Condi in Diplomatic Disneyland

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice faced a thankless, all but impossible task in trying to sell the Arab world on the U.S. policy of delaying a cease-fire so that the Israeli military can continue its anti-Hizballah campaign. But her case was hardly helped when she explained that the violence that has already killed more than 400 Lebanese and turned more than a half million into refugees represents the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." Phrases like that — and her rejection of the call for an immediate cease-fire on the grounds that "whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old Middle East" — carry a revolutionary ring that scares the hell out of America's allies in the region. It was revolutionaries like Lenin and Mao, after all, who rationalized violence and suffering as the wages of progress, in the way a doctor might rationalize surgery — painful, bloody, even risking the life of the patient, but ultimately necessary. Social engineering is not surgery, however, and its victims find little comfort in the homilies of its authors.

Arab leaders, moreover, have learned to be suspicious of Rice's revolutionary ambitions — just a year ago, she spoke of spreading "creative chaos" in the region. Iraq, after all, is Exhibit A of the Bush Administration's "New Middle East," and it's a bloody mess that is growing worse by the day. Now, for Act 2, the Arabs are being told to sit quietly while Israel tears Lebanon apart, after months of watching it slowly throttle Gaza through a U.S.-backed economic blockade, and then bomb it for weeks on end. Hardly surprising that the Arabs — from the U.S.-backed autocrats to the beleaguered liberal democrats and the rising Islamists — see little to cheer in the Bush Administration's "new Middle East."

Rice's midguided revolutionary rhetoric is only one of the mistakes the Secretary of State made on her ill-fated mission to the MIdeast. Some other lessons the Administration will need to absorb quickly from its crash course in Middle East diplomacy:

  • Diplomacy means not only talking about your adversaries, but also talking to them

    Critics have long warned that by refusing on principle to talk to the likes of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, the U.S. is restricting its own ability to influence events in a region where those regimes and organizations represent a significant force. As Rami Khouri, editor at large of Beirut's Daily Star, so tartly put it: "Washington is engaged almost exclusively with Arab governments whose influence with Syria is virtually nonexistent, whose credibility with Arab public opinion is zero, whose own legitimacy at home is increasingly challenged, and whose pro-U.S. policies tend to promote the growth of those militant Islamist movements that now lead the battle against American and Israeli policies. Is Rice traveling to a new Middle East, or to a diplomatic Disneyland of her own imagination?"

    The problem with boycotting regimes you deem unacceptable is that if they are able to influence events, you're forced to respond to their initiatives, often in dangerous crisis moments. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were implacable foes who knew they could not resolve their differences, yet they maintained communication and developed understandings that allowed them to manage those differences in the interests of global stability. It is time for Bush the Younger to grow up.

  • Sometimes listening is as important as talking

    Last week, Administration officials spinning Rice's mission boasted that "she's not going to come home with a ceasefire, but with stronger ties to the Arab world... What we want is our Arab allies standing against Hizballah and against Iran, since there is no one who doesn't think Iran is behind this."

    So the Bush Administration expected that while Lebanon and Gaza are under Israeli assault, the very Arab autocrats the Bush administration in a giddier moment had threatened with a fatal dose of democracy — and whose citizens are backing Hizballah — are going to give diplomatic support to Israel and the U.S. offensive against Hizballah? You have to wonder what these guys are smoking.

    Plainly, every Arab leader they've spoken to since has insisted that stopping the bombardment is an absolute priority. Even the Iraqi government, ostensible poster child of the "new Middle East," has differed sharply with the Bush administration's stance. What the Arabs are telling Washington is this: Not only will the Israeli bombardment probably strengthen Hizballah in Lebanon, but its continuation with U.S. blessing will imperil other U.S. interests in the region

  • In the Middle East, you're judged by your position on Israel and the Palestinians

    The Administration is correct that Hizballah and Iran represent a major challenge to the pro-U.S. Arab regimes such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They're so dangerous precisely because they are able to capitalize on the popular mood in those countries that seeks redress for the Palestinians — an issue on which the moderates have precious little to show for their cooperation with Washington. The political momentum in the not-yet-new Middle East is increasingly with forces hostile to the U.S.

    Getting anything done diplomatically in the region will require a lot more than talking about President Bush's "vision" of a Palestinian state and a "road map" that is the functional equivalent of the old Beach Boys song "Wouldn't It Be Nice" — there is no active process associated with it, nor is there likely to be for the foreseeable future. Without revisiting the kind of peace process that the current Israeli government has sought to avoid, the "birth pangs of the new Middle East" may be interminable.

  • Enlightened self-interest will determine Syria's actions

    Recognizing that Syria could play a decisive role in curbing Hizballah's capacity for violence, Administration officials have been talking up plans to "peel Syria away" from its ties to Iran, although its refusal to talk directly to Damascus means it has to outsource the job to Arab allies viewed by Syria with contempt. And unless they're offering a credible incentive, they're probably wasting their breath: Syria has withstood years of pressure and harangues from the U.S. — perhaps aware that the U.S. and Israel, knowing that the most likely alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood, actually want to keep the Ba'ath regime in place. Syria will refrain from confronting its more powerful enemies, but is unlikely to lift a finger to help them unless it can see in that course a road to end its isolation, and to a resumption of talks aimed at returning the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, to Syrian control.

  • Develop a Plan B

    The current U.S. position is based on the assumption that Israel's military campaign will, if not destroy Hizballah's military capability, badly bloody the organization and force it to accept what it might deem as a surrender. The "cease-fire" that would eventually be agreed would then amount a mopping up operation. But it's growing increasingly unlikely that those battlefield objectives can be realized, and if not, any cease-fire would probably not be on the terms the Administration is seeking. More often than not, diplomacy results in second-best solutions. And if Hizballah survives the Israeli offensive as a fighting force, preventing a recurrence of the crisis would require engagement with the movement's external backers.