Asia Times Online | October 24, 2006
CAIRO - Since coming to power, the Bush administration has largely shunned diplomacy with those it perceives as enemies. Ensconced in a moral certitude that is belied by its attachment to any number of allies of ill repute, the administration has sat in the corner holding its breath, hoping that those who oppose its stated goals - foreign monsters such as Syria, Iran and North Korea - will simply vanish if they cannot be forcibly removed.
There is apparently no setback grave enough to persuade the administration to change course and opt for dialogue over confrontation. Take North Korea's recent testing of a nuclear bomb. It would seem that this reversal - nuclear proliferation to a founding member of President Bush's "axis of evil" (along with Iraq and Iran) - would inspire a rethink of the refusal to hold bilateral talks, part of Pyongyang's price for forgoing its weapons program.
Instead, Bush quickly restated his conviction not to hold talks with North Korea and worked to tighten sanctions and further isolate a country that is already so isolated that it might as well be on Mars.
Even to some of Bush's closest allies, the current policy seems self-destructive. Former US secretary of state James Baker, now heading the Iraq Study Group, appointed by the president to re-evaluate US policy in Iraq, recently called for the administration finally to stop cutting off its nose to spite its face.
"I believe in talking to your enemies," Baker said, in reference to North Korea. "It's got to be hard-nosed, it's got to be determined. You don't give away anything, but in my view, it's not appeasement to talk to your enemies."
Six years of uncommon obstinacy has been particularly corrosive to the administration's stated goals the Middle East. In short, Bush's vanity has set Iraq on fire, sentenced the Arab-Israeli peace process to death by neglect, indirectly sparked a nascent civil war in Palestine, and ushered in the destruction of Lebanon.
The administration has played off these crises as the "birth pangs of a new Middle East", as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stone-heartedly said during the Lebanon war, or more recently, as Bush has said of the near-genocidal violence in Iraq, "just a comma" in history.
The "creative chaos" theory that some believe underpins neo-conservative-inspired administration thinking in this regard was explained by Bush during the Lebanon war. "This moment of conflict in the Middle East is painful and tragic," he said. "Yet it is also a moment of opportunity for broader change in the region. Transforming countries that have suffered decades of tyranny and violence is difficult, and it will take time to achieve."
Whether the administration buys its own rhetoric is an open question. What is not in question is that these crises have strengthened those it views as the dastardly representatives of the "old" Middle East - Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and anti-American Islamist opposition movements from Cairo to Casablanca. In two years, Bush will himself be a "comma" in history, and his successor will inherit this ill-favored wind.
Continuing to ignore Syria and Iran seems particularly foolish, given how badly pressure on them has backfired. Syria has shrugged off US sanctions, weathered investigation into last year's killing of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri, and reaped enormous political capital from Hezbollah's victory over Israel. In the meantime, Iran continues to ignore US-led demands that it cease its nuclear program and ups its rhetoric against Israel. And both, of course, savor no small measure of Schadenfreude at America's failure in Iraq, even if its instability troubles them.
But there remains an obstinate, if misguided, logic to US policy, as summarized by Syria expert Dr Joshua Landis: "The resistance to opening the door to discussions with Syria [and Iran] stems from the stubborn hope among Bush advisers that it is not too late for this plan and that a turnaround in their Middle East fortunes may yet materialize," he wrote. "They hope it is not too late for a regime-change opportunity in Syria.
"The Bush administration clearly believed the war in Lebanon this summer could have developed into just such an opportunity. This is why Rice made her famous faux pas that the bombing of Lebanon and the screams of its citizens were simply 'the birth pains' [sic] of a new Middle East."
The political isolation of America's enemies is accompanied by attempts to persuade the international community to adopt Washington's own economic sanctions against them, as it recently did against North Korea. And in each case the US has made it clear that the isolation of its enemies will only end when they fulfill a set of political demands steep enough to ensure that they are one of the good guys, albeit with little guaranteed in return save America's good graces. Thus, even after the debacle of removing Saddam Hussein, the US in essence maintains an across-the-board policy of "regime change" with those that oppose its stated foreign policy.
Condi's long, strange, diplomacy-free trip
The topsy-turvy logic of US policy thus allows the nation's chief diplomat, Rice, to tour the Middle East as she did early this month, without ever talking to anyone with whom she has serious differences. Rice's itinerary did not include Damascus or Tehran or a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah of Hamas, or with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the most powerful figure in Lebanon. As a result, Rice's trip produced no tangible gains.
Her visit was billed as an attempt to re-energize the "peace process", but Rice spent her vacation trying to isolate Syria from America's Arab allies and to scare the Sunni regimes into uniting against the chimeric Iranian-led "Shi'ite crescent". Her goal, as she put it, was to strengthen as a bloc US allies, whom she called "the moderate forces" - Jordan, Egypt, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf - in common cause against the "extremist forces".
Syria, to get out of the red and be graced with a visit from Condi next time around, must fulfill a by now familiar laundry list of demands. In essence it must stop supporting Hezbollah and Hamas and give the US carte blanche in Lebanon and Iraq, all without the promise of talks with Israel on the return of Golan.
So rigid is the US position that it has consistently pressured Israel not to talk peace with Bashar al-Assad, as a recent article in Ha'aretz confirmed. "A few short weeks ago, [Israeli] Public Security Minister Avi Dichter told Army Radio, with regard to peace talks with Syria, that 'if it turned out that there was someone to talk to and something to talk about, the idea would be right'," recounted Shmuel Rosner. "On Tuesday, however, after his meeting with US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Dichter sounded somewhat different." Dichter then parroted verbatim Washington's conditions for engaging Syria and said that as long as the US opposed Israel engaging Syria, "Israel could not ignore it".
The extremist forces also include Hamas, a rare elected government in the Arab world despite the terrorist acts of its military wing. The US has tried to bring down Haniyah's government by decidedly anti-democratic means, such as support for Israel's blockade of Gaza, its bombing of government institutions, the arrest of Haniyah's cabinet, and the recent revelation that it will sponsor Hamas' bested opponents, Fatah, to the tune of US$42 million in future elections. All Hamas has to do to end its isolation is to change the entire platform on which it was elected.
In the end, the war on Hamas could backfire for the United States. For one, it could radicalize Islamist parties that conclude that winning at the ballot box will only bring about Washington' s wrath. And a Palestinian civil war, if it develops, might not cause Bush to cry in his beer, but would undoubtedly further destabilize the region.
Then there is Hezbollah. Despite having attempted to integrate into the Lebanese political process and moderate its ideology to forgo the goal of an Islamic state, the Shi'ite militia found out courtesy of one month of US-supported Israeli bombing that what is required of it is not participation but submission. In the end, not only has Hezbollah's victory severely dented US credibility, but the war capsized Bush's goal of creating a pro-US democracy in Lebanon, where the March 14 forces have been weakened vis-a-vis Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian factions.
But the greatest challenge facing the US administration undoubtedly comes from an ever more strident Iran. While Iran has long sought to open the kind of broad-based talks that might lead to the restoration of diplomatic ties, Washington has made it clear that there is no hope of this unless it attains satisfaction on the nuclear issue.
"We've said to the Iranians, there's a way for us to talk: suspend your enrichment and reprocessing capabilities so you don't have the technologies to have a nuclear weapon, and we will have negotiations," said Rice recently. "But so far, they've not taken up on that offer."
There is little possibility that the Iranian government will risk losing face by giving in to Washington's diktat in advance of negotiations - especially since Iran claims the right to enrich uranium under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, Tehran has received no assurance that regime change is not Bush's ultimate goal, even if the nuclear issue is resolved.
Washington also demands that Iran adopt the quietist approach of its Arab allies toward Israel. But in the absence of even a semblance of an Arab-Israeli peace process, Iran's hardline President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has no incentive whatsoever to modify his uncompromising stance.
Of all the regional players, ignoring Iran holds the greatest possible peril for the US and the region. Iranian influence is undoubtedly being exaggerated to scare the Arab states into aligning more closely with the US, but the issue of Iran's nuclear program is vital to the regional balance of power. At the moment any hope of a resolution is being held hostage to the Bush administration's petulance.
Likewise, ever-worsening war in Iraq is unlikely to be settled without Iran's cooperation. While there are reports that Baker's group will recommend bringing Iran and Syria directly into attempts to stabilize Iraq, it is unlikely this level-headed suggestion will win the day. Even limited, low-level talks on Iraq between the US and Iran were scuttled in June, apparently because Iran objected to US attempts to use the talks to press its demands on the nuclear issue.
If Iraq is all but lost, Afghanistan is now teetering on the edge, even according to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization commander. And yet official policy remains to try to kill off the Taliban, rather than to engage them. Bill Frist, the US Senate majority leader, recently recognized the futility of this strategy and suggested that the Taliban, since they represent the majority Pashtun in some regards, should be brought into government. Frist may have been talking sense, but it was bad politics in an election year, and he was pilloried by Democrats and Republicans alike. In any event, there is little danger that Bush will follow Frist's advice, since war, even if it means eternal war, is evidently always preferable to peace.
In search of 'moral clarity'
The Bush administration's determination to shun its enemies would be justifiable and perhaps even laudable, regardless of the costs, were it truly based on principle. The stated rationale is wrapped in the singularly Manichaean language of good versus evil that it uses to explain all US foreign-policy decisions. The United States must not talk to North Korea, for example, a recently leaked internal administration memo stated, to maintain "moral clarity".
It is demonstrably not based on principle, however, since those that do merit talking to, America's friends, include dictators and regimes decidedly nervous about elections (all of the Arab leaders Rice did meet on her trip), while its enemies include at least nominally elected leaders. A cursory look at the rogues' gallery of the shunned and ignored demonstrates rather decisively that the correct criterion for discerning good from evil is opposition to US foreign policy.
In the post-diplomacy era in US foreign policy, however, transparent hypocrisy is no inhibition to pigheadedness, and the Bush administration is unlikely to change course and begin, at long last, speaking to its enemies.