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What to expect from Clinton.

GRANTED A DEGREE of hyperbole in pre-election rhetoric, there is little doubt that President Bill Clinton's new administration will tend to view the peace process far more through the prism of perceived protection of Israel than was the case during the tenure of President Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker. The chief reason for believing this is the clear commitment to oppose the creation of an independent state of Palestine.

However, it can be expected that Clinton's pre-election definition of the Camp David accords as providing merely for a limited Palestinian right "to participate in the determination of their future" will not be as restrictive in the negotiating process as it may sound.

Important for its broad potential impact on the region is Clinton's stated view that "Israel is our most dependable ally," and it is to be expected that the new Washington administration will live up to its commitment that defence relationships will be enhanced. But there will be no free ride for the Israelis.

lt can be safely predicted that the security pledge will be the carrot proferred to urge Israel to move further down the peace path. Whether this will also be used as a stick at some later date will depend how seriously the Clinton administration takes its own electioneering criticism of the Bush/Baker policies which candidates Clinton and Gore referred to as "coercive" toward Israel.

lt will come as no surprise to anyone that the Clinton White House stands strongly against any efforts by Saddam Hussein to reassert control over all of territorial Iraq, to say nothing of exercising regional power. Equally foreseeable is that this stance will be coupled with a commitment to oppose terrorism "in all its forms" - a provocatively ambiguous term.

Ambiguity also underpins the Clinton view of Syria and Hafez al Assad. While calling for a continuation of diplomatic relations, the new administration inherits its leader's view that Syria was "coddled" by the Republicans. What this may mean in practical terms is anyone's guess. Otherwise non-reactive to the Clinton rhetoric, the Syrian president has tested the White House's position by an on-again off-again manipulation of exist visas for Syrian Jews going to Israel - a reminder to the new American leadership, if any was needed, that ambiguity is also a favoured tactic in Damascus.

More clear is the Clinton policy toward Libya. The signs are quite apparent that the United States will join Britain and France in pressing for increased sanctions at the United Nations in an effort to pressure Tripoli to submit to the demands of the UN resolutions growing out of Libya's alleged role in the Pan Am 103 and UTA 772 crashes. A bipartisan senatorial group headed by Senator Edward Kennedy took the lead on this matter early in the November transition period.

The attitude of the Clinton government towards arms sales to the Middle East mirrors that of the previous administration. While rhetorically adamant on the subject of regional arms control, the key term employed is "reduction of sale of weapons which destabilise the region." This leaves considerable room for manoeuvre while at the same time allowing for strong advocacy of control of the sale of products with the potential of being used to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. With an eye always on America's trade imbalance, Clinton, as Bush before him, clearly intends that the US should continue to get its share of overseas income from the lucrative trade in conventional weaponry.

The Clinton perspective of future US military intervention in the Middle East is couched in terms of actions for "humanitarian" reasons or equally self-defined justifications of efforts to preserve "peace and democracy" - usually, but not strictly, under a United Nations banner. If this is to be taken seriously as a policy formulation, it appears to provide the Clinton administration with a wonderful haziness that allows justification for doing anything or nothing depending on the political weather vane, domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, Clinton has made it clear that he intends to project American power abroad if and when his own vision of the "the new world order" calls for it.

Clinton's advisers have made him particularly conscious of the conspicuous growth of American dependence on imported oil from the Middle East. It is in this area, where the new president's undoubted strength in domestic economic matters combines with international political issues, that a very careful monitoring of regional events can be predicted.

Notwithstanding Clinton's call as candidate for a national energy strategy based on increased use of domestic natural gas and what is termed "reusable energy sources," President Clinton will continue, as his predecessors have done, to pay special attention to the needs and desires of the oil-producing Gulf monarchies. Here, as in other areas, Clinton's reputation as a pragmatist will allow him to overlook his professed policy of distrust of "autocracies" |his term~.

Iran poses a special problem for the new American administration just as it did for its predecessor. Tehran has shown itself to be adept at maintaining its post-revolution anti-West posturing, while at the same time pursuing behind-the-scenes deals of selective economic and political interest.

