Mideast observers impatient for Bushs policy outline

WASHINGTON — With Secretary of State Colin Powell's inaugural trip to the Middle East failing to produce major policy pronouncements, analysts are checking their calendars to see when the Bush administration may outline its Mideast policy.

Powell's trip last month was billed as a foreign affairs "listening tour," an opportunity to size up Mideast leaders and sound them out on major issues in the region. Powell indicated his preference for "smarter sanctions" against Iraq, but gave few details. In any case, as differences of opinion have emerged among the administration's top foreign policymakers, those comments have been watered down since his return.

Powell also gave few details of the Bush administration's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, although he referred to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in a talk before the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, President Bush issued a statement welcoming Ariel Sharon as Israel's new prime minister and invited him to visit March 20, the day after Sharon is scheduled to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

As far as Iran, Powell's idea on sanctions is a controversial proposal to tone down restrictions the United Nations imposed on Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War. European and Arab nations increasingly have been flouting the sanctions regime. Changes would be designed to make sanctions more enforceable, ostensibly tailoring them to hurt Saddam's regime and his military procurement campaign while sparing, as much possible, the population.

But other powers in the Bush administration, especially Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, do not share Powell's outlook on sanctions.

Several people who are now senior figures in the Bush administration signed a letter to then-President Clinton advocating the overthrow of Saddam's regime. But Powell, who was the most hesitant of President George Bush's inner circle to commit American forces to the Persian Gulf to fight Iraq a decade ago, is again considered reluctant to take steps that could lead to a military confrontation.

His visit to the region gave Powell a chance to speak his mind before the others.

"Powell is the dove, and Cheney and Rumsfeld are the hawks," said an official with a Jewish organization who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Powell basically wanted to settle the issue of Iraq policy early against his rivals in the administration."

Over the weekend, Cheney said a plan for handling Iraq is still under review, and Powell's mission in the region last week was only to "test the waters."

The key benefit to Powell's proposal is that it would focus sanctions in ways that are acceptable to the Arab countries, helping to build backing for American policy among Saddam's neighbors. Many in the Arab world see the current sanctions as targeting the Iraqi people rather than the regime, and in recent years have made a show of circumventing the sanctions.

"The secretary has made clear that the mission at this time is really to talk to people about the sanctions issues, about how to make the sanctions achieve what they were originally intended to achieve," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "And that's to keep Iraq from arming itself and threatening the people of the region."

Critics, however, say Powell's plan would strengthen Saddam's grip on power.

Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, said he believes Powell was eroding American strength in the region by trying to accommodate too many factions in the Arab world.

"The signal sent to Saddam is that this will all unravel if he just holds on," Gaffney said. "The idea that we are going to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs in the Middle East by trying to accommodate Saddam and taking steps to endure his survival is not a way to create a coalition."

A consensus on the administration's Mideast policy is expected to be forged within the next month. Powell was scheduled to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. A definitive policy announcement is expected in time for an Arab League summit in late March, sources said.

But State Department officials said policymakers are considering all options and have not set themselves a deadline.

Powell is still playing short-handed while the Bush administration settles in, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Much of the State Department is still staffed by Clinton administration holdovers, and it may take up to a year for Powell to finish assembling his team.

"The Middle East is at a very sensitive juncture," Makovsky said. "It requires that you put the full team on the playing field and develop a game plan. The signs are that this has not happened."