President Bush Middle East Diplomacy Needed Not Military

As Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice meets with leaders across the Middle East this week, many political analysts are hoping that the Bush administration is finally coming around to the view that all force and no diplomacy will render the US a spent power.  

Unlike previous US administrations, both Republican and Democrat, the current Bush administration has consistently rejected diplomacy as it pursued a more aggressive foreign policy focused on military power and unilateralism, which forms the basis of the neoconservative Bush Doctrine. 

President Bush’s recent announcement of another troop surge in Iraq caused a fiery backlash in the Middle East when it became clear that diplomacy in the region would once again be among the casualties.  

Professor Hamidreza Jalaiepour of Tehran University told Reuters, “Bush’s strategy has been to think about the Middle East and about Iraq and about anywhere else in terms of military action, in terms of military power … His tone and the content of his speech was like before.”  

Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said: “The Bush plan is based on many erroneous assumptions such as thinking that a military solution is possible. I think that is impossible. He has abandoned the classical American pragmatic approach. He considers that he has a vision but he is completely detached from the reality on the ground.” 

It came as a great disappointment to US allies and the Iraq Study Group when President Bush indicated he had again rejected calls to establish dialogue with Iran and Syria, and revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to help diffuse tensions in Iraq and the Middle East.  

King Abdullah of Jordan has repeatedly urged Washington to resume diplomacy in the Middle East to stabilize a region that now faces three civil wars – in Iraq, in Lebanon and among the Palestinians. 

Dr Rice quickly organized her diplomatic ‘listening tour’ when Arab leaders made it clear that, if the US wants their support in Iraq, it must help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a regional sore spot that has long served as a recruiting tool for extremist organisations such as al Qaeda.  

After meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this week, Dr Rice said, “I have heard loud and clear the call for deeper engagement in these processes. You will have my commitment to do precisely that.” 

However, Dr Rice will not be meeting with the governments of Iran and Syria, whom the Bush administration has accused of fomenting civil war in Iraq and sponsoring terrorist groups. 

Many outside the Bush administration’s circle of ideologues believe this is precisely why diplomacy is necessary, and have expressed frustration that the US has been losing opportunities and credibility in diplomatic circles.  

While conducting research for the ISG report, former Secretary of State James Baker, chair of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group and a staunch foreign policy realist, asked the Iranian government if they would be prepared to help quell the violence in Iraq. He told NBC’s Meet the Press in December that Iran’s response was, “We would probably not be willing to assist you in Iraq the way we did in Afghanistan because we don’t like the attitude of your government.” 

It seems that the Iranians remain bitter that, after assisting the US in its war in Afghanistan in 2001, and then rescuing foundering talks to form a new Afghan government, President Bush still threatened Iran by branding it part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union Address the following week. Since then, Iran has elected a hardline anti-US government and announced a nuclear enrichment program, creating fears that the country is headed towards developing nuclear weapons.  

Dr Rice has said she believes there is still “plenty of room for diplomacy” in curbing the Iranian nuclear program. Professor Jalaiepour also argues that dialogue with the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may stand a greater chance of success than talks with a more moderate government because “no one will make obstacles”. He noted that the efforts of pro-reform former President Mohammad Khatami to establish dialogue with the West were stymied by hardline rivals. 

More recently, Iran has been accused of helping to arm Shiite militias in Iraq. This is the reason given for the US raid on an Iranian government office in Irbil in the north of Iraq last week, which included the arrest of six Iranian workers and diplomats, as well as the deployment of patriot missile defense systems “to reassure our friends and allies”. Dr Ali Ansari, Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St Andrews University, considers the Bush administration’s actions “extreme provocation” and a “declaration of war”.  

Should the US confront Iran militarily, the Bush administration will find itself fighting wars on three fronts with a military that has been stretched near breaking point. Engaging Syria’s military would increase that to four wars.  

The Bush administration remains opposed to diplomatic talks with Syria, whom it accuses of arming the Iraqi Sunni insurgency and sponsoring Hezbollah’s repeated attacks on Israel. Discussing the diplomatic recommendations in the ISG report in December, Mr Baker said, “If you can flip the Syrians you will cure Israel’s Hezbollah problem,” and added that Syrian officials told him that “they do have the ability to convince Hamas to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. If we accomplish that, that would give the Ehud Olmert a negotiating partner.”  

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani renewed diplomatic relations with Syria this week for the first time in nearly 30 years, in an effort to get Damascus to stop the flow of militants and weapons into Iraq, which Syria continues to deny facilitating. Yet Mr Talibani seems to share the political realist view of Mr Baker that, “[Diplomacy] has to be hard-nosed, it has to be determined. You don’t give away anything, but in my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”  

Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator who previously worked for Mr Baker, recently wrote in the New York Times, “Baker approaches everything with a negotiator’s mindset. That doesn’t mean every negotiation leads to a deal, but you engage your adversaries and use your leverage to change their behavior. [The Bush] administration has never had a negotiator’s mind-set. It divides the world into friends and foes, and the foes are incorrigible and not redeemable. There has been more of an instinct toward regime change than to changing regime behavior.” 

It seems that Dr Rice has now been compelled by Arab leaders to begin implementing many of the ISG’s diplomatic recommendations, raising hopes that the Bush administration will tone down its fiery ideological approach in favor of political realism – as well as the military reality that even the US military cannot fight several wars on several fronts for very long.  

Most importantly, the Bush administration may now come to realize that the most constructive and effective way for the US to bolster its moderate Arab allies in the Middle East is to clearly demonstrate that US foreign policy is about more than military invasions and regime change.

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