- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Secretary of State Colin Powell is the right man in the right place. He is a Washington insider with considerable experience in military and foreign affairs. President Bush could not have chosen a more able man for the job. It is in the tradition of secretaries of state to make visits to areas of conflict as well as meeting with allies. Allies and adversaries are anxious to find out whether the new administration has a different strategy and style than the former administration in the areas of security and foreign affairs. It is legitimate and necessary to appraise foreign leaders, friends and rivals, on the purposes of the new administration.

The question is timing. Mr. Powell planned his trip to the Middle East before the most recent strike against Saddam Hussein's violations of the "no fly zone." This was the administration's signal to Saddam that the president's campaign promises to restrain Saddam's buildup of weapons of mass destruction will be kept with appropriate responses to his violations. Whether or not the administration could have postponed the strike until after the secretary's trip is still to be answered. But it is known that the strike came after requests by American and British airmen who were increasingly subject to Saddam's missiles fired from outside the no fly zone.

It is doubtful that any responsible member of the administration thought there would not be a mighty mob reaction to the bombing in the Middle East. They knew that Iraqi and Arab propagandists would blame the United States for the plight of the Iraqi people. The Arab propagandists knew that Mr. Powell would reply that it was the fault of Saddam Hussein's regime, not the United States.

Why should the secretary go to the Middle East at this time to face anti-American demonstrations and an intensified Palestinian intifada, as reflected in stories and pictures of anti-American mobs and intifada rioters in the major American media? As America's chief diplomat, Mr. Powell is not in a position to tell Arab friends that the anti-American rage over the bombing of Iraq stems from their domestic woes. It is obvious that Saddam Hussein exploits his people and that money meant for food is used for weapons. The Arab world is in demographic, political and psychological disarray. Arab rulers are autocratic; many are incompetent, selfish and greedy. The Palestinian intifada may turn against Yasser Arafat himself. The rage against the Palestinian Authority's fat cats, who have accumulated millions of dollars from their domination of economic monopolies, may make them the targets of the intifada.

A Palestinian people's revolution against the corrupt, incompetent and autocratic regime of Mr. Arafat is within the realm of imminent possibilities. Unfortunately for the Iraqi people, the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussein discourages even the thought of revolution or taking action against him. Sixty-seven percent of the Arab population is illiterate. Fifteen percent are under 20 years of age. These are volatile group. Unemployed and politically impotent, these groups could light the fire in a turbulent Middle East.

Anti-Americanism and the ideological language of Egyptian and other Arab intellectuals represent the frustration against their autocratic leaders. This has nothing to do with the United States. The rise of neo-Nasserism and pan-Arabist and Islamic radicalism is not a sign of U.S. failures, but rather of the incompetence of Arab leaders. Saddam is only one Arab leader in this category. Some of our moderate friends are also in this category. The United States is the perfect target for European, Arab and other radical intellectuals in the East and West because of its position as the world's only superpower and despite the fact that the United States is the most benevolent great power in history. It is amazing that Arab writers speak so highly of the democratic process in the United States and, at the same time, are violently against the U.S. role in the Middle East.

Mr. Powell is not a Clintonian who believes in social welfare as foreign policy. It is not the function or responsibility of an American statesman to correct the social and political wrongdoing of foreign people and their leaders. To intervene into the domestic affairs of these people is a clearly paternalistic, colonial act. The United States is not the British Empire that made and unmade boundaries and leaders in the Middle East. The Arab leaders that Mr. Powell meets won't confess to misdeeds and weaknesses. Nor should he intervene in their domestic affairs.

Rather than going to the Middle East to face anti-American violence and demonstrations, and rather than being prodded by Arab leaders who blame the United States for Saddam's destruction of his people, it would have been wiser to either delay the air strike, or if that was not possible, to delay the secretary's trip to the Middle East. It is important that Mr. Powell meet with the Arab leaders now, but they could have been invited to Washington to get acquainted and discuss general regional problems first, then followed by the secretary's trip to the Middle East. The Bush administration is in the process of developing its Middle East policy. It is better to formulate the administration's new regional policy here where we have the bully pulpit before going to the Middle East.

Amos Perlmutter is a professor of political science and sociology at American University and editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies.

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