In recent months the Gulf states, along with other members of the Arab League, have heightened their warnings to Washington regarding what they consider to be Iranian ambitions and efforts to increase their power in the Gulf region as well as aid and guidance for the various forces of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide. The Bush administration had already been unsuccessful in its efforts to block the sale to Iran of military hardware and weapons from China and the new republics of the old Soviet Union. The new administration will undoubtedly continue to seek restriction of arms sales to Iran and most likely will be equally unsuccessful. The matter of Iran's role in encouraging fundamentalist groups may be vexing to the Clinton people, but there really is little they can do about it in spite of the shrill warnings emanating from Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Egypt.

Bill Clinton's first comment on the Middle East since his election was a statement in support of the UN Security Council condemnation of the Israeli action expelling 415 Palestinians. The secular PLO has increasingly been seen by the Washington establishment as a legitimate counterweight to the religious radicals of Hamas, a characterisation with which the Clinton group does not disagree. The Israeli action forced a unified reaction within the Occupied Territories and thereby undercut the ability of the PLO to support the continuation of the so-called peace process. Clinton's foreign policy team will be tested quickly in this matter and will find that the unqualified pre-election support for Israel does not really take into consideration the dynamics of the problems involved.

In all aspects of foreign policy, President Clinton will depend heavily on his first line national security team of Warren Christopher, Les Aspin, Anthony Lake and Samuel Berger for final definition of issues and option. The new American president just does not have the knowledge and experience in the foreign political arena that he has in domestic economics and politics, in

which he is a recognised talent. While Clinton's methodology of seeking a consensus in policy formulation may be the same in domestic and foreign affairs, his clear lack of experience on the foreign side requires him to defer more to his advisers.

In turn, the four principal advisers now have to face the reality of dealing with matters such as the Middle East as participants rather than from the protected vantage point of non-accountable observers. How well their own staffs and the CIA under its new director, James Woolsey, serve them will have to be left to future judgement. Regrettably, the new cabinet level UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, has no experience or even an indication of past interest in Middle East affairs. She is not expected to be a factor in this phase of policy formulation.

The rhetoric of "new world order" which puts an emphasis on US action (political and military) for humanitarian as well as strategic reasons fits well with the self-professed character of the Clinton administration. In practice, however, the top four advisers can all be counted on for their underlying moderation born of pragmatism, not unlike their boss.

The secretary of state, Warren Christopher, carries neither personal nor political baggage in respect to Middle East matters. His role in the last days of the Carter regime in the negotiations for the release of the American hostages held by Iran showed Christopher's considerable patience and intelligence in a complex and emotional affair.

Initially, his appointment was fought by elements of the American Jewish community still strongly influenced by the former Shamir government. Rabin's Labour party stalwarts quickly passed the word that they considered Christopher an experienced and careful professional, and that he could be expected to reflect what they accepted was the Clinton tilt toward Israel.

The fact is that the Clinton policy toward the Middle East will be moulded more by the evolution of regional events than by policy positions fixed by pre-election strategic papers and rhetoric. Nonetheless, there will be certain characteristics and tendencies for which one can look. The new defence secretary, Les Aspin, enters his job with the reputation he already gained while chairman of the House Armed Services Committee as supportive of the projection of American military force. (He was a major advocate on the Democrat side of the Bush plan for Operation Desert Storm).

The national security adviser, Anthony Lake, and his deputy, Samuel Berger (both former Carter State Department policy planners) will provide the conceptual thinking for strategy development, though neither previously has shown any particular aptitude for Middle East affairs. Christopher, a lawyer by profession and inclination, will be the meticulous corporate counsel aiming to keep his client from making mistakes.

They will all be working for a man who intends final major decisions to be made by himself as chief executive. This is not a team that is easily moved to or from a position. The Clinton proclivity for consensus development is not a recipe for quick unexpected action, but it does have the capacity to react pragmatically to problem-solving where America's perceived interests are concerned. These interests in practice may be significantly modified from the high tone of election position papers. Clinton's Middle East policy indeed may turn out to the far closer to Bush/Baker than any of the Clinton team would be willing to admit.
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Title Annotation:policy toward an independent Palestinian state
Author:Wittman, George
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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