New Secretary, Same Old State Department

It didn’t take long to establish who is in charge at the State Department in the Bush Administration — the Arabists. At least the suspense ended quickly, along with hope that a tough new Secretary could take charge, break the diplomatic groupthink and introduce a more logical and strategic Middle East policy.

In a hearing in the House of Representatives last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked whether the Administration would fulfill its campaign promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Powell replied that Bush remains committed to move “the embassy to the capital of Israel, which is Jerusalem.”

Whoa Nelly! The United States recognized reality and is finally prepared to act on it.

But wait.

The Jerusalem Post reported that State Department officials subsequently “met for hours” to determine if Powell had altered U.S. policy. Later, the diplomats succeeded in teaching their boss his first lesson in Middle East diplomacy and a spokesman announced, “There has been no change in U.S. policy. The Secretary described the practical situation on the ground. The Secretary believes that the status of Jerusalem is an issue that needs to be resolved between the parties.” And, apparently, the Secretary cannot be trusted to speak for himself.

So much for campaign promises.

To his credit, Powell wasted no time in going over to the Middle East and getting the lay of the land first-hand. Unlike some past officials who managed to avoid Israel, he immediately met with Israel’s new leader. Unfortunately, most of his time and energy was devoted to trying to figure out a way out of the mess he created a decade ago by his failure to take out Saddam Hussein. It appears U.S. Middle East policy is going to shift away from the Arab-Israeli conflict — or at least that’s what the Administration prefers — and toward the containment of Iraq.

The focus on Iraq is ill-advised and will undoubtedly hurt Israel. Besides once again overrating the Iraqi threat to U.S. interests, Powell is repeating his Gulf War error of believing the other Arabs must be placated to win their support for action against Saddam. This means doing nothing vis-a-vis Israel that might upset them, such as moving the embassy.

Though it has received some attention, a less critical decision was the elimination of the special emissary for peace negotiations, the Dennis Ross position. Ross was a smart guy who did everything humanly possible to bring the parties together, but he never had a chance of success. First, the Palestinians had no real interest in peace. Second, he had to toe the Department line and keep the pressure on Israel. Third, he had no real power. And, finally, the Arabs didn’t trust him because he was a Jew.

There is no need for a single person to be responsible for the peace process. The State Department has a slew of folks involved in the region. To make a difference, however, the President and Secretary of State need to be directly involved. And their involvement only makes sense if they have a vision for the outcome of negotiations and are prepared to impose their will on the parties. Underlings can do some of the spadework, but the chiefs have to make the decisions. President Clinton did make a noble effort, but he was too lame a duck and the Palestinians too intransigent.

Today, Israel is in a war with the Palestinians. No one should have any illusions about that. Negotiations are the way out of conflict, but the United States will have to be involved. The Secretary’s first foray into the issue was not reassuring. The fact that he could be slapped down so quickly and easily shows who remains in charge of Middle East policymaking. That will have to change if the United States is to play a constructive role in defusing the explosive situation on the ground.