Arabs at Annapolis

This is one of those moments when the old adage, "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade," applies.

It’s easy to find fault with the Bush Administration’s many failures. But anger at the many messes they have created won’t bring needed change. Finding a way forward is a responsibility we all share.

Let me explain.

I’ve long criticized this administration’s foreign policy, arguing that its trademarks have been that:

  • they neglect a problem when they might have taken action to solve it;
  • they let ideology trump reality when they have become engaged; and
  • they "spin" when they have failed, or try to change the subject by moving on to another front.

We are seeing all of these trademarks and their consequences playing out this week in the crises in Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Responding to so many crises at once can be a trying affair for even the most skilled of U.S. Administrations. And, given past performance, it is right to be concerned. But, at least in one of these crisis areas, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush Administration appears to be promoting a diplomatic initiative. Given seven years of neglect and/or blindness to Palestinian realities, and the lateness of the hour, chances for success may be slim. I’m not optimistic, but still want to be supportive of the effort.

I say this because the consequences of failure can only compound the devastation and trauma experienced by so many innocents.

It was the hubris of ideologues that brought on these crises. Neglect of diplomacy, a victor/vanquished mindset that placed emphasis on force over negotiations and reconciliation, and a failure to recognize the history and social realities in each of the countries in which they meddled – these have brought the region to where it is to today.

The Bush Administration’s maddening response to the chaos created by their meddling was to label it "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." But to the tens of thousands who have paid the ultimate price, and the millions whose lives and fortunes have been crushed, it was something else.

Nothing good has come from this state of affairs, and prolonging it will only make matters worse.

There is justifiable pique throughout the Middle East, and a deep frustration in the U.S. But there is too much at stake to let pride, anger, spite, or ideology rule our responses.

I have been critical of the Administration’s efforts in the lead-up to Annapolis. Given what is at stake, their performance has not equaled the seriousness of the moment. The meeting has been ill-prepared and is somewhat half-baked. Nevertheless, it is deserving of support on some level. The United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union can each find a role to play, and have decided that the responsible thing to do would be to accept the challenge. If Israeli-Palestinian peace is required for regional movement on other issues as well as in its own right, and it is; and if Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and Pakistani national reconciliation are needed, and they are – then efforts to address them must be pursued, by any and all who can play a role.

That is why I salute the Arabs who, despite their misgivings, will come to Annapolis next week. Some will come, simply to lend support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Others will be there because, after pressing the U.S. to become engaged, they feel uncomfortable disengaging themselves. They will offer aid and political backing – both needed ingredients to success. The burden will then be on the U.S. to do, after Annapolis, what it failed to do before: to press Israel to deliver meaningful concessions in the interests of peace.

This effort may not perfect, but it is the lemons we have been given, and out of which we must make the best we can.

The lives of millions cannot wait fourteen months for the outcome of an unpredictable American electoral process. I learned a long time ago that believing "it had to get worse before it got better" only ever resulted in "it getting worse."

It would be indecent to hope for failure, and shameful to stand by and let it happen.