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The Middle East: a dose of imagination.

THE AMERICAN intervention in Somalia looks odd at first sight. The cynical gloss to be put on it is that President Bush wanted to make a final grand gesture for the history books before he left office. If taking the initiative in Somalia seemed such a wonderful idea, why had he not set his mind to it before? Nor, by the admission of their own officers, are gung-ho marines the best people to be charged with a purely humanitarian mission. And there is something unmistakeably phoney about a midnight seashore landing of the advance contingent under the full glare of the US television camera crews.

Cynicism, however, is an inapposite response. Somalia is a catastrophe and the American intervention, whatever its ultimate outcome, contrasts refreshingly with the dilatory mistreatment with which the rest of the world has so far treated the problem. There are countries around the world -- and Somalia is the preeminent example -- which have collapsed into political (quite apart from financial) bankruptcy. Placing them in a form of international receivership seems the kind of charitable action that surmounts qualms about infringements of sovereignty.

It has become increasingly clear that foreign intervention, diplomatically or militarily, in other peoples' difficulties can only be undertaken with American leadership if it has to have any effect. Washington orchestrated the effort to bring Arabs and Israelis to the peace table, the coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and the peacekeeping mission in Somalia. Where it has taken a back seat, as in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the dithering performance of its Western allies has been lamentable.

Enter Bill Clinton. Last month, the president-elect told the Washington press corps that the United States was the only nation that could realistically offer leadership in the causes of democracy, market economies and humanitarian relief. He left no doubt that he prefers what he called "disciplined, aggressive" diplomacy.

"Let's make one thing clear," he announced. "It is a wonderful thing that the Cold War is over . . . But let's also admit that the end of the bipolar war has made it possible to peel a layer off human aggression and made it possible in some parts of the world for people to be starved, brutalised and killed with much greater abandon than would have been the case when either the United States or the Soviet Union could tell any nation in the world to shape up."

The shaping-up, Clinton is saying, now lies indisputably in the hands of the Americans. This enthusiasm may be good for the Muslim world in cases such as Somalia and Bosnia (where the president-to-be has promised a more forceful response). But if it is followed through, how will it affect the Middle East?

Everything depends on how the United States' new interventionism is devised. The greatest failing of the Bush administration was its inability to adjust to the post-Cold War era. The president simply seemed to lack the vision to provide leadership in the world.

The liberation of Kuwait was an example of what American leadership can provide. Its aftermath, with Saddam Hussein still in power, the Arab Gulf states more than ever reliant on American cover for their security needs and Iran implacably suspicious, is evidence of George Bush's imaginative limitations.

Bill Clinton promises a fresh start. Inheriting a Gulf which seems to depend on American military force to keep it calm, he must formulate a coherent policy which will show how the United States intends to deal with Iraq and Iran. Over the past year, Washington has fruitlessly threatened the former and frustratingly ignored the latter. Clinton has yet to indicate that he has any better policies in mind.

Even more critically, President-elect Clinton will have to give a kick-start to the Arab-Israeli peace talks. Especially since James Baker, who oversaw the negotiating process, quit the State Department during the presidential election, they have languished into futility.

In Israel, Yitzhak Rabin took power last year with his own promises of a new vision for Israel's place in the Middle East. With little American pressure on him to make compromises, he has now lapsed back into complacent intransigence. The Arab parties to the talks, especially the Palestinians, are discouraged by Israel's refusal to understand even the simple need to send a signal that Israel actually wants a settlement and is prepared to take risks on its own behalf to reach one.

So far, Clinton's pronouncements on the Arab-Israeli issue have not given grounds for optimism. He has accused the Bush administration of pursuing a "pro-Arab" policy and laid particular stress on the importance of ensuring Israel's survival.

Perhaps such indications of a return to obligatory support for Israel's position can be put down to the pressures of campaigning and unfamiliarity with the Middle East. Perhaps, too, when he has to face the realities on the ground the new president will be able to apply some fresh imagination to resolving the impasse.
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Title Annotation:the Clinton administration's policy on the Middle East
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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