Almost four months after President Bush began his drive to force Iraq out of Kuwait, neither Bush nor his top aides have tried significantly to tap the knowledge and advice of those experts -- both in and out of government -- who have spent their lives trying to understand the Arab world.
Many of these experts, known as Arabists, applaud Bush's firmness toward Iraqi aggression, but they warn privately that some of his rhetoric -- such as calling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "worse than Hitler" -- runs counter to the sensibilities of many Arabs who regard Saddam as a champion of Arab nationalist aspirations and could increase Saddam's popularity among the region's masses.
These Arabists are the people who have worked for years in the Middle East to acquire detailed familiarity with the language, culture, politics and sociology of the region's people. Many are diplomats manning the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, while others are scholars working at universities and think tanks.
Some of those on the outside are not strangers to the inner circles of policy-making. They include former assistant secretaries of state such as Richard W. Murphy, Alfred L. Atherton Jr. and Harold H. Saunders and such onetime Mideast specialists for the National Security Council as William B. Quandt, Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Hunter.
Although they have had calls from journalists and others seeking their views since Iraq's invasion Aug. 2, they haven't had any calls from the White House or State Department. More than 25 internationally known Mideast experts working in research organizations here or in universities around the country said in interviews that, except for informal chats with friends in the State Department, they have not been asked by the administration for any advice, information or opinions about the gulf crisis.
Nor is the situation much different inside the State Department. Even the highest-ranking people in the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs have played only minor roles in the administration's management of the gulf crisis.
As one middle-ranking diplomat with long Middle East experience put it, "To the extent that we are involved at all, it is as hewers of wood and drawers of water. We do the paper shuffling and other scut work associated with the crisis, but we have been largely cut out of the policy process."
The situation is due, in part, to the tendency of Bush and his senior advisers to confine their decision-making to their own close circle and not reach far into the bureaucracy for information and suggestions.
Bush also reportedly believes that the gulf crisis extends far beyond the Middle East and is best assessed from a global rather than a regional perspective.
Within the State Department, these attitudes are mirrored in Secretary of State James A. Baker III's reliance on a small cadre of trusted aides he imported from the outside. To the department's career diplomats, the isolation of April C. Glaspie, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, from any meaningful role is proof that Baker's people want to distance themselves from the Arabists because they are seen as an embarrassing reminder of the administration's earlier unsuccessful policy of cooperation with Saddam.
Administration officials, who defend the Bush and Baker approach, dismiss the criticism as overdrawn and rooted in bureaucratic jealousies. They note that the president has consulted with people outside the administration ranging from former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger to leaders of Congress, and they point, in particular, to the Oct. 14 occasion when Bush invited a small group to the White House to discuss the gulf.
But of those who took part in that meeting, only one, Lucius D. Battle, who served as ambassador to Egypt and assistant secretary of state for Mideast affairs in the 1960s, has had longtime experience with the region.
One official said, "The president sees this not as a traditional Middle East crisis but as the first post-Cold War crisis. It involves weapons with the capability for mass destruction and has implications for world oil supplies that go far beyond the region. It requires new thinking and new concepts, and there is a feeling that it's better to talk to people who see things in global terms rather than with regional specialists whose thinking has been much slower to catch up with this new kind of situation."
Another administration official said the administration has a problem with the kinds of proposals that many outside experts have made for engaging Saddam in negotiations for a peaceful settlement.
"Invariably," the official said, "these plans call for concessions that would leave Saddam in control of some of the fruits of his aggression. That goes counter to Bush's insistence that Iraq must withdraw completely from Kuwait and surrender all its ill-gotten gains before there can be any type of dialogue."
The State Department's career diplomats contend their effectiveness has been hurt by giving greater authority over Mideast policy-making to Dennis B. Ross, director of the policy planning staff and a charter member of Baker's inner circle, rather than to John H. Kelly, the assistant secretary for Mideast affairs.
Nonetheless, department sources say the gulf situation has enabled both Kelly and Richard N. Haass, director of Mideast affairs on the NSC staff, to emerge somewhat from the shadow of Ross, who until Aug. 2 concentrated almost solely on the Arab-Israeli peace process, leaving everything else to Kelly. But while all three have Mideast experience, none is an Arabist in the traditional sense of the term, and there is a clear feeling in the department that they have not made much use of those subordinates who are.
The most obvious example is Glaspie, who was en route to Washington on Aug. 2, and has not been sent back to Iraq. Even her liaison role with the embassy in Baghdad was halted after documents leaked by the Iraqis raised questions about whether Glaspie had led Saddam to believe the United States would countenance an invasion -- although her department colleagues and most outside Mideast experts dismiss the charge as unfair.
Glaspie and the entire Mideast bureau were hurt further by identification with the policy instituted in the early 1980s under Ronald Reagan and continued by Bush right up to the Kuwait invasion of seeking cordial relations with Saddam.
Only last week, Vincent Cannistraro, who retired in September as chief of the CIA's counterterrorism operations, said that throughout the 1980s the State Department's Mideast officials "constantly undercut" intelligence information about Iraq's terrorist activities and led the fight to remove Iraq from the department's list of countries supporting terrorism.
However, the State Department's Arabists were not alone in arguing for close ties with Iraq. The Defense Department considered it strategically necessary to bolster Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran, then regarded as the major U.S. adversary in the gulf. The Commerce and Treasury departments were eager to develop Iraq as a major market for U.S. rice exports. And, at the State Department, the argument for supporting Iraq was based on the analytical conclusion that friendship rather than confrontation offered the best hope of increasing U.S. influence over Iraq.
Nevertheless, the occasional flareups of what has come to be called the "Who lost Kuwait?" debate have centered on Glaspie and her fellow Arabists. One Middle East expert from outside the government who knows her well said:
"There probably are only two or three other people in Washington who know as much about Iraq as April. She understands the implications of comparing Saddam to Hitler. She knows the soft spots in his government. She has had more personal contact with him than anyone in the administration. There is much she could contribute in the way of advice. But she has been reduced to sitting and writing papers in the hope that maybe someday Kelly can get them upstairs."