Do-Nothing Diplomacy?

Posted: Jul 26, 2006 9:53 PM
When Condoleezza Rice is in her well-appointed suite on the seventh floor of the State Department, we now know what she does — nothing. At least such was the premise of much of the coverage of the run-up to her trip to the Middle East. It was assumed that if Rice weren't shuttling from capital to capital in the region, she must have been sitting idle, watching the coverage of the crisis on cable TV.

Now that Rice has departed Washington, she will be portrayed again as doing nothing, although in a different venue, so long as she doesn't join the calls for an immediate Israeli cease-fire. For much of the media and the foreign-policy establishment, the only U.S. posture that constitutes real action in the Middle East is "evenhanded" pressure leading to the immediate cessation of whatever hostilities happen to have broken out.

Such commentators are caught in a 1970s time warp where the only template for U.S. Middle East diplomacy is Henry Kissinger shuttling around the region in the wake of the 1973 war, negotiating the disengagement of the Israeli and Arab forces. But what might have made sense more than 30 years ago — when it was nation-states clashing, with the dangerous Cold War competition between rival superpowers in the background — needn't apply to an Israeli fight with a terror group acting as a proxy of an Iran bent on regional hegemony. Those who criticize the Bush administration for its lack of diplomacy are missing a diplomatic strategy notable both for its boldness and its subtlety.

It is bold because the U.S. doesn't just want to freeze the Lebanese status quo in place again, but see Hezbollah diminished so that the democratic government in Lebanon is strengthened and Iran's influence in the Arab world weakened. Allowing Israel more time to pound Hezbollah, therefore, isn't heedless warmongering, but a step toward a well-considered endgame. It is a version of the Clinton administration's Balkan gambit in the summer of 1995 of quietly encouraging the Croats to pursue an offensive against the Serbs, on the (correct) theory that it would create the conditions for a sustainable settlement. War is always politics by other means, and the current Israeli attacks have an ultimate political and diplomatic