Courtesy Reuters

The war in the Persian Gulf unleashed powerful-and contradictory-forces in the Middle East. The fundamental premise of American policy was that defeating Saddam Hussein would discredit radicalism, strengthen moderates and enhance regional stability. On the other hand, the war, as long as it lasted, was bound to sow the seeds of future resentments and turbulence. There was a new sentiment in the Middle East that more democratic forms of government were needed; yet a new impetus was also given to Islamic forces in almost every country in the region. Will the United States be in a position, now that the war is over, to shape the trends in a period of enormous fluidity? Or will it be riding a tornado? There is pressure to redouble efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. But will the conditions for a successful effort be propitious, or not?

II

During the first gulf war-the eight-year struggle between Iraq and Iran-Iraq was driven by necessity into an alignment with the Arab moderates, America's friends. This move helped make possible Egypt's reentry into the Arab fold; it also assured Syria's isolation, preventing Syria from capitalizing on the American debacle in Lebanon. Situated between radical Syria and Iran, Iraq seemed to have a durable reason for this more constructive orientation.

When that war ended in the summer of 1988, that regional state of affairs flew apart with remarkable speed.

One crucial development was the surprising weakness of both Syria and Iran. At various times in the past, it had been Syria's President Hafez al-Assad and Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who had their pictures on weekly newsmagazine covers as the most dangerous men in the world. Over time, however, Syria had been deflated by the cumulative effect of its economic weakness, its Lebanon quagmire, its humiliation by the Soviets (who rejected Syria's bid for strategic parity with Israel) and even the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories, which punctured Assad's claims to be a major player in the Palestinian game.

Iran, after 1988, seemed preoccupied more with recovering its internal equilibrium than with helping sustain the regional one. Khomeini was dead, and the moderates so eagerly sought after by the White House in the mid-1980s finally seemed to have the upper hand. Yet their outreach to the West was stymied by their unwillingness or inability to end the hostage drama in Lebanon. The result, from Saddam's vantage point, was a defanged Iran unable to link up decisively with the outside world.

Saddam must have looked around one day and realized he was free of the regional constraints that had compelled his previous course. His aggressive military buildup, plus Iraq's emergence as a powerhouse oil producer (second only to Saudi Arabia in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), put him in a position to bid for regional dominance.

In early 1990, therefore, the Iraqi leader made a strategic shift. He abandoned a foreign policy that had made him, for a decade, a strategic partner of America's closest friends in the Arab world and thus a plausible strategic interlocutor with the United States.

There was a telling moment in early 1990 when the Iraqis seemed to have second thoughts about the return of the Arab League to Cairo, a campaign they had been leading until then on Egypt's behalf. After Egyptian prodding the Iraqis relented, but clearly they were coming to view Egypt less as a needed ally than as a traditional and likely future rival.

Saddam's posture toward the United States shifted even more dramatically. He was shocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant preeminence of the United States as the key outside power in the Middle East. His response was not a new deference toward Washington, or even a continuation of the association that the war had engendered; it was rather an outburst of anti-Americanism that was the clearest possible signal of his strategic reversal. In a major (and revealing) speech to the Arab Cooperation Council summit in Amman on February 24, 1990, Saddam portrayed the end of the Cold War as a disaster for the Arabs: Soviet Jewish immigrants were flooding Israel; the Arabs would have to do without their traditional Soviet backing; American preeminence was a strategic windfall for Israel. A new counterweight was needed to block American ambitions, he argued. Europe and Japan would emerge as major powers in five years' time, but meanwhile the only hope for the Arabs was to pull together and counterbalance America themselves (presumably under Iraqi leadership).

Saddam singled out the oil weapon as crucial leverage, hailing the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Then in May he called for a new embargo against the United States to force a change in its Middle East policy. This was of a piece with what later produced his invasion of Kuwait-his fury at the overproduction of oil by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which held prices down and denied Iraq the revenue needed to sustain its economic and military surge.

Saddam's anti-Americanism was not a passing whim. In his February 1990 speech he denounced the U.S. naval presence in the gulf, even though it was far diminished from its wartime peak (and had been there largely to protect Iraq's own lifeline to the outside world). He focused blame on the United States for changes in Soviet policy harmful to the Arabs. Later he reacted bitterly to a Voice of America editorial broadcast that listed Iraq among countries not yet democratic. He chafed at the U.S.-British police operations that blocked his illegal acquisition of nuclear triggering devices and tubing for a "supergun." His threat in early April to use chemical weapons against Israel if attacked is well known, but he is also on record as saying in May that if his missiles could hit Washington, he would try that too, "as necessary."

Sometimes paranoids can have real enemies, or real fears. But anti-Americanism is also a weapon of convenience for radicals. The evidence seems stronger that, by his own choice and for his own reasons, Saddam Hussein made himself a strategic adversary of the United States. The "American threat" was a foil, or an excuse, for regional ambitions he now saw himself in a position to fulfill.

The United States and its Arab friends were undeniably slow to react to this transformation. They clung too long to the hope that it was not as decisive as it appeared and that some convergence of interest might remain. But the United States responded brilliantly and courageously to the August 2 invasion of Kuwait. It quickly grasped the strategic reality that now required it to step in as the counterweight to Iraq's assault on the regional balance. By a historic blunder, Saddam had brought about precisely the American entry into the region that he had portrayed as his worst nightmare. And the United States saw correctly that only the crushing defeat of Saddam would minimize the strategic threat he posed.

III

The United States has now set itself the task of helping shape a new regional balance out of the debris of the second Gulf War-hoping to prevent a third. Every country in the region has felt the effects, internally and externally. New alignments are forming. It is out of this fluidity that the United States might, or might not, be able to create a new order in the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia the shock of the invasion of Kuwait brought an unaccustomed clarity and decisiveness to Saudi policy. Yet the invitation to American forces exacerbated strains within the kingdom, including pressures from Islamic clerics who charged the royal family with betraying the land of the Two Holy Mosques to the infidels. Simultaneously and contradictorily, it tempted a disaffected intelligentsia to press harder for liberal reforms. Saudi leaders pinned their hopes on an early decisive victory over Saddam Hussein to restore the kingdom's security and make possible the early withdrawal of foreign troops; they feared any outcome, diplomatic or military, that left them with the Iraqi threat intact and a continuing dependence on foreign forces. They claimed not to fear the tumultuous consequences of a war, or else they feared it less than a prolongation of the crisis. Having committed themselves, they saw no alternative to victory.

In the short run, the achievement of that victory has boosted Saudi self-confidence. Yet the crisis has also been a shock to the delicate internal balance of the Saudi system. It is in the longer run that the premise of American policy will be tested-namely, the conviction that the defeat of Saddam Hussein will sustain the courage of moderates. Before the war, Saudi leaders talked confidently of a "new thinking" in their policy that would emerge after victory. They promised a more assertive Saudi role, in partnership with Egypt, in promoting the peace process and taming the Syrians. They implied an end to the policy of paying protection money to radical forces, particularly the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). They said they were prepared for full peace and normalization of relations with Israel, if the Palestinian problem could be solved. They implied a warmer and more open relationship with the United States, though, as noted, they hoped its military presence could return to something like its previous over-the-horizon discreetness. They promised bolder internal reform, facing down the clerics with the confidence that would come from vindication in their winning gamble against the Iraqi leader.

With victory, the initial boost given to Saudi self-confidence may have these welcome and lasting effects. But it will also run up against the unresolved dilemmas of the kingdom's internal situation.

Egypt's role is more clearly strengthened by the coalition's success against Saddam. The confrontation had more solid support in Egypt than elsewhere in the Arab world, given its traditional rivalry with and popular mistrust of Iraq. Egypt gained the forgiveness of its military debt to the United States, financial assistance and the promise of firmer postwar political backing from the Saudis, and the co-opting (at least temporarily) of the Syrians. Victory vindicated its pro-American and moderate stance and thrust it forward as a regional power.

