If We Were Smart

The violence and chaos, the shattered dreams, and the anger that has come to characterize much of the Middle East should, one might think, cause our leaders to pause and reassess the failure of their current policies.

In addition to the hardships and insecurity of daily life, Iraq is veering toward full civil war, the domestic and regional consequences of which could be catastrophic. Next door, Iran has been emboldened and empowered by the opportunities created by US failures and is challenging the international concern with its nuclear program. Lebanon is reeling from the aftermath of a month-long Israeli assault and a continued Israeli state of siege that is denying the country essential supplies and services. Internal fissures have been exposed and rubbed raw. Too much external pressure without addressing Lebanon’s need for internal reform may reignite civil conflict. Meanwhile, all but forgotten by much of the world, Palestinians continue to suffer from Israel’s brutal strangulation of Gaza and continuing oppression in the West Bank. Israel, too, has paid a price. Absent US restraint and constructive support, the government has made wrong decisions leaving Israel more isolated, less secure, and politically in turmoil.

Across the Arab world there is an intensified hatred of the US and a discrediting of those allied with it. Extremist currents have gained significant new ground. This is a difficult time, fraught with great danger. It is the world that bad policies built.

This mess can be fixed, but to do so will require a change in direction and hard work. This President has the capacity to make this change. He needs only the political will.

He has had the right visions: a democratic Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine; a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; a non-nuclear Iran; and a Middle East at peace, moving toward freedom and prosperity. The vision is right. It’s the way he’s chosen to go about realizing it that has created the mess we’re in.

The key is to maintain his vision, but take some important lessons from his predecessors and build on them.
It was his father’s administration that effectively used diplomacy to mobilize a broad international coalition to liberate Kuwait. In its aftermath, recognizing the profound discontent that had roiled much of the Middle East and the centrality of the Palestinian issue, the first Bush Administration used substantial diplomatic assets to pressure all parties to attend a Madrid peace conference. US pressure ultimately created significant changes in Israel, the PLO, and the Arab world. But because the goals of this pressure were not defined, Madrid gave way to endless and fruitless rounds of bilateral discussions.

The Clinton Administration used more subtle pressure, including positive reinforcement, and tended the peace process for eight years. But because they turned a blind eye to Israel’s doubling of its West Bank settlements and did not define the end goal of peace until too late in their term, momentum was lost and the process finally collapsed.

During all this time, Iraq was merely contained, with Iraqis living under a cruel sanctions regime that punished the people while strengthening the regime in Baghdad. Lebanon was, for the most part, neglected. After supporting the carefully crafted Taef Accords that brought an end to 15 years of civil conflict, the Bush and Clinton Administrations abandoned Lebanon leaving Syria in charge, Israel in occupation of the south, and Taef unimplemented.

It was not that diplomacy and pressure failed to bring results, it was that such efforts were used without a clear goal in mind and then only half-heartedly. Despite having largely abandoned true diplomacy and relied instead on unilateral and preemptive military efforts (our own and Israel’s), if the Bush Administration were serious, here’s what they could now do to get us out of the mess we’re in:

–¢ Use US diplomatic assets to convene a Madrid-type peace conference the declared goal of which would be a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. While the President’s vision of a two-state solution would be a cornerstone of this initiative, the conference should also incorporate other efforts which could kick-start peace-making. There is no need to start from scratch. Progress had been made in the 90’s, what is needed now (and was missing then) was the final push;

–¢ An Israeli-Palestinian peace can be built on the basis of the nearly completed Taba negotiations that were only aborted by the elections of Prime Minister Sharon and the abandonment of the peace process by the Bush Administration in 2001. That framework is still recognized by many Israelis and Palestinians as a desirable and workable solution to the conflict;

–¢ An Israeli-Syrian accord is also within reach (a fact which is the topic of renewed public discussion in Israel today). Israelis and Syrian negotiations had come quite close in the 90’s on a “land for peace” formula. With a renewed push, it can be done;

–¢ The Beirut Declaration of 2002 in which the Arab League agreed to full normalization with Israel in exchange for full peace (as defined by the completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) is still, for the time being, on the table. The opportunity it presents should be seized.

For Lebanon, the US and the UN must support and encourage a Lebanese national dialogue designed to fully implement the Taef Accords, ending the dispossession of the Shi’a community while ensuring the disarming of all armed groups and their absorption into the central government and army of Lebanon.
Diplomacy has a key role to play in Iraq as well. An all-party summit of Iraqi parties and factions and neighboring countries (modeled after the Arab League convened effort of 2004) should be reconvened under the auspices of the UN. The goal of such a meeting would be:

–¢ Making the needed and promised changes to the Iraqi constitution that would ensure the country’s unity and adherence to representative democracy;

–¢ Creating a regional pact that would end external meddling in the country’s internal affairs;

–¢ Establishing a security and reconstruction initiative that would help to rebuild Iraq and provide needed support from neutral countries to assist the Iraqi government in its effort to create a secure and stable environment. This would provide an opportunity for a withdrawal of US forces and their replacement by an internationally recognized security force.

Taking steps such as these would not only contribute to enhancing the prospects for peace, it would also help the US rebuild its standing in the Middle East, enabling it to better work with the international community to deal with the challenges posed by Iranian extremism. Such efforts will not be easy. Trust must be rebuilt. Diplomacy, the application of pressure, and the use of economic and other incentives is hard work requiring finesse, patience, and diligence. But if applied toward a definite and determined goal, diplomacy can make progress toward positive change.

This much the administration can do, if it is smart and decides to invest in the hard work of peace-making. Or, it can “stay the course,” clinging to its failed policy of preemption, unilateralism, and militarism.

The question is, do we want to get out of the hole we are in, or are we determined to make it deeper?