WASHINGTON – By his own admission, Vice President Dick Cheney is an old Mideast hand, and that experience will serve him well when he dives into some of the world's most complicated diplomacy during his tour of the region next week.
Visiting with leaders whose cooperation is crucial to the success in the war on terror, Cheney would prefer that the war dominate his agenda. However, he recognizes that for many of the 12 countries he'll visit, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute comes first.
"It's clearly something that'll come up at every stop. It would have come up at virtually every stop anyway, even if it hadn't been for recent developments between the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said in a briefing to reporters about his plans to travel to England and the Middle East.
Those recent developments in the Mideast include a deterioration of relations between Israel and the Palestinians to the point that all-out war is feared, prompting President Bush to dispatch his special envoy Gen. Anthony Zinni to the region simultaneously with Cheney.
Zinni was last in Israel in December but left when fighting began to escalate. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, perhaps recognizing that one of his long-standing demands may never be met, said Friday he is dropping his insistence that fighting cease for one week before a peace plan can be negotiated.
Besides the impact that the double diplomacy is hoped to have on the Israelis and Palestinians, Zinni's presence in the region will also help Cheney deflect Arab criticism that the United States is being too complacent in the dispute.
"The two sides historically have been unable to reach agreement except with the help of outside forces, the U.S. in particular," said Adel Al-Jubeir, a Saudi government adviser.
Prior to the vice president's travel, the administration has also tried to steer speculation away from an early notion that Cheney's main purpose would be to inform allies about impending U.S. action against Iraq.
Even if Iraq promised to the United Nations to let weapons inspectors return, which they have not done, the Bush administration's demand that inspectors be given unfettered access to all potential weapons sites is not likely to be met.
Though a senior administration official said Iraq would be an important part of Cheney's discussions, Cheney insists that with the latest military offensive in Afghanistan, he has a very full plate, and it doesn't have space for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We still have significant ongoing operations, in terms of Operation Anaconda and there may be others in the months ahead. It also is important for us not to overlook the activities that are required in other parts of the region. And part of the effort here, as well, is to make certain that we don't allow a sanctuary to develop someplace else that could become a refuge, if you will, for the Al Qaeda," he said.
With that in mind, Cheney is visiting Yemen, where U.S. forces are already helping that country's government rout out terrorists. Yemen is the only country on his schedule he has not previously visited.
As defense secretary for the then-President George H. Bush, Cheney traveled to the region in 1990 to build support for the Persian Gulf War. Later, as chairman of Halliburton Co., an oil services company, he traveled extensively in the area.
Security is so tight for Cheney's visit that few details have emerged about the trip except that he will also go to Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Turkey, Oman, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. Egypt is another country where the Al Qaeda terror network had roots.
Cheney said he would spend some time with U.S. troops stationed in the region — many of whom are actively involved in ongoing military operations in Afghanistan.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.