Syria has also benefited from the crisis, however, breaking out of its long isolation in the Arab world, seizing the moment to consolidate its brutal hold on Lebanon, winning a rapprochement with the United States and new subsidies from the Saudis and other gulf countries as a reward for its commitment of forces to the anti-Saddam cause. Having assured its gulf benefactors of its dedication to peaceful economic development, Syria has nonetheless applied its new windfall to forming and equipping a new armored division and shopping for new surface-to-surface missiles from China, North Korea and the Soviet Union.

The Syrian regime is still weak in many respects. Caution has long been one of Assad's hallmarks. But he may yet have his eye on filling any vacuum that might appear in Arab politics after Saddam's defeat. The hope of Saudia Arabia, the gulf countries and Egypt that they can tame Syria in the new environment may be overly optimistic.

Jordan's support for Saddam was a shock to its friends. Its standing in the United States and the Arab world may never fully recover. The deeper problem, however, is not Jordan's foreign policy but the survival of the Hashemite monarchy.

Jordan formally joined the international sanctions against Iraq, enough to inflict a devastating blow on its own economy, but the king's political-and military-support for Saddam clouded the prospects for future economic aid from his traditional benefactors. The Muslim Brotherhood, after its stunning success in the 1989 parliamentary elections, now has five representatives in the Jordanian cabinet. The king's moves looked like one Faustian bargain after another, appeasing radical forces that he feared, at the cost of mortgaging his future.

Hussein survived the war, at least. His hopes for political recovery in the region depend on whether his erstwhile partners are prepared to forgive and forget. The truth is that none of them want to see the Jordanian monarchy replaced by its more retrograde opponents. The PLO is even more discredited in the gulf by its embrace of Saddam-while the king has gained ground among Palestinians for the same policy. The ironic result is that the Saudis, Egyptians, Americans, Israelis, Syrians and Palestinians are all likely to rediscover a stake in a role for Jordan in the region and even in the peace process.

Israel, reeling from the financial burden of the flood of Soviet immigrants, was buffeted by continual American pressures on the Palestinian issue before the crisis. It was shunned by the United States through most of the crisis period before the war began, and it can count on American and international pressures to assault it again in the war's aftermath. Israel fears, indeed, that the "strategic cooperation" it has long enjoyed with the United States is about to be replaced by a new intimacy in America's relations with the Arabs for whom Americans have expended their blood and treasure.

Israel also seems ill prepared for these pressures. The only creative proposals put forward on the Palestinian issue by Likud leaders in the previous dozen years originally came from others-autonomy had been Moshe Dayan's idea in 1978; elections had been Yitzhak Rabin's plan in 1989. Without the leavening influence of such coalition partners, the Likud-dominated cabinet that replaced the National Unity Government in early 1990 will need to struggle for the conceptual wherewithal to maneuver through the political minefield ahead, let alone open up new prospects for a Palestinian solution. Some officials in the Israeli government are attempting to formulate new ideas; others are digging in behind old positions; a hard-line extremist has joined the cabinet. There is always the temptation to try to stall the Americans for a year, then count on the 1992 U.S. presidential election season to relieve the pressures, seeking to outwait an administration that is still mistrusted.

The Bush administration will still pay some price for its inartful handling of the Israeli connection-its failure to establish early on the relationship of confidence that is the precondition for American influence. The relationship has grown closer in the crucible of war, however, and Israel will be seen to have paid its dues by its restraint and solicitude for the president's coalition diplomacy. Whether this newfound mutual confidence will survive the bitterly contentious issues of the peace process remains to be seen.

Iran, like Syria, sought to exploit the crisis to break out of its isolation. It gained a windfall from Saddam's sudden renunciation of the territorial claims that were the focal point of his bloody eight-year war. The Soviets have wooed Iran with major arms deals.

Tehran essentially played a double game. It sought to do to Washington and Baghdad what some suggested sardonically that America do during the Iran-Iraq War: to try to arrange it so both sides lose. It formally aligned itself with sanctions, yet it allowed foodstuffs into Iraq and sheltered Iraq's air force. Tehran, like Moscow, offered ambiguous peace proposals during the war.

Iranian policy under Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani may someday provide the opening that President Bush signaled his hopes for in his inaugural address. Certainly Iran seems less the regional menace these days. But the administration is right to avoid obsequious overtures to a regime whose ideological thrust remains hostile and whose position is less pivotal than many think. Iran is now rid of its Iraqi rival, but at the cost of strengthening its other main enemy, the United States. Iran's peace proposals (like Moscow's) gained only momentary attention, not lasting influence.

Turkey is the new player in the modern Middle East. The closing of its Iraqi oil pipeline was vital to the sanctions effort, just as its permission for U.S. military flights from Turkish bases was a crucial contribution to the war. Turkey stands to gain from the war, if its courageous loyalty to the Western cause is reciprocated by new respect and aid from its European and Atlantic partners. The danger of disappointment and disillusionment is high. Turkey's chances of membership in either the European Community or the Western European Union remain dim; aid and trade concessions from the United States may not meet expectations either.

Thus, Turkey's emergence as a bulwark against radicalism may turn out a riskier enterprise than first appeared-thrusting Turkey into the cauldron of the politics of the Muslim world when it faces an Islamic recrudescence at home, likely humiliation by the Europeans, wooing by the Soviets and possibly inadequate American efforts to keep the bilateral and NATO links strong.

It is out of this varied crew of players that the Bush administration must attempt to organize a new regional balance. This brief review of the roster, however, is enough to suggest the precariousness of the project. An effort to thrust forward the regional states cannot suffice; their weaknesses do not offset but compound each other. The Arab contingent, certainly, cannot be counted upon to hold together forever once its immediate cause is removed; it is riven by too many rivalries, suspicions and contradictions.

No one should underestimate what a regional security system will therefore require of the United States. The absence of counterweights to Iraq in the region is precisely what precipitated the crisis and drew America so dramatically into the balance. If Saddam had not been decisively defeated, the United States would have faced the worst of all worlds-an objective need for its large-scale, long-term military presence but also a climate of Iraqi intimidation and diminished U.S. credibility that would have made this prospect exceedingly uncomfortable. That is why it was essential that Saddam be decisively defeated and discredited. In such a condition the U.S. role is stronger, but the need for a large and permanent military presence is less. Even so, Iran and Syria can be counted upon to step up political pressure against any residual American presence, using it as a weapon against U.S. allies that Washington had just sacrificed so much to defend.

For all the uncertainties, an equilibrium of sorts is likely to return to the region now that Iraq's disproportionate power has been reduced. Syria and Iran are not in a position to bid for hegemony: Syria has neither the oil wealth nor the Soviet backing it would need for military dominance; Iran lacks the political cohesion and sophisticated military power that Iraq had. Turkey's new role will be an important constraint on its radical neighbors. All this renders moot the overblown fears that a dangerous vacuum would be created by defeating the aggressor. But the United States will need to provide a concept of that equilibrium. It will not escape its own responsibility to remain politically and militarily engaged, in one form or another, as a pivotal factor in the balance.

IV

It was inevitable that the Palestinian problem would re-emerge in the wake of the gulf conflict, despite the administration's best efforts to deny the linkage between the two issues.

For Saddam Hussein, waving the Palestinian flag was an obvious diversionary tactic, to try to arouse the Arab masses and embarrass some of America's coalition partners. It was a standing temptation to would-be mediators to offer concessions, in the form of commitments to address the Palestinian problem, that would confirm him as a hero in the Arab world. Beyond the tactical, the Iraqi leader also had a strategic goal. His February 1990 speech in Amman, with its exhortations against Israel, showed that exploiting the Palestinian issue was as much a part of his long-term regional strategy as were anti-Americanism and the oil weapon.

The United States was therefore correct to resist linkage. Its objective had to be to discredit Saddam in the Arab world, not vindicate him. The administration effectively held the line against compromises based on linkage-including mischievous initiatives by the French-even after the January 9 Geneva meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz gave it the appearance of a make-or-break issue.

On the other hand, the pressures on Washington took their toll. In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on October 1, President Bush spoke vaguely but tantalizingly of "opportunities" that might arise, after Iraq's unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait, to settle other Middle Eastern conflicts including the Arab-Israeli one. After the Security Council condemned Israel in October for a violent clash on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a follow-on resolution calling for an international conference on the Middle East was resisted by the United States and watered down before it was passed (as Resolution 681) on December 20; the insecurity that the administration showed on the matter, however, may only have encouraged Saddam to persist. (The government-run Baghdad Observer hailed the resolution as an Iraqi victory.)

