Written for Newsday, April, 2001

The Line Begins to Look Less Solid

By Thomas Henriksen

FOR THE PAST several weeks, George W. Bush has witnessed the moral clarity of his post-Sept. 11 vision confounded by the deepening crisis between Israelis and Palestinians.

The president spoke with direction and conviction when he said to a joint session of Congress in September that every nation has to make a decision: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." In so doing, Bush drew a firm line in the sand.

Americans latched onto the lucid demarcation. It resonated with the mood of a nation still reeling from the trauma of the tragedies in New York City, Washington and Pennsylvania. Bush's steady aim rallied Americans to a war in Afghanistan and states around the world to a Washington-brokered coalition to oust the Taliban regime. Bush even wielded the "with-us- or-against-us" stance against faint-of-heart regimes to get them to join the coalition.

Who could publicly oppose an embattled America as it embarked on an offensive against the perpetrators of thousands of deaths? Even Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria paid lip service to the operation. Avoiding a civilizational conflict between the Islamic world and the West necessitated a coalition of Muslim states, some of whose populations shared sympathy with Osama bin Laden's goals.

But the clarity of the Bush doctrine ran into the shoals of ambiguity with Ariel Sharon's anti-terrorist offensive against Palestinians in the West Bank. Sharon argued that, like the United States, he was routing out terrorist cells. The White House, however, demanded an Israeli withdrawal before first securing an end to Palestinian suicide bombers and dispatched its secretary of state on a mission-impossible to obtain a cease-fire.

Stepping back momentarily from the Middle East crisis, we know that other states wrapped their own attacks against opponents in the Bush anti-terrorism rhetoric. As the United States sought out al-Qaida cells worldwide, Moscow claimed its war against separatists in Chechnya was similarly an operation against terrorists. Beijing argued much the same line about Muslim rebels in the western province of Xinjiang. Whether or not the rebels in these nations are terrorists is a matter of dispute; but in Israel there is no question. Targeted killing of civilians, as the suicide bombers have done, is terrorism by anyone's definition. Yet the White House did not unequivocally back Sharon; indeed Colin Powell met on his Middle East mission with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The Israeli-Palestinian fight, as no other case, calls into question the longevity of the Bush doctrine of "them and us." U.S. policymakers can screen out battles in Chechnya and western China - but not in Israel. Washington has had long-standing ties to Israel, a useful ally during the Cold War to impede Soviet advances in the Middle East. And Israel enjoys powerful domestic support from Jewish Americans, whose votes will be needed by Bush as he seeks reelection.

Likewise, the Palestinians' backers are forces that cannot be ignored. Oil-wealthy Arab kingdoms have clout with a U.S. economy that relies on a steady supply of petroleum products. Geopolitical calculations also demand careful attention be paid to Middle East regimes, whose green light will be needed before the administration attacks Iraq, the most threatening member of the president's "axis of evil" (with North Korea and Iran).

By laying down a morally laden marker so emphatically in launching the war against terrorism, Bush risked the sort of problem he now has encountered. His words have assumed a scripture-like moral imperative that ruled out the flexibility of previous presidential doctrines on how the United States will react in the world.

Past doctrines have set forth circumstances in which the United States could resort to the use of force. James Monroe, our fifth president, began the practice by warning Europeans not to seek influence in the Americas. Years later his pronouncement became enshrined as the Monroe Doctrine. During the Cold War, Presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan proclaimed doctrines to contain Soviet expansion, warning Moscow that its incursion into specific countries or regions would be resisted by the United States or proxy forces. Each president delineated clear boundaries that foreign powers, mainly the Soviet Union, could cross at their peril.

Adversaries could not twist the doctrines to suit their ends, the way the terrorism-grievance formula has been by states and death squads hi recent months. And these declarations shared an overarching geostrategic coherence that enabled them to survive the change of administrations and the passage of time. The enemy was the Soviet Union and its allies which, unlike terrorists, could be held accountable for their policies.

The containment of the Soviet Union over four decades, until it collapsed from its own inherent contradictions, underwent reverses, neglect and even a large-scale debacle in Vietnam. But the fundamental doctrine persisted until the end. Flexibility, not reflex, dictated the playing of the containment card.

In the current situation, the White House will likely attempt to sail smoothly between the Scylla of principle and the Charybdis of actual policy. Bush no doubt will be required to compromise, backtrack and selectively ignore his own "with-us-or-against-us" doctrine to advance American interests amid changing realities. But then again, this is an administration that has been defined so far by a unilateral approach to foreign affairs that might keep the policy quite rigid.

With Colin Powell's peace attempt having been ineffective, Bush needs to secure his domestic conservative political base, which rebuked the White House for its pressure on Prime Minister Sharon. He can do this by refocusing the anti-terrorism campaign on Iraq, much the way that the Cold War doctrines were aimed at the Soviet Union. This would return the president to the moral clarity of his doctrine, since Iraq is widely viewed as a clear and present danger by its encouragement of Palestinian suicide bombers and its quest for weapons of mass destruction. Bush has now ceased criticizing Sharon publicly, and my guess is that whatever pressure he chooses to exert now will come hi private.

In midweek, the president returned to his September theme when, at the Virginia Military Institute, he stated, "No nation can be neutral." Again he laid down his either-us-or-the-terrorists ultimatum.

Iraq stands as a flagrant affront to his key policy and to the historical judgment of his presidency. A democratic, or at least neutralized, Iraq would realign the configuration of the war on terror and the political landscape of the Middle East. Along with a democratizing and reconstructing Afghanistan, a reforming Iraq would galvanize change. It is not inconceivable that Iraq could be the second domino piece, after Afghanistan, to fall, leading to others in the region. Stranger things have happened since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

A post-Saddam Iraq might well usher in far-reaching changes in the region and in how the United States is viewed internationally. At a minimum, Iran would be more isolated and threatened without a predictably anti-American regime in Baghdad, Iranian reformers would have a new lease on life, and the security of the region, including Israel's, would be ultimately enhanced.

By no means have events played out in the Middle East. The war on terrorism is still relatively young. So far, the brief US opposition to Sharon posed no undue restraints on Israel's offensive. It is too early to write the epitaph of the Bush doctrine. Bush still has plenty of moral authority to combat terrorism. During the short-term ups and downs of history, it is wise to ponder Winston Churchill's assertion that "those who are possessed of a definite body of doctrine and of deeply rooted convictions based upon it will be in a much better position to deal with the shifts and surprises of daily affairs than those who are merely taking short views."

Copyright © 2002,Newsday, Inc.

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow and associate director at the Hoover Institution. He is the editor of "Foreign Policy for America in the 21st Century."