- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

Some call the Bush administration's foreign policy diplomacy low-key. Potent is more like it. Secretary of State Colin Powell will embark for the Middle East today, one week after the United States bombed just south of Baghdad.

Rather than trembling at diplomatic fallout from an unpopular defensive exercise, the Bush administration made clear that the Middle East is not only on its radar screen, but that the countries in the region will be held accountable for honoring their international commitments, including the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which Iraq signed in 1968. Mr. Powell will participate in ceremonies commemorating Kuwait's tenth anniversary of liberation from Iraq. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia can be assured that their interests will be defended as the United States continues to patrol the no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq.

Iraq's neighbors should not expect the Bush administration to look the other way regarding their commitments to peace either. The Syrians may expect Mr. Powell to be blunt about how the United States views their support for the militant Hezbollah guerillas in southern Lebanon. They should also expect him to address charges that Syria has been violating U.N. sanctions by pumping Iraqi oil through a pipeline across its territory. Egypt, too, will also be an important stop as it can place positive pressure on the Palestinians as they seek the next step toward peace with Israel's new leader, Ariel Sharon.

Most intriguing will be Mr. Powell's meetings on the West Bank and in Israel. The administration has been clear about its commitment to Israel. The Palestinians, for their part, did a little prep-work of their own. The U.N. Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Secretary General Kofi Annan's personal representative to the Palestinian Authority, Terje Roed-Larsen, was in town this week to plead for funds for the Palestinian Authority. In a matter of weeks, Palestinian officials might not be able to pay their own salaries, he said. At this juncture, Mr. Powell might remind the PA that anarchy is ruling in Mr. Arafat's back yard, less because of the lack of funds flowing freely from the United States and Europe, than because of the PA's choice not to move toward peace. Mr. Powell is likely to frame any support for the Palestinians in the peace process not as an incentive to their cooperation, but as a reward once they have finally proven their seriousness about final status issues.

The Middle East need not worry that it will be left unattended during President Bush's tenure. Mr. Clinton was busy sweet-talking or shunning the Palestinians, often depending on the state the first lady's Senate campaign in New York. He was bombing or negotiating with Iraq, depending on whether he was about to get impeached or not. The Bush administration has the opportunity to give consistency and accountability to U.S.-Middle East policy. This tour is just the beginning.

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