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Time To Talk (To The Bad Guys)

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
July 28, 2006
Wall Street Journal

There is very good reason for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to take the highly unusual step of blaming Shiite-led Hezbollah for starting the fighting in Lebanon, and merely condemning Israel’s disproportionate response. They rightly fear the rising tide of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran—the forces of radicalism.


There is also very good reason for Israel to reverse its longstanding opposition to handing over its security to an international force, and now ask for NATO troops to police southern Lebanon. Israeli leaders have finally remembered this territory’s capacity to swallow Israeli soldiers and treasure, and they don’t want to replay a costly and recent occupation. They may also realize that Israeli safety can no longer be secured by military force alone, and that long-range rocket attacks have diminished Israel's precious strategic superiority.


Yet in the face of these new limits on Israel’s military effectiveness and the growing political power of regional radicals, the stance of the Bush administration is hard to understand. Mr. Bush backs Israel’s desire to delay a cease-fire, so that Israeli forces can continue pounding Lebanon even against the rising tide of Arab anger. He also sends Condoleezza Rice on a slow-motion diplomatic journey to the Mideast.


The only interesting and promising twist seems to be a new U.S. desire to split Sunni Syria away from Shiite Iran, and thereby deny Tehran its conduit for arms and money to fellow Shiite Hezbollah. But Mr. Bush spoils this good possibility by asking the weak Saudis and Egyptians to play this Damascus card, rather than tasking Ms. Rice directly. In 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher tapped the table vigorously in Damascus to arrange the cease-fire that endured until last month.


To stop and turn this dangerous historical shift in the military and political balance of power, Mr. Bush needs a plan to restore American power in the Middle East. He has to move across the board with creative diplomacy, a full-scale economic effort, and a new way to credibly exercise U.S. military might.


The first step has to be an act of diplomatic jujitsu. Mr. Bush needs to use the present crisis to justify new and wide-ranging talks with Syria and Iran, and, if necessary, indirectly with Hamas and Hezbollah. These rank at the top of the world's nastiest and most untrustworthy negotiating partners, but they also happen to be the ones causing most of the trouble—and are, therefore, the ones we have to deal with.


Mr. Bush said recently that he’d talk to Iran about Iraq, and within the context of the European initiative, talk to Iran about their nukes and possible future economic goodies from us. But what's needed is a full-blown negotiation, not just talk, about how the U.S. and Iran see their security problems, and how they might envision evolving good relations with the West.


The White House believes that such negotiations would legitimize the bad guys who run Iran, and strengthen them internally. But in fact, negotiations are the most effective way to exercise American power, by arraying and making concrete the good things we could offer as well as deny them. Most importantly, the Iranian people could witness all this. Let them see what the table could look like without Washington making the kind of public threats that serve mainly to rally public opinion behind Iranian leaders. And if Tehran rejects these negotiations, let the Iranian people see that, too.


Iran is, and will be, a key player in Iraq’s future. Iran lives there, and either Mr. Bush begins to work on that future with Tehran or its leaders will cause us more problems than we’ll cause them. The same holds for southern Lebanon. Tehran supplies the money and rockets to Hezbollah, and will keep on doing so unless Washington gives them incentives to stop. That’s just common sense.


We need not fear that our leaders will be so inexperienced as to become ensnared in various negotiating traps. If Mr. Bush explains the opportunities and risks of the negotiations to the American people, they will back him, as they usually back presidents in such matters. He can use the current crisis in Lebanon and the continuing war in Iraq to convince Americans that wisdom and necessity dictate the time to negotiate with adversaries and enemies, and to exploit our power and their weaknesses.


The case should be even easier to make regarding Syria. Damascus continues to cause trouble in Iraq, and its leaders certainly played some role in the recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But Syria is also the place that made and kept the peace with Israel on that same southern Lebanese border. And the administration cannot have the stable cease-fire it wants without Syria.


The same wide-ranging bargaining proposed for Tehran could work even better with Damascus. Syrians lack Iran’s oil wealth, and Bashar Assad and the other Alawite rulers remain interested first and last in their own retention of power. Reassurances on that score would be a small price to pay, especially in the short run, when Washington could not overthrow them anyway. In return, the U.S. might gain satisfaction in both Lebanon and Iraq.


This kind of diplomatic activity and energy would also open the door for economic creativity. Probably the best way for Sunni Arab leaders as well as the Bush administration to restore popular support for Western values and interests is to help economically, quickly and massively. Let them all use their money, particularly the worried oil-rich Sunni leaders, to bring Lebanon back at least to prewar economic levels. If it’s done by bridge-building and not begrudgingly, the recipients might even appreciate it. Similar humanitarian packages could be dangled before Hezbollah and Hamas, not in any expectation of changing their minds, but in softening their supporters. In any event, aid programs providing immediate relief will help people and give some visible ballast to the diplomacy, which always takes longer.


Finally, Mr. Bush has to restore America’s military credibility. The prevailing view in the region is that he is so bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan that he cannot and will not take strong military action anywhere else. Nor would Congress and the American people allow him to. Washington has several ways around this serious problem. One is to help move a NATO force into southern Lebanon quickly, with the necessary firepower and military instructions to use force swiftly and certainly to maintain peace.


Hezbollah could still launch some rockets and get away with it, but a strong and active NATO contingent could maintain overall order. Second, if Syria or Iran persisted or stepped up unacceptable military operations in either Iraq or Lebanon, the U.S. could threaten the following responses: air attacks against Iranian and Syrian air-defense missiles and radars, air strikes against Iranian naval forces and oil depots, and cross-border raids into Syria to disrupt support of Iraqi insurgents. All these messages could be conveyed in the context of diplomatic negotiations, where Damascus and Tehran could see both what they stand to gain and what they need to worry about. Washington could stress publicly and privately that U.S. military options have to be on the table as a result of long provocation by radicals bent on constant war rather than Arab welfare.


Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice are right to want a durable cease-fire, not just any cease-fire, and right to want a new Middle East, not this Middle East. But only American power can do this job, and hold back the radical tide and reverse it. For years now, Washington has compromised that power by fearing to exercise it fully. For Mr. Bush’s first five years, it was either large-scale U.S. military force or nothing. Now, he has the opportunity to unleash American power in every dimension, letting the weight of diplomacy, money and arms reinforce each other, pitting American strengths against the radicals’ considerable vulnerabilities. Our friends and allies wait for these actions, and will join us. Such an effort could also restore Mr. Bush’s power and prestige for the tough decisions he will face in his last two White House years.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here (Subscription required).

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