When America goes to war, its diplomats shift gears and re-adjust their priorities.
Since the attack on America a year ago, President Bush has declared war on terrorism, sent U.S. troops into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and now threatens to forcibly oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We are all familiar with the political and military activities these actions have required.
On the diplomatic front, Mr. Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, have had to change their list of priorities, the chief result of which has been devoting much more attention to South Asia, especially Pakistan and India, and quite a bit less attention lavished on the Middle East.
It's not that Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi leaders have disappeared from White House or State Department appointment schedules, it's simply been necessary to make room for new, more urgent problems and personalities.
Looking at Secretary Powell's travel schedule is but one indicator of the change. In 2001, before Sept. 11, Powell made two trips to the Middle East. Since then, Powell has made only one trip to see Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but he has traveled to India and Pakistan three different times. On one occasion, he made the quick trip over the Hindu Kush mountains for a half-day stop in Kabul, to signal personal support for Afghanistan's U.S.-backed leader, Hamid Karzai.
The newly placed emphasis on South Asia is easy to understand. Geographically, Pakistan has become America's most important ally in the war on terrorism. Politically, President Pervez Musharraf has made a strategic decision to back Mr. Bush's campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda and, in return, the Bush administration has found a way to overlook some less than democratic moves Musharraf has made to stay in power. In short, America needs Pakistan's support now and for the foreseeable future.
What has taken up most of Powell's time when he has visited the region is not the war on terrorism itself, but keeping a lid on another potentially disruptive issue, the simmering dispute between Pakistan and neighboring India, its arch-rival for regional power. Their 50-year-old quarrel over the disputed region of Kashmir has almost broken out into full scale war since Sept. 11 and has complicated U.S. strategy for the region, resulting in an almost constant stream of high-level administration visitors to Islamabad and New Delhi.
In addition to Powell's three trips, Richard Armitage, the Deputy Secretary of State has been twice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has also stopped in, and not only to check on the campaign against al Qaeda. President Bush himself has weighed in when necessary to calm the troubled waters between the two nuclear-capable adversaries, either seeing Indian and Pakistani leaders in Washington, New York or picking up the telephone to keep pressing the message: fight the enemy, not each other. For the moment at least, administration strategy has paid off.
The Middle East's place in administration foreign policy priorities has actually become more complicated since 9/11, as if it had not been complicated enough prior to that memorable date.
Having concluded Yasir Arafat is an untrustworthy peace partner, President Bush and Secretary Powell have stopped all personal contact with the Palestinian leader, essentially dealing him out of any high-level diplomatic interaction, even as the administration continues to make half-hearted attempts to get Israelis and Palestinians talking again on a serious and continual basis. This has caused Washington's moderate Arab friends in the region--- the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis--- to join with other Arab nations in withholding support for Mr. Bush's new, number one priority: getting rid of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
President Bush has begun a new round of diplomacy to persuade the international community to back his efforts to oust the regime in Baghdad. He met with his main ally, Britain's Tony Blair, at Camp David. Other world leaders are being consulted by phone, especially those who hold veto power on the U.N. Security Council. Many will see Mr. Bush at the United Nations meetings in New York, and Secretary Powell is likely to come calling in person, as diplomatic pressure builds toward a military operation against Saddam Hussein.
If the president and Secretary Powell can get some sort of U.N. stamp of approval for action against the regime in Baghdad, it will give European and moderate Arab leaders the political cover they need to back Washington, even if it is with lukewarm support.
Thus, as the nation focuses on military responses to terrorism, America's diplomats have not been put out of business as a result of Sept. 11, far from it. Even if the U.S. ends up going after Saddam alone militarily, the Bush administration will need all the international support it can muster, a fact it just now seems to be acknowledging, because, if successful, it will be the U.N. and Iraq's neighbors who have to deal most closely with whatever regime comes to power in a post-Saddam Iraq.
By Charles M. Wolfson