligence resources. He might threaten war with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan if they send support to the Palestinians. Major warfare could then erupt.
A somewhat similar situation arose in 1982 when the Israeli army invaded Lebanon in pursuit of Palestinian fighters who had precipitated violence along Israel's northern border. Unknown to Washington and apparently to Israel's cabinet, Israeli forces moved all the way to Beirut and engaged in a fierce and costly street battle with the Palestinians.
The Israeli leader who planned this invasion without informing Washington was Ariel Sharon, defense minister at that time.
Reluctantly, President Reagan was persuaded to send U.S. Marines to Beirut to help separate the Palestinian and Israeli forces while negotiations took place to arrange their withdrawal from Lebanon.
Meanwhile, a massacre of hundreds of PLO dependents took place in refugee camps near Beirut, with the complicity of Israeli troops, and Sharon was later cited by his own government for failure to prevent it.
The climax came in late October 1983 when 241 Marines were killed in their barracks by a car bomb carried by Muslim extremists who claimed that Washington was aiding Israel's occupation of Lebanon. The American public and Congress were outraged and demanded a U.S. withdrawal from this Lebanese quagmire.
The Marines were soon withdrawn, in a humiliating way and over the protests of Israel, which thought it had assurances that these troops would remain in Lebanon.
This episode was reminiscent of the U.S. ouster from Vietnam only nine years earlier and underlined a painful lesson: It is much easier to send troops into a dangerous situation than it is to get them out.
Sharon is also the person most responsible for triggering the current fighting in the West Bank and Gaza. Last September he dramatically led a group of security forces to the Muslim holy place, Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in defiance of Barak's efforts to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Authority (PLA). Palestinian outrage was great and resulted in the current intifada violence.
If Sharon becomes prime minister next month, President Bush will face a dangerous challenge in the Middle East. Fortunately, his National Security Council--Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice--is an experienced team in dealing with international crises. Powell, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, is known for caution in using U.S. troops abroad. Cheney and Rumsfeld are experienced in dealing with national security issues, and Rice was a key member of former president Bush's NSC staff.
George W. Bush will be cautious about agreeing to send U.S. troops to the Near East to keep peace, unless there is willingness by both Israel and the PLA to accept a settlement that includes a division of Jerusalem, assignment of the West Bank and Gaza to a Palestinian state, and provision for a limited number refugees to return to their homes in Israel. If the United States is seen as supporting Israel instead of being the honest broker in this situation, there is little doubt that Arab governments will display their displeasure with Washington.
This is not the preferred way for any new administration to get started.
But the world does not stand still while America sorts out its transition of power to a new president. How President Bush handles this looming Middle East crisis will tell us a great deal about the kind of foreign policy posture that he will establish for the next four years.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST