Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Amid Tehran's noisy celebration over the outcome of hostilities in Lebanon, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was overlooked last Wednesday when he announced that Iran is ready for negotiations about suspending uranium enrichment. That's a new factor in Washington's deepening debate over whether it is time to talk to Syria and Iran.

Mottaki's rare conciliatory gesture was slapped down by the British government (insisting on Iranian suspension before negotiations) and ignored by U.S. authorities (claiming they received no formal proposal). Nevertheless, pressure is building on President George W. Bush to overcome his phobia against talking with the enemy. That may be the only viable option, considering the unlikelihood of military action against Syria or Iran.

Most Republicans are loath to publicly disagree with their president. Many Democrats who advocate precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are loath to advocate Middle East negotiations with governments dedicated to Israel's destruction. When the shooting started in Lebanon, however, rumblings about going to Damascus began in the State Department.

That view was expressed with typical vigor by former warrior-diplomat Richard Armitage in a National Public Radio interview July 26, two weeks after the fighting began: "We have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians . . . and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way. We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies."

Colin Powell has kept silent on foreign policy since the 2004 election. But when Powell was secretary of state and Armitage was deputy secretary throughout Bush's first term, they were joined at the hip on issues and often confer today. Sen. Chuck Hagel, who has worked closely with Powell and Armitage, is a rare Republican office holder who openly advocates negotiations. Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, has received information that Hezbollah was prompted neither by Iran nor Syria to start trouble with Israel.

Actually, the door to Damascus was not closed during Bush's first term -- with effective results at least one time. When Powell informed Ariel Sharon of a forthcoming visit to then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the Israeli prime minister objected but had a request for the secretary of state. Could he pass on Sharon's concern with Hezbollah firing rockets over the border into Israel? He did, the rocket-firing ended, and Sharon thanked Powell for his diplomacy.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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