Saturday, August 19, 2006


By William Fisher

If, as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice famously declared, Israel’s response to Hezbullah’s rocket attacks marked “the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” the US is likely to be in labor for a long time.

Who won this 34-day war is still an open question. Both sides are claiming victory, though President Bush seems a lot more certain than the Israelis, whose fractious Knesset is already publicly questioning the quality of the Israel Defense Force strategy and leadership. But it is clear that this campaign put a large dent in the notion of Israeli invincibility.

And, at least as of now, made Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah a hero in much of Lebanon and most of the rest of the Muslim world. While diplomats were talking about donor conferences to mobilize international resources for reconstruction, Hezbullah was already handing out large amounts of cash to help the dispossessed relocate and start to rebuild.

The effectiveness of the United Nations cease-fire resolution – a measure the US actively delayed for weeks – remains to be seen. President Bush and Secretary Rice claimed vowed to block it until the UN agreed to address the “root cause” of the conflict. Hezbullah was identified as that root cause. But almost everyone agrees that Hezbullah is but one dangerous symptom. Ask Nasrallah about the root cause and he will tell you loud and clear that it is the very existence of the State of Israel.

Once Secretary Rice finally got around to working with France to develop a cease-fire resolution, objections from the Arab world and others obliged the UN Security Council to water it down virtually to the vanishing point. It is virtually identical to the Security Council’s previous resolution on this issue, except that the multinational force will be larger. If it ever materializes.

The most serious lapse was France’s insistence that it would not deploy troops for a “hot war.” While claiming it would “lead,” France has thus far agreed to provide only one engineering company, or about 200 soldiers. Moreover, the troops that join the multinational force in southern Lebanon will not be mandated to disarm Hezbullah. Nor will the Lebanese Government – of which Hezbullah is a member – whose army clearly lacks both the political will and the strength to do the disarming. Hezbullah is to disarm itself. Right!

Meanwhile, America’s delay in seeking a cease-fire and its seemingly unquestioning support of Israel’s arguably disproportionate response to Hezbullah attacks and hostage-taking was further alienating leaders in much of the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

And, while Lebanon and northern Israel were being battered, Israel’s “other issue” – the so-called roadmap to a two-state solution – wasn’t going away. The only thing that went away was media attention. Now Israel’s post-mortem investigation of the Lebanon campaign will make it even more difficult for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to make any progress on this key issue – on which the Bush Administration has been largely A.W.O.L. for six years. Now, that absence may not be critical; as a result of the Lebanon adventure, the US has lost its credibility as an “honest broker” of a comprehensive Middle East peace process.

The bottom line is that both the US and Israel have been significantly weakened by the Lebanon war. If there are any State actors who are perceived to have been strengthened by this adventure, they are Iran and Syria, Hezbullah’s patrons and facilitators. This may or may not be the reality, but it is the widely held diplomatic and public perception – so the reality may be irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Iran sits on its long border with Iraq, apparently able and willing to do whatever it takes to turn sectarian violence into a full-blown civil war. And Syria provides an ideal location for the trans-shipment of more deadly rockets to Hezbullah.

The timing could not be worse, because in a few weeks, the Security Council will again turn to the issue of trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear program. The US and the EU3 will press for robust sanctions; but it is doubtful the Russians and the Chinese will agree. The result may be no resolution, or another slap-on-the-wrist resolution that changes nothing. Yet, the US has had sanctions against Iran for some years and the oil-rich theocracy appears to have little trouble finding suitors.

If multilateral diplomacy via the UN fails to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, what’s left? It is now generally accepted that a US military option is a non-starter, though some of Mr. Bush’s neocon advisors refuse to recognize this inconvenient reality. The American experience in Iraq – not to mention the Israeli assault on Lebanon -- shows once again that neither air power alone nor even more conventional “shock and awe” tactics can defeat a well-trained, well-equipped guerilla insurgency. Even if we knew where Iran’s nuclear facilities were located.

Moreover, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the American military substantially over-stretched and it is doubtful that even the Karl Rove super-spin machine could get the American people to muster any appetite for yet another uncertain and expensive military adventure.

Thus, the one avenue still open to President Bush is the one he most fiercely rejects: direct talks between the US and Iran and Syria. Syria’s last attempt at a rapprochement with the US, several years ago, was rejected out of hand by the Bush administration. And, as Mike Wallace’s recent “60 Minutes” interview with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran made clear between the lines, a dialogue with the US is the only option his country might find attractive. Nothing would confer more legitimacy and dignity on the Iranian regime than engagement by the world’s remaining superpower. And neither Iran nor Syria can afford to risk being isolated from the rest of the world.

Conferring legitimacy and dignity on the Iranian and Syrian regimes should not be the rationale for engaging these regimes. The objective should be serious face-to-face diplomacy that leaves Iran and Syria in no doubt that there are rewards for cooperation and penalties for rogue conduct. Talks through proxies and threats in the Security Council are clearly not getting the job done.

At the end of the day, President Bush may be compelled to defer his “democracy now” rhetoric for realpolitik. He may actually have to authorize direct talks with Iran’s populist demagogue leader as well as with the Syrian leadership. This would doubtless trigger many in his party to label Mr. Bush as the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st century. He would have to swallow his “birth pangs of a new Middle East” agenda and risk dealing with a cataclysmic rebellion from his party’s far-right wing.

But the more important question is how effective a lame duck Administration -- weakened by a bungled war, support of a questionable Lebanese adventure, and plummeting public support -- would be if such negotiations ever got started. For example, does the US still have the leverege to persuade Iran to exercise its influence over Hezbullah? And Syria to cease being Hezbullah’s supply line?

The prospects are not great, but may not be totally bleak. After all, there is only one USA. And talking to Iran and Syria doesn’t mean George W. Bush would jump on Air Force One and head for Tehran or Damascus tomorrow.

It has been 26 years since the US government had any official relationship with Iran. For the past six years, the president has tried to outsource negotiations with Iran to the EU3. And it has resisted talking with Syria at all, though Syria might be an easier task since the US still has diplomatic relations there.

Re-starting a genuine diplomatic dialogue with both these countries would likely begin with a lengthy series of much lower-level contacts. These would probably focus on narrower issues, rather than on any grand bargain. With luck, a framework for expanded and higher-level discussions might emerge. The parties might be able to identify and execute a few confidence-building measures. Eventually, far down this road, Secretary Rice would participate. All of this would be to prepare the ground for the president.

Critics of this option will point out that while Iran and Syria are talking to the US, Iran will be buying more time to develop its nuclear weapon and creating more sectarian violence in Iraq, Syria will be busy re-supplying Hezbullah, and both countries will be using US engagement to enhance their prestige in the world, while continuing to espouse the destruction of Israel.

And they could be right. That’s why the US should seek the cooperation of the major powers in the UN. But first the Bush Administration needs to get over its notion that engagement is appeasement. The US “engages” with many unsavory regimes throughout the world – and showers its financial largesse on many of them.

On a purely practical level, what choices does America have when it has run out of good options?

The best of the remaining bad options may be talking. And nobody ever died from talking.