Saturday, December 09, 2006

With military options limited, it's time for Plan B: Diplomacy

USA Today
December 8, 2006

If there was an important message lost in the rollout of the Iraq Study Group's report on Wednesday, it was this: New diplomatic initiatives, even at this 11th hour, are essential not just for ending the Iraq war but also to put the United States in the optimum position after it is over.

If the military effort begins to succeed, they add a point of leverage. But more important is their value in the event that the situation continues to deteriorate.

Should Iraq's shaky government fail, the United States' ability to control the country's violent disintegration militarily will be minimal. The Bush administration - stubbornly fixated on an improbable victory - is poorly positioned to cope with this, much less to restore a U.S. leadership role so badly undercut by differences over Iraq. Diplomacy is the only alternative.

The group's co-chair, former secretary of State James Baker, advocated a broad regional approach as a way to mitigate the dangers. "Everything in the Middle East," he rightly noted, "is connected to everything else."

At the center of the bipartisan panel's ideas is a proposal for an all-out push to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, bringing Syria and Lebanon into that effort.

The group pointed out a truth rarely heard by Americans (even as it is front and center in the Arab world and Europe): U.S. disengagement from Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts is a huge source of tension and anti-Americanism, like a raging toothache inflaming everything else. U.S. allies in the region, including the powerful Sunni leadership in Saudi Arabia, say that it underlies other Mideast problems and that rancor from the impasse makes them harder to solve.

On Thursday, President Bush had the opportunity to act on that recommendation. He met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has long argued for making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a top priority, in terms not so different from the Iraq Study Group. Blair is about to visit the Middle East, and Bush could have anointed him his de facto envoy, approaching the conflict with the same gusto once applied to the Iraq invasion. But he chose not to, and the truth is that Blair can't get far alone because U.S. leadership has always been the essential ingredient in the peace process.

U.S. presidents forged the Camp David accords that brought peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978, and led Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the brink of peace a decade ago. A new presidential initiative could revive U.S. influence. Instead, Bush seemed more focused on admonishing Palestinian extremists.

That misses the point. The Iraq Study Group explicitly excluded from negotiation those who reject Israel's right to exist. It wants instead to restore the traditional approach of negotiating with Arab neighbors, who have a strong interest in stability.

Critics might dismiss the group's proposals as little more than a nostalgic revival of the unworkable methods of a bygone era. But dialogue and negotiation move opponents toward agreements - in everything from labor disputes to deciding in a family who will prepare dinner. They are the foundation of centuries of diplomacy.

Bush's rigidity is particularly dangerous right now as the United States searches for an exit strategy from Iraq that won't make Americans more vulnerable.