Cheney Trips Up
The vice president's Middle East expedition didn't help the war on terror.
NOT SINCE Secretary of State Warren Christopher returned from Europe with egg on his face in May 1993 has a high-ranking American official had such a bad week abroad as Vice President Dick Cheney just spent in the Middle East. At least that's the way it looks from the outside. Christopher, you'll remember, was sent to Europe by President Clinton to seek allied support for an American plan to help Bosnian Muslims defend themselves against Serbian killers. Christopher failed to make a forceful case to the Europeans, who told him to get lost, and he went home empty-handed and humiliated. We had hoped and expected Cheney to do somewhat better at rallying support among Arab leaders, many of whom owe their survival to the United States. It's not clear he did.
Let's start with the subject of greatest importance to President Bush, the subject that Cheney's trip was primarily intended to address--Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein. Publicly, at least, the vice president had to endure endless embarrassing lectures from his Arab hosts, from Saudi Arabia to tiny Bahrain. Whatever may have been said in private, the non-stop Arab harangue hurt Bush's effort to gain support for his Iraq policy. Headlines in European newspapers read, "Cheney's Tour Adds to Doubts Over Iraq Action." Democrats like Tom Daschle and some Republican senators like Chuck Hagel and Pat Roberts will point to Arab criticisms as the best argument against any move on Saddam. Was this really what President Bush and his advisers had in mind when they planned Cheney's visit?
Nor is it entirely clear what message Cheney delivered to his Arab friends, even in private. We had hoped Cheney would approach the Saudi royal family with the same tough choice the administration presented Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf a few months ago: You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists. You decide.
Instead, Cheney seems to have avoided putting the Arabs on the spot. He told Arab leaders both publicly and privately that the United States had made no decisions regarding Iraq. This relieved the Arab leaders of the need to make a choice, at least for now. We have no doubt that Cheney made clear America's grave concerns about Iraqi weapons programs, and he described the kind of inspections regime the United States wants in Iraq. But this was hardly news to Arab leaders. Probably the most surprising aspect of Cheney's message, to those leaders, was that the United States still didn't know what it wanted to do. As the vice president himself put it at a press conference with President Bush this past Thursday, "I went out there to consult with them, to seek their advice and counsel to be able to report back to the president on how we might best proceed to deal with that mutual problem." Funny, that's just what Warren Christopher said on his failed trip to Europe.
The Arab leaders, meanwhile, had their own game plan for the Cheney trip, and they stuck to it with impressive unity and determination. On the eve of Cheney's arrival, Arab officials outlined their strategy to the Washington Post: "They intend to press the United States hard . . . to shelve any plan for a military strike against Iraq and to concentrate instead on [the Saudi peace plan] and on easing the violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories." The goal was not to listen to American plans, but to change them, to force the United States to "re-examine" its policies in the Middle East. As one Saudi official told the Post, "The U.S. is concerned with an old issue, Iraq. They are making it a priority when it should not be. . . . Iraq can afford to be delayed. The other issue cannot." In the tiny United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan told Cheney he was against a strike on Iraq and demanded that the Bush administration "stop the grave and continued Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people." Just about every other Arab leader told Cheney much the same thing.
After a while, Cheney himself started repeating the Arab mantra. "I sense that some people want to believe that there's only one issue I'm concerned about," the vice president said in Qatar, "or that somehow I'm out here to organize a military adventure with respect to Iraq. That's not true. . . . [Iraq is] one of many issues we're concerned about." To prove the point, Cheney began shifting his focus dramatically. The last phase of his trip became consumed with one issue: addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just as Arab leaders had hoped and demanded.