Powell Plans to Court Arab Support on Mideast Trip

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TERRY ASHE/ABC/AP

Into the hot zone: Secretary of State Powell will visit the Middle East

Secretary of State Colin Powell heads for the Middle East on February 23. What message will he take to the troubled region?

He has two major concerns — avoiding a flare up of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the wake of Ariel Sharon's election, and rallying support for a revised U.S. position on sanctions against Iraq. His message to governments of the region will "Don’t prejudge Sharon. Judge him by his actions rather than by his past." He's going to emphasize that there's a new administration in Israel and in the U.S., and that everyone should proceed with caution and do what they can to keep the level of violence down.

He’s going to meet Sharon, Barak (who is still acting prime minister until Sharon forms a new government), Arafat and leaders from a number of Arab states with whom the U.S. has had good relations in the past. And he'll urge them all to avoid fanning the flames of violence.

And that's a very important message in light of his other objective, which is to renew Arab support for the U.S. over Iraq — because Powell is all too aware that the violence of the last six months has fanned anti-American sentiment on the streets of Arab capitals. He wants to emphasize to these states that Iraq remains a threat to them, and that the best way of countering that threat is to develop a joint response with the U.S.

But even the pro-Western Arab regimes are now mostly opposed to continued sanctions against Iraq. How does the U.S. plan to bring them back on board?

Clearly they're going to talk about changing the U.N. sanctions regime. The U.S. is recognizing that they may not be able to keep the same comprehensive sanctions that have been in place since the Gulf War. So the priority is to change the sanctions regime in such a way that strict arms controls remain in place — a strict ban on weapons sales to Iraq, and other controls that prevent Saddam acquiring components for weapons of mass destruction. But they’re going to discuss eliminating a lot of the collateral controls that are causing a lot of friction between the U.S. and its allies and friends in the region. For example, eliminating restrictions that may impede, say, a planeload of doctors flying to Baghdad on a humanitarian mission. So Washington wants to reenergize sanctions on Iraq by making them more palatable to its Arab allies.

In other words lift the general economic sanctions package that has failed to overthrow Saddam, but keep controls over what weapons he can acquire…

The U.S. wants to unmask Saddam and make it clear that he's the guy who has been causing all the suffering of Iraqis. He has more money in his pocket today than ten years ago, but he's just sitting on it and letting his people starve. Although the Europeans don't quite accept this, the Americans believe Saddam is winning the propaganda war by making the U.S. look like the bad guys. And they want to turn that around. But the other part, which is somewhat conflicting, is that they presumably need some kind of stick over his head to get weapons inspections. Right now they're leaning in the direction of maintaining some control over Saddam’s money to ensure he can't spend on weapons.

Washington's standing in the Arab world took a beating during the Palestinian uprising of the past five months. How will Powell manage to win Arab support in that light, particularly if Arab regimes are expecting an even harsher crackdown from Sharon?

Well, they're certainly approaching the Middle East on a regional basis, recognizing, for example, that an escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians could have an impact on U.S. alliances in other areas. But Powell is not going to link the two in that way. He's going to simply stress that the U.S. will have a more even-handed policy in dealing with the region, and do more to consult with all of its friends in the region to promote stability.