The upshot is that the United States entered the war committed to sequential linkage, promising to address the issue after the crisis was over. Decisive defeat has certainly eased the problem of making Saddam a hero-yet even with his removal from power, there would be residual danger that the administration will have proved the dangerous lesson that violence is the way to force movement in American policy. To correct this impression, the United States will need to make clear that its basic commitment to fairness will not be compromised, and that it is not going to take, in response to Saddam Hussein, steps it was not prepared to take anyway.

The Palestinian issue, however, will not go away. Iraq's aggression confirms the Israelis' point that the Palestinian problem is hardly the only or the biggest source of conflict in the Middle East. Yet events also confirm the issue's potency. Moderate Arab governments still fear it as a factor complicating their relations with the United States and as a weapon in the hands of radical opponents, internal and external. If some movement had been taking place in the Arab-Israeli peace process under American auspices at the time, Saddam would not have made such headway with the issue in the Arab world, among the Europeans or at the United Nations, nor would Washington have been harassed so incessantly with the proposal of an international conference.

Thus, the imperatives of the Palestinian issue assert themselves. It will be an unavoidable testing ground for the new regional relationships the administration will be trying to form in the postwar period.

V

An international conference on Palestinian and other Middle East problems was indeed prominent in many linkage proposals. U.N. Security Council Resolution 681 of December 20 makes no explicit reference to a conference but cites in its preamble an accompanying statement made by the president of the Security Council. Referring to a consensus of council members, it states that "an international conference, at an appropriate time, properly structured, should facilitate efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement and lasting peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict." While the presidential statement went on to stress the lack of unanimity as to timing, the resolution gave the concept of a conference, for the first time, Security Council imprimatur.

An international conference on the Middle East is an idea whose "appropriate time" may never come. It rests on the (correct) theory that the world community has an unusual common stake in a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. On the question of how a multilateral conference is actually likely to promote a negotiated solution, however, the theory has always been studiously vague.

For a long time, a key argument for it was that Soviet help was crucial to the diplomacy and that a conference was the price necessary to induce the Soviets to deliver Syria and their other clients. The United States was often accused of overreaching in trying to exclude the Soviet Union from the Middle East. In truth, objective circumstances limited the Soviets' diplomatic role: the parties in the region (even their own clients) trusted them even less than Washington did.

Under Gorbachev, the Soviets have seemed more conscious of their long-run stake in regional stability and in ties with the West. It is useful to keep before them a positive incentive to maintain the constructive course represented, for example, by their growing ties with Israel and their backing for the key Security Council resolutions in the gulf. This is presumably what lay behind the joint statement of January 29 between Secretary Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh, welcoming a Soviet role in "mutual efforts" for peace. But such a gesture did not dissuade the Soviets from essentially unfriendly activities during the Gulf War, such as propaganda in the Arab world at U.S. expense and dubious mediation efforts that would have saved Saddam from defeat (serving Soviet interests and not the coalition's). The United States therefore needs to make it bluntly clear that such disruptive policies are not acceptable. Unless some costs are imposed, the wrong signal is sent-especially unwise in view of the ominous trend of the Soviet internal evolution.

In any case, even with benign Kremlin motives, another flaw remains in the Soviet case that was apparent many years ago-namely that they were never in a position to deliver the Syrians and Palestinians and are in even less of a position to do so now.

The PLO, too, has long wanted a conference as a foothold for itself into the diplomacy. The United States insisted that the PLO first had to renounce terrorism, accept U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and the existence of Israel-the basic premises of the peace process-before any PLO role was conceivable. When the PLO met these terms in December 1988 the United States opened its own direct dialogue with the PLO, which proved a more important gain for the PLO than any conference. A conference, indeed, dropped far down on the PLO's list of priorities after that point.

Syria has pushed for a conference as well, partly to humor its Soviet patrons and partly to ensure that its own interests are not ignored. Today the Syrians owe less to the Soviets, and it remains to be seen whether, as in the disengagement negotiations of 1974, their interests can be addressed directly by American-sponsored diplomacy without the distortions and distractions of a conference.

A more basic argument for a conference has been the need for a "comprehensive" solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. "Separate deals" and "partial solutions" are much disparaged in the Arab world. A conference embracing all parties and all issues would seem to be the living embodiment of comprehensiveness.

This argument is based on a misunderstanding of how Arab-Israeli negotiations work. No one can doubt the need for a comprehensive outcome of the process, resolving the issues of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Jerusalem. But the procedure for negotiations need not, and indeed cannot, embrace all issues at once. It is no accident that the four successful negotiations of the 1970s that produced Israeli withdrawals from Egyptian and Syrian territory proceeded in step-by-step fashion-biting off soluble issues whose solution made follow-on steps easier, not holding up the attainable while waiting for the unattainable. This strategy is the only one that has worked.

An international conference was once held on the Middle East-in Geneva in 1973, following the October war. It is often cited as a model to follow. Indeed it should be a model, but for reasons not widely understood.

The 1973 Geneva conference resulted from Security Council Resolution 338, which ended the October war and called for Arab-Israeli negotiations under "appropriate auspices." By a private U.S.-Soviet understanding, this meant a conference presided over by the two superpowers. By the time it met in December, however, American discussions with Egypt, Syria and Israel had made clear their desire to move ahead with negotiations on disengagement-under U.S. auspices. In a sense, the conference was "precooked" because of the prior conceptual accord on the negotiations that were to follow: these key parties had the maximum incentive to close the conference down after a day and a half in order to get on with the real business, which turned out to be Henry Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy and the disengagement agreements.

Today the parties are nowhere near that degree of conceptual consensus on the subject matter of a realistic negotiation. Without it, a conference would produce nothing except a dramatic new deadlock that would set the diplomacy back. (No one should imagine that the failure of such an event would be harmless.) If ever such a degree of "precooking" could be achieved, then a conference might well help, as in 1973, to launch a real negotiation while giving others a form of participation. This is what lies behind the language-borrowed, indeed, from American policy statements-about the usefulness of a conference if "properly structured," at an "appropriate time," to "facilitate" a solution. But the United States would be foolish to agree to a conference before such conditions are fulfilled.

Thus, the most telling argument against a conference is that it is a fraud on the Palestinians. As commonly conceived, it is mainly a vehicle for various parties to promote themselves, even at the cost of any serious diplomatic progress. The PLO would seek at a conference to block Jordan or moderate Palestinians from moving on their own with Israel. Syria would want to block the PLO from moving independently. Iraq, a new aspirant, probably has it in mind to impede Syrian moves. Syria and Iraq would likely be united in blocking a major role for Egypt. The Soviets and Europeans have historically wanted a conference in order to dilute American domination of the diplomacy. Many, indeed, will see it as a means for mobilizing pressures on Washington.

The common perception that the United States objects to a conference because of Israeli objections thus misses the point. A device that will undermine prospects for a solution and that is likely-even designed-to reduce American freedom of action in the Middle East cannot be in the strategic interest of the United States. The misguided diplomatic activism of the Europeans before January 15, particularly the French, only increases the American incentive to avoid such a procedure.

The United States has occasionally hinted at a conference in order to frighten the Israelis, but the threat to commit strategic suicide is not credible. The more considered policy of the United States is, properly, to resist the idea except in the narrowly defined circumstances that would serve its own diplomatic strategy.

VI

The question then arises, what strategy ought the United States pursue if it wishes to preempt mischievous proposals by others? Three approaches have been suggested: an improvement of state-to-state relations, especially between Syria and Israel; a functional negotiation on regional arms control or water problems; and new efforts on the Palestinian problem.

Remarkably enough, both Syria and Israel have indicated in recent months that a dialogue between them is not excluded. Syria's regional weakness, its desire to elbow aside the PLO, its dependence on Saudi largesse and its interest in breaking out of its isolation give it an incentive to become a major player again through a role in the peace process. The Israelis see improved state relations as a step toward recognition and as a device to circumvent or deflect the pressures on the thorny Palestinian issue. The United States, too, recalling the collapse of its 1989 negotiation on elections in the occupied territories, may see this topic as more promising today than the Palestinian problem.

