During Key West Talks
For the Resolution of the Karabakh Conflict

Brokering Regional Conflicts

The Washington Post
Date: April 16, 2001
Section: Editorial, p. A 16

DESPITE CONTINUING appeals from longtime U.S. allies in the Middle East, President Bush so far has refused to engage his administration fully in trying to broker an end to the worsening violence between Arabs and Israelis. Similarly, though Secretary of State Colin Powell made a stop in Macedonia last week, the White House has encouraged European governments to take the lead in managing the latest crisis in the Balkans. Meanwhile, responsibility for Northern Ireland has been shifted from the National Security Council to a back burner at the State Department. But another intractable and faraway regional conflict appears to have captured the new administration's close attention: Nagorno-Karabakh. This month Mr. Powell traveled to Key West, Fla., to host a summit between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, who have been at odds over that territory for a dozen years, and last week Mr. Bush met separately with the two leaders at the White House.

The conflict the administration has chosen to broker is as complex as it is obscure to most Americans. Nagorno-Karabakh, a province of Azerbaijan, is populated mostly by ethnic Armenians. In 1988 they rebelled and, after a bloody war, succeeded in expelling Azeri forces and carving out a corridor linking their mountainous territory to Armenia. Now, after years of stalemate that have impoverished and embittered both countries, their presidents at last are showing increased interest in striking a deal. The United States, Russia and France long have composed a group meant to mediate the conflict; the Bush administration quickly embraced that role and was energetic in conducting the latest summit.

Why the sudden hands-on approach? Perhaps because one of the president's central preoccupations, oil, is at stake. Azerbaijan has agreed to cooperate in the construction of a pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean that would give the West direct access to the region's huge supplies of oil and gas, without passing through Russia or Iran. Some big U.S. oil companies are involved. Russia is still seeking influence in Armenia and Azerbaijan, both former Soviet republics; Russian President Vladimir Putin, too, has been eager to seem supportive of Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev's peace hopes. Administration officials say the Nagorno-Karabakh talks provided a chance for the Bush and Putin governments to work together cooperatively after months of tension over spies and arms-control issues.

Even if oil were not involved, U.S. engagement in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations would be worthwhile. A settlement would help stabilize the volatile and strategic Caucasus region and open needy pro-Western countries such as Armenia and Georgia to trade and investment. The Clinton administration neglected the problem; not so surprisingly, White House officials reported that the new administration's high-level attention helped produce real progress, though a deal is not yet in hand. Such productive diplomacy by the Bush team is certainly praiseworthy; the question is whether the administration now is prepared to make the same effort elsewhere - such as in the Middle East.

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post
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