- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

Friendly governments in the Arab and Muslim world have learned that the United States government has only two attitudes toward them: Sometimes it's overbearing, and sometimes it's neglectful. To them, we often resemble one of those talking dolls that has an inexhaustible voice but no capacity for hearing.

Most of the time, Washington does what it pleases in the region, paying little heed to criticism from Cairo or Riyadh or Amman. But then along comes an emergency, and suddenly the Americans expect Middle Eastern governments to do our bidding. They've found that what a disillusioned friend remarked about Bill Clinton could be said of almost any American president: "He's always there when he needs you."

During good times, America doesn't worry about cultivating allies and friends in the Middle East because it doesn't particularly need them. And during periods of crisis and turmoil, we figure we can persuade, coerce or bully foreign regimes to accommodate our needs.

Often we're right, as we were after Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. But operating in this manner year in and year out carries a price: It creates enemies. Even in countries that we don't regard as hostile, many or most people harbor strong grudges. Such widespread resentment is a soil from which fanatical militants may sprout.

There is no reasoning with Osama bin Laden and his followers. But the U.S. might enjoy greater influence and respect among ordinary people in the Islamic world and more cooperation from their leaders if it considered the possibility that once in a while, they actually have a legitimate gripe.

One major issue is our decadelong economic blockade of Iraq. An ideal U.S. policy would punish or remove Saddam Hussein without inflicting suffering on his people. The international sanctions have had just the opposite effect: helping to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents without harming the dictator who rules over them.

People across the Middle East ask a question that Americans ought to ask: Why persist in an approach that has been so futile and destructive? Why not look for other approaches that could minimize the danger Saddam poses to his neighbors and us while sparing ordinary Iraqis?

Our approach to Iran has likewise failed to win friends or accomplish our goals. Ever since Islamic fundamentalists gained power in 1979, we've treated Iran as an inveterate enemy and sponsor of terrorism, and with good reason. But the comparatively moderate Mohammad Khatami has won by a landslide in Iran's last two presidential elections, and some positive U.S. response might further erode the power of hard-line clerics.

Americans who remember the Iranian hostage crisis may gag at rapprochement with the ayatollahs. But in war, you can't be fastidious about allies. During World War II, we made common cause with Josef Stalin, who was a bigger mass murderer than Adolf Hitler. Since Sept. 11, we've been cozying up to Pakistan, which has been under assorted U.S. sanctions.

The Iranian government shares our hostility toward the Taliban rulers across the border in Afghanistan, and it might even cooperate with Washington in the current crisis. Having Iran on board, says Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Chicago, "would give the United States a legitimacy in the Islamic world that it couldn't get any other way."

Right now, Muslim extremists are accusing us of planning a war on Islam. That charge would ring hollow if the clerics in Iran were calling for a jihad against Osama bin Laden and his friends. We could use Iran's help, and to get it, we have to be ready to revise our policy toward Tehran.

The third major problem for the U.S. is its close relationship with Israel, particularly at a time when there is constant fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. Arabs and Muslims would be crazy to expect the U.S. to compromise on its bedrock commitment to the security of the Jewish state. But the Bush administration's refusal to push Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat back to the bargaining table gives the impression that we're indifferent to the miserable plight of the Arabs living under occupation.

Just as we ought to be committed to security for Israel, we should be committed to self-determination for the Palestinians. And if that requires us to apply steady pressure on both parties to compromise, that's what we need to do. They can't resolve the conflict on their own, and the rest of the world can't afford for them not to resolve it. In its efforts to improve relations with Middle Eastern countries whose help we need in our new war, the U.S. shouldn't try to appease people whom we can never satisfy. But there is never a bad time to change unsuccessful policies, and this is a better time than most.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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