When all is said and done, however, Syrian-Israeli negotiations will not get very far unless the Israelis are willing to contemplate a second increment of territorial withdrawal on the Golan Heights. Such a move has been part of the Israeli Labor Party's program for more than 15 years, but Likud has never yet accepted it. Without some tantalizing territorial prospect along these lines, Syria can have no interest whatever in helping Israel break out of its isolation. Even with such a territorial prospect, Syria is likely to seek some parallel move on the Palestinian front, if only to avoid the charges of betrayal that it hurled at Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s. And the United States has little interest in promoting Syria as the spokesman or broker for the Palestinians; much better that the moderates (such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia) get the credit for being the catalyst for a Palestinian solution.

The dimension of state relations is important, though in a broader sense. The United States is entitled to ask more of its gulf allies, on whose behalf it has just made an extraordinary exertion. In parallel with whatever moral pressures are put on Israel, America's Arab friends must be asked to express themselves clearly on living in peace with the Jewish state; their willingness to contemplate full peace and normalization with Israel as part of a settlement should be expressed openly, not only privately. They should be willing to take new steps in the political, economic or security fields, perhaps in step with diplomatic progress. This commitment, too, should be spelled out in advance, to contribute to the climate of confidence that will encourage Israelis to face up to their hard decisions on relinquishing control over the Palestinians' political future.

A functional negotiation over arms control or water has also been suggested as a back door into the political issues, building confidence by solving some practical problems. Experience with the water problem in the last forty years, however, is far from encouraging. While informal restraints exist, the parties' rational economic interest in greater cooperation has never been able to withstand the passions of the political conflict.

The menacing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, however, dramatized in Iraq's bid for military dominance, compels attention. Even Israel, long resistant to restraints on its independence of action, now speaks approvingly of regional arms control. The Soviets and Europeans, as important suppliers, see another opening to play a role in postwar regional diplomacy. The United States, seeing the obstacles blocking a Palestinian negotiation, may see this (like state relations) as another issue more amenable to progress.

The regional arms race, however, may be one of the most complex issues of all. Israel has proposed a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, but insists on mutual inspection by the parties and rejects reliance on an international agency or intermediary. In contrast, the Arabs insist on the Nonproliferation Treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency as the vehicles for international restraints on the Israeli nuclear program without the backdoor recognition that mutual inspection would afford. The Arabs arm themselves to counterbalance the Israelis, but also the Iranians and other Arabs; the Israelis seek to counterbalance the collective force of all states in the region. In the words of The Economist: "Arms control in East-versus-West Europe was complicated enough; in the Middle East half-a-dozen arms races overlap with and reinforce each other."

The various motives for interest in arms control may thus turn out to be not convergent but contradictory. A grand conclave on these issues is likely to be a fiasco. The most promising route is probably to tighten controls on transfer of (at least) unconventional military technology by the supplier countries. European and American laws should be toughened; the multilateral Missile Technology Control Regime should be strengthened; the Soviets and Chinese must be pressed to cooperate; U.S. intelligence assets should be mobilized to monitor-and disrupt-illicit transactions. If the East-West experience is any guide, more ambitious regional negotiations may be impossible to unlink from the political sources of tension.

In short, while state relations and arms restraint should be part of the diplomatic dialogue, neither can carry the main weight. This brings us back to the Palestinian problem.

As Secretary Baker discovered on his March trip, the desirability of movement on the Palestinian problem has never automatically coincided with its feasibility. The American dilemma is that events put inescapable pressure on the United States to move, and move quickly, before it can be sure that new conditions make success possible.

There are a variety of obstacles: on the Israeli side, for example, a lack of flexibility on the modalities of elections, which is the surrogate for a basic fear of losing control of the territories; on the Arab side, the new complexity of finding a Palestinian partner, which is a surrogate for the long-standing fear of Arab moderates to take responsibility for compromise. The PLO, which had shown flexibility in its 1989 discussions with the United States, made continuation of that dialogue impossible by its refusal to dissociate itself from terrorism and then by its cheerleading for Saddam Hussein. Nor was the PLO ever America's prime candidate for this role, given its rarely broken pattern of pro-Sovietism, extremism and political ineptitude. Meanwhile, the Islamic fundamentalists-the Hamas movement-gain ground at the grass roots in the occupied territories, at the expense of both the PLO and traditional moderates.

The Egyptians and Saudis, strengthened as they are by the outcome of this crisis, need to band together as promised and step into the vacuum, not to represent the Palestinians but to help find interlocutors. As noted, Jordan should not be excluded as a key party. Intriguingly, Hamas leaders say they too would support a Jordanian role (confident of their own strength both in the territories and in Jordan).

The idea of elections in the territories is not dead either. In fact it remains the only promising concept. It is an appropriate interim step, offering risks and benefits to both sides, which if it succeeded would create the psychological basis for more fundamental decisions in the next stage. Likud has legitimized the idea of elections, for all its fear of the implications. Palestinians have been much too slow, or timid, to gamble on what remains an extraordinary opening. Whatever conditions the Israelis may try to impose, the election of an indigenous Palestinian leadership in the territories would be a transforming event-creating a new political force, whose legitimacy would break, irretrievably, the stranglehold of Israeli control. The Israeli right-wing's fears have paradoxically not translated into the political will on the Palestinian side to seize the opportunity.

VII

One of the ironies of the Middle East is that wars and cataclysms have often been the prelude to political progress. Fluidity often means opportunity. A moment of rapidly surging events is a time when one's instincts may call for caution, yet it is often the only time when one can shape the flow of those events.

But this is not a moment for illusions either. Even the decisive defeat of Iraq will not eliminate all sources of regional radicalism. Resentments will linger. America's moderate Arab friends, whatever their bravado, are bound to be profoundly shaken by the upheaval and wary of Islamic trends. Pressures for more democratic decision-making will mount, but will further shake moderate governments whose domestic enemies do not always promise either democracy or regional peace. Israelis too will be unnerved by the blows inflicted on them and reminded, if they needed reminding, that most sources of danger in the region sooner or later focus on them.

The premise of American policy is that these short-run effects will give way to a long-run effect that offers hope. The United States and its partners have been impressively successful. The moderate camp of those who stood with the United States should indeed find new courage, their sense of security enhanced. The American role in the Middle East is at its zenith; a thug who played the anti-American card was made into a sorry example. Soviet mischief was frustrated. The oil weapon against the West will probably be considerably weakened. These are conditions that may make progress possible.

Had there been a more ambiguous outcome to the conflict, the diplomatic prospects would have been more treacherous. The United States would then have had little influence over events, no matter how brilliant its ideas were. The most crucial determinant of peace prospects, in other words, is not the ingenuity of America's proposals but how decisively it won the war. This was the most important reason for scuttling the Soviet attempts to save Saddam toward the war's end.

Even with success achieved, the United States will need answers to some crucial questions before plunging ahead with a new initiative: a new solution is needed to the complex problem of Palestinian representation. There must be concrete indications of "new thinking" from both Arabs and Israelis. There must be an agreed concept for the negotiation that the United States is trying to promote-an understanding on its scope and subject matter. Otherwise the administration risks falling flat.

Simultaneously it must continue to seek a concept of regional security. Saudi-Egyptian partnership must be bolstered. But whatever role those in the region can play, they will want to know what role the United States is prepared to play. America will be the linchpin. Victory in war should reduce the need for a large-scale U.S. military presence-but America must remain a military factor. It cannot walk away, leaving in jeopardy the regional security that its servicemen and women have paid so dearly to win.

Others who have sacrificed will claim a share in the diplomacy. The United States needs to give them a sense of participation, in the spirit of the multilateralism with which President Bush so skillfully built the coalition in the first place. But the United States, having made the disproportionate exertion and sacrifice, need not put the hard-won opening for peace at risk to diplomatic schemes it knows to be valueless.

The United States will, as Sadat used to say, hold most of the cards. And it should act that way.

  • Peter W. Rodman, a former National Security Council official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, is a Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, and a Senior Editor of National Review. The views expressed here are his alone.
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