- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 9, 2002

Vice President Richard B. Cheney yesterday sought to lower expectations about his ability to affect the deterioriating situation in the Middle East during a trip to the region that begins tomorrow.
"The trip has taken on, I suppose, a little bit of added significance because of the Middle East crisis, with respect to the peace process," Mr. Cheney said of the 10-day, 12-nation journey. "But I wouldn't overemphasize that aspect of it."
The vice president's comments came on the bloodiest day of the 18-month dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Forty-five persons, 39 Palestinians and six Israelis, were killed in attacks and reprisals.
On Thursday, President Bush dispatched retired Gen. Anthony Zinni to the Middle East with instructions to urge both sides to enact a security plan devised by CIA Director George J. Tenet. The president called it the first step toward implementing a peace proposal crafted by former Sen. George J. Mitchell, Maine Democrat.
The move signaled a reassessment of the conflict by Mr. Bush, who had advocated waiting until both sides stopped fighting before trying to broker a peace deal. Earlier, the president recalled Mr. Zinni from the region because the parties would not stop the violence.
Mr. Bush said he changed his mind after several Arab states offered peace plans, which the administration viewed as an opening to re-engage the parties. The plans were floated by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Cheney's trip comes as the administration is taking a tougher stance toward Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who recently said his goal was to rack up Palestinian casualties. Those comments prompted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to issue an unusually strong rebuke, which was endorsed Thursday by Mr. Bush himself.
"I'll be soliciting the views of our hosts, in terms of how they look at the current state of affairs and what suggestions they have," Mr. Cheney said. "We've also got the upcoming Arab summit in Beirut, March 27th and 28th. So clearly, that'll be one of the subjects I discuss."
But the vice president cautioned that he will be spending much of his time on the original purpose of the trip consulting with allies about America's ongoing war against terrorism.
"The main reason that the president wanted me to go is to talk about the continuing war on terror and our ongoing operations, not only in Afghanistan, but in other respects, as well," he said.
Mr. Cheney will visit Britain, Turkey and Israel, as well as nine Arab nations, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He has previously visited all these nations except Yemen.
"I'll be dealing with people that I've dealt with before over the years," he added. "By sending me, the president emphasizes the importance he places on these relationships."
The vice president reviewed his itinerary yesterday in a meeting with Mr. Powell, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
"It's part of a team effort," Mr. Cheney said. "As the vice president, I've got an extra set of hands, and this is an area where I can be useful."
Mr. Cheney is the highest-ranking administration official to visit the Middle East since Mr. Bush became president. A senior administration official said the region's view of the United States has been altered by the crushing of Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
The punishing response has "reassured our friends in the region that we're deadly serious," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "And if you have any doubt about the depth of our commitment, look at Afghanistan and what we did there."
America's offensive "also maybe encouraged some who might have been on the fence that it's time to sign up and work with the United States in a cooperative way," the official said.
The source said Mr. Cheney will emphasize to his hosts "the extent of which we do not anticipate a return to September 10th; that this is a continuing, long-term proposition for us; that we believe the threat to the United States is very real and we intend to do what's necessary in order to ensure that we defend and protect the United States against those kinds of attacks."

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