Building nations

When President Bush on June 24 called for new Palestinian leadership and democratic reforms as prerequisites to Palestinian statehood, he did more than signal a major shift in U.S. Middle East policy.

In the speech, rather than following the blunt model of "regime change" that America used in Afghanistan-bombings, invasion, and commando raids-Bush tacitly committed his administration and the United States to a "soft-power" model of regime change and nation-building that has proven to be the most difficult foreign-policy challenge of the post-Cold War era. A July 22 Israeli missile attack targeting a Hamas militant leader in Gaza-a strike that killed 15 people, including nine children, and threatened to ignite a fresh cycle of bloodshed-was just the latest reminder of the tremendous risks involved in the Bush initiative.

"I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror. I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty," Bush said in his Rose Garden address. "If Palestinians embrace democracy, confront corruption, and firmly reject terror, they can count on American support for the creation of a provisional state of Palestine."

Ironically, Bush entered office rejecting President Clinton's similar efforts at regime change and nation-building in the Balkans. After nationalist and ethnic conflict destabilized Southeastern Europe in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration led an international effort to halt the violence, rebuild civil societies, and, eventually, oust from power Serbia's nationalist president and indicted war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic.

Although the campaign achieved all of those goals to varying degrees, the United States and its European allies had to intervene with violence and bombing campaigns twice in the Balkans, deploy tens of thousands of peacekeepers, and devote an estimated $46 billion to $50 billion between 1995 and 2000 to pay for refugee resettlements, humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and peacekeeping. Seven years later, the United States and its allies still remain heavily engaged in rebuilding the Balkans and in policing an uneasy but growing peace in Kosovo and Bosnia.

What has changed the Bush administration's willingness to commit to similarly daunting nation-building duty in the Middle East, say a number of experts, is the growing realization that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a linchpin in the larger war against international terror. As Vice President Dick Cheney discovered on his trip to the region earlier this year, breaking the escalating cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence and retribution is key to winning Arab support for, or at least acquiescence to, an expected U.S. confrontation with Iraq sometime next year. In the long term, defusing the conflict is also essential to cooling anti-American fervor in the Islamic world.

"If the war on terror is going to be won, ultimately we will have to deal not only with the consequences of terror, but also its root causes," said former Rep. Stephen Solarz, D-N.Y., vice chairman of the International Crisis Group, an influential conflict-prevention organization based in Brussels. The group presented its ideas for Middle East peace at a July 17 press conference in Washington.

"One major contributing factor to Muslim antipathy towards the United States-on which Osama bin Laden relied heavily in gaining support in the region-was this widespread feeling in the Arab world that America is indifferent at best, and opposed at worst, to the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people," Solarz said.

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