Cheney Trips Up
From the April 1, 2002 issue: The vice president's Middle East expedition didn't help the war on terror.
As a matter of fact, throughout Cheney's trip, at the same time that Arab leaders were publicly bad-mouthing the Bush administration's policies, privately they were asking Cheney for help with their agenda. At the top of their list was the rescue of Yasser Arafat. Saudi crown prince Abdullah asked Cheney to secure Arafat's release from Ramallah, where Israel has kept him under virtual house arrest, so that Arafat could attend the Arab League summit in Beirut beginning on March 27. Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah declared: "We hope that the vice president, during his visit to Palestine and Israel, would take into consideration Yasser Arafat's presence in the Beirut gathering. This would be a credit to the United States that it has done something for the brothers in Palestine."
The Arab desire to secure Arafat's safe passage to Beirut gave birth, in turn, to the idea that Cheney should meet with Arafat himself. Prior to Cheney's visit to the Middle East, there had been no plan for a meeting with Arafat. President Bush had shunned Arafat for his entire presidency, and if anything the Bush administration had been moving closer to dismissing Arafat altogether as a useful negotiating partner.
But now, as a favor to the Saudi royal family, Cheney agreed to consider a meeting with Arafat. Note, however, that the key issue was not just the meeting itself, but its location. Cheney proposed that he meet Arafat not in Palestinian territory but in Cairo, for, as the New York Times's Michael Gordon explained, "If Mr. Cheney were to meet Mr. Arafat outside of Israel next week, that would force the Israelis to lift the travel ban on the Palestinian leader and make it possible for him to attend the Arab League summit meeting in Beirut next week, which was an important Saudi request."
As it happened, before Cheney even got back to Washington, a terrorist had blown himself up on an Israeli bus, killing seven and wounding many more. But as one of the top officials traveling with Cheney told reporters, "I think the attack this morning, if anything, reaffirms the importance of getting on with the whole Tenet implementation plan." In other words, one terrorist attack wasn't going to get in the way of our doing this big favor for the Saudis.
How about two terrorist attacks? Or three? The very next day, a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up in downtown Jerusalem, killing three Israelis, including a pregnant woman, and injuring dozens more. Taking credit for the attack was the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group directly under the control of Yasser Arafat's own Fatah organization. This led to a stern phone call from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Arafat, and some strong words from the White House, too. Then on Friday, another Al Aqsa terrorist blew himself up at an Israeli military checkpoint. Despite all that, as this magazine goes to press, Cheney's meeting with Arafat in Cairo has not been definitively canceled. And either way, Arafat has been relegitimized and the war on terror compromised, because his use of terror has been rewarded by the American government.
WE UNDERSTAND perfectly well the sophisticated defense of American diplomacy last week. It's all tactical, we're told. Never mind what the vice president says, and never mind what the Arabs say. In order to win Arab acquiescence in an attack on Iraq, the Bush administration needed to quiet things down in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president needed to look like he cares about Arab sensitivities. And absent some U.S. effort to revive the peace process, we'll never get Arab leaders on board for an assault on Iraq.
It's a clever argument, but we think it's wrong. The Arabs will not be so easily bought. Nor is it possible to build up Arab goodwill with a few gestures here and there. Even now, it looks like Cheney's improvisational diplomacy has put the administration in a no-win situation. Either Cheney goes ahead with the meeting with Arafat in Cairo--in which case he will be sending a clear message that the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists under Arafat's authority is of less concern to the United States than appeasing Arab opinion. Or the meeting is canceled. The Arab summit will then become an anti-Israeli and anti-American free-for-all.
How's that for calming things down? The administration could actually be worse off than before Cheney's trip. Arafat will have gotten a new lease on life, but the conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Meanwhile, having accepted the central Arab claim--that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the issue of Iraq are inseparable, and that the former must take precedence--the administration will have to persist in the hopeless effort to bring peace to the Middle East. Either that, or it will have to reverse course and make clear to the Arab leaders that Iraq is our top priority, not the peace process.