Monday, May 19, 2008

The Politics of Diplomacy

In the current issue of Newsweek, Fareed Zakaria responds to the Bush-McCain assertion that diplomacy is akin to appeasement and isolation is a show of strength.

President Bush chose an odd place and time to claim that talking to "terrorists and radicals" in the Middle East is like appeasing Hitler in the 1930s. As Bush was speaking in Israel, his preferred strategy against such adversaries was collapsing next door in Lebanon. The Bush administration's strategy against Hizbullah has consisted of a mix of isolation, belligerence and military pressure. It refuses to talk to the group or its supporters in Tehran and Damascus. Two years ago, Washington unquestioningly supported Israeli Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's decision to attack southern Lebanon, Hizbullah's stronghold. The United States provides the Lebanese government and Army with aid and has responded to the current crisis by promising to speed up delivery of weapons. Yet today Hizbullah is stronger in Lebanon, Iran is more influential in the region, and the United States and its ally, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, have been marginalized.

…It's not just Hizbullah. In dealing with many such groups—Hamas, the Taliban—the Bush administration has adopted a macho, exclusively military approach. All three of these groups have a political base in their societies that is deep and enduring. Denouncing them as evil and promising to destroy them will not change that; in fact, doing so only adds to their mystique of resistance and struggle. What we need is a political strategy to combat, contest and weaken the appeal of these groups or to marginalize their violent factions. Such a policy would naturally involve some contact with their leaders, but as part of a much broader effort to engage all groups in these societies politically.

We are trying to handle Lebanon with one hand tied behind our back. We will not make contact with the Syrians or the Iranians to find out if their interests are identical, or to discern the contours of a deal. We have little political leverage and we refuse to engage in a process that might give us some. "It's a much broader regional problem," says Norton. "When I was advising the Iraq Study Group I noticed that though the members disagreed on many things, the one on which there was unanimous support was the need to make contact with Iran." One of the group's members, Bush's own Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, made precisely this argument last week.

Perhaps Gates noticed that violence has declined in Iraq largely because the United States decided to engage with Sunni militants whom it had regarded for years as sworn enemies, giving cash to those whom we called terrorists only a few months earlier. In fact, this administration's few successes have come when it's agreed to talk with its adversaries. Bush authorized negotiations with Libya and North Korea—both of which he regarded as terrorist states and one of which he placed in the Axis of Evil. As for Iran, we've talked with Iranian officials on several occasions over issues relating to Afghanistan and Iraq.

James Dobbins, the administration's representative in the 2002 talks to form the government in Afghanistan, described the Iranians as "straightforward, reliable and helpful. They were critical to our success." President Bush's remarks on the solemn occasion of Israel's 60th anniversary may have been political. But much worse, they were dishonest.

No comments: