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Why Powell's mission to the Middle East failed


 Special to USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston and

Israel's Prime Minister retired Gen. Ariel Sharon has made the American President George W. Bush look weak and unprincipled. At least, Powell backed his words with good deeds and better intentions. But his trip to the Middle East and U.S. government's handling of the crises, ab initio, seemed to have been programmed to achieve little or no useful outcome. Recall especially all the funny debate about whether Powell should meet with Arafat/the Palestinian authority (it seems ridiculous but let us note they are the other party to the Middle East conflicts). The Powell visit suffered from the daily incoherence and contradictory positions from the White House and others in the Bush administration who are anything but honest and fair brokers of peace in the troubled Middle East. Welcome home, Secretary Powell.

"Actually, I think if you go back to when the violence began, you can make the case that in an attempt to shoot the moon and get nothing, more violence resulted,... as a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go, that it led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned into violence." That was Ari Fleischer, the White House Press Secretary, speaking during a press briefing in February. Many Middle East watchers believe Ari's words sum up the true feelings of the Bush Administration towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Thus, many conservatives and right wingers were surprised when, on April 7, the President dispatched his highly respected Secretary of State to the Middle East. Even Arab leaders, who had been calling for this initiative from the Bush Administration, knew the President was reluctant to get involved. America had positioned itself as a strong supporter of Israel. While some members of the Administration mouthed their role as "honest brokers," statements and actions of the Administration left no doubt as to which side America's loyalty rested.

The confused and incoherent policy of the Administration left no one in doubt that Powell's mission was programmed to fail. Morocco's King Mohammed V1, captured the thought on everybody's mind on April 8, when he asked Powell: "Should you not be going to Jerusalem instead of coming here?" Contrary to diplomatic protocol, the King had kept the Secretary of State waiting for more than two hours and afterwards welcomed him with the previous question. It was a snub.

He did not fair better with the Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah. Colin Powell went to the Middle East, not sure if he would even meet with Yasser Arafat. People wondered how the Secretary of State intended to achieve peace between two warring peoples by meeting with only one side. After hitting brick walls in the Arab world and Europe, it became imperative that the Secretary meet with Arafat. A day before the meeting with Arafat, a suicide bomber hit Israel, wounding about sixty-five people and taking six people with her to wherever dead people go. As a result, the meeting had to be postponed for twenty-four hours until the Palestinian Authority came out with a statement condemning the bombing.

That Wednesday's suicide bombing was a clear reminder that violence only breeds violence. The cycle of violence that has been going on in the Middle East is being fueled by extremists on both sides. Had the Secretary canceled his meeting with Arafat, it would have been a stunning victory for those on the Palestinian side who are determined to see that there is no peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. It would also have been a victory for Netanyahu and his followers.

Ironically, the suicide bombing defeats the Israeli contention that their military action in the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority would lead to a lasting peace for Israel. My thinking is that the destruction of lives, homes and families of the Palestinian people is a boost to those who view suicide bombing as the only way to pressure Israel. The Sharon option has only achieved destruction and widened the chasm between Arabs and Israelis.

The Saudi Arabian telethon, which raised over fifty-five million dollars for the Palestinian struggle bears out the above assertion. Reports indicate that, increasingly, Palestinians want to become martyrs. Instead of making Yasser Arafat a weak and irrelevant leader, Ariel Sharon has made him a hero to the Palestinian people and to the entire Arab world. He is now the most popular man in the Middle East. Ariel Sharon's popularity with the Israelis has hit an all-time high although he is now much more hated in Europe and the Arab world. Israel is seen as a pariah state by most countries of the world. The United States is the only country Israel can rely on for support, and yet Sharon is not concerned by the isolation. The Bush Administration's incoherence and flip flops regarding their Middle Eastern policy has been a cause for concern to many Americans.

While Vice President Dick Chenney was visiting the region, the President said that Ariel Sharon's actions in the Palestinian territory were "unhelpful." Later, the President recanted and said he understood Israel's actions and lambasted Arafat. As the pressure from Arab and European nations grew, and Colin Powell left for the region, the President called on Sharon to "withdraw without delay."

A few days later, he shortened the phrase to "withdraw." Eventually, Bush updated it to "withdraw now." President Bush sang a different tune when he spoke with reporters at the White House before his meeting with Colin Powell on Thursday, April 18, 2002. George Bush seem to be grasping for words every time he talks about the crisis. It is a clear indication that the President believes one thing and comes out to tell the American people something different.

While Powell worked the Middle East and its leaders, the Administration systematically tried to disown his mission. It became painfully obvious that Powell was on his own and the expected failures were going to be entirely his. Ari Fleischer was noncommittal and unenthusiastic in his assessment and expectations of the Powell mission. Reporters openly discussed the lack of support for the Powell mission at the Defense department and the Vice President's office. The Congress were not left out in the bid to undercut Powell. On April 10, Senators Jon Kyle and Joseph Leiberman invited the former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to address the Senators. Netanyahu who campaigns and speaks to the far right of the already militant Sharon called President Bush's integrity, policy on terrorism and sincerity to question. Shall I simply say, and the Senators listened!

He compared the suicide bombings in Israel, and the Israeli reaction to those bombings, to the attack on America by nineteen mad men and killers on September 11 2001. He likened Sharon's actions to the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Senators actions were not only shameful, they were hypocritical, opportunistic and cowardly. None of them had the guts to tell Netanyahu that America was not occupying Afghanistan when the terrorists attacked America.

This performance of shame was continued on April 15, when a pro-Israeli rally was held at the Washington Mall. This rally was addressed by both Conservative and Liberal politicians including Senators. Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, attended and addressed the rally and was booed when he called attention to the suffering of innocent Palestinians that they were human beings, too.

Powell is back from his mission in the Middle East without any agreement for a ceasefire, without any consequential Israeli armed forces' withdrawal from the coccupied Palestinian territories and without any definable road to peace. Despite the military demoitions and killings in the Palestinian refugee camps and cities, Israelis do not seem any safer now than they were a month ago. Palestinians are no closer to having a state of their own than they were a year ago. Calls on the Israelis to withdraw from the occupied territories, by President Bush, UN Secretary-general, Kofi Annan, European and Arab leaders were pooh-poohed by Sharon and his group in Israel and in the U.S. Sharon has made the American President Bush look weak and unprincipled inspite of the fact that the United States gives Israel about three billion dollars in aid every year. Many in the Arab world and even some Americans are wondering if the American Mideast policy is set by the Israeli government.

Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat has refused to declare a ceasefire while his headquarters in Ramallah is under siege. The standoff in the Church of the Nativity is still on. Let's face it, Arafat has no ceasefire to declare; he has no armed forces, his feeble security apparatus has been decimated by the Israeli Defense Force, the most powerful army in the middle east region. Though his popularity amongst his people and Arabs is at an all-time high, Arafat has no real authority, and maybe credibility, with the Hamas, Hezbollah and the Al Aqsa martyrs brigade. This is a time for men of courage and principle to come forward. Politicians who say one thing in public and another in private are part of the problem.

The President of the United States should have a clear and coherent policy on this crisis. "You are either with us or with the terrorists," though a good applause line, is a very simplistic view of the world. As a paradigm, it is useless in international relations and diplomacy. Extremists on both sides should be isolated.

At least, Powell backed his words with good deeds and better intentions. But his trip to the Middle East and U.S. government's handling of the crises, ab initio, seemed to have been programmed to achieve little or no useful outcome. Recall especially all the funny debate about whether Powell should meet with Arafat/the Palestinian authority (it seems ridiculous but let us note they are the other party to the Middle East conflicts). The Powell visit suffered from the daily incoherence and contradictory positions from the White House and others in the Bush administration who are anything but honest and fair brokers of peace in the troubled Middle East. Welcome home, Secretary Powell.

Elendu is a contributing editor of and He writes every Friday, exclusively for This commentary will appear in the print edition of USAfrica The Newspaper. Archiving of this essay on another web site is not authorized; only web links are allowed.

In a special report a few hours after the history-making Saturday, December 16, 2000, nomination as U.S. Secretary of State by then president-elect George W. Bush, Founder and Publisher Chido Nwangwu placed Powell within the trajectory of history and into his unfolding clout and relevance in an essay titled 'Why Colin Powell brings gravitas, credibility and star power to Bush presidency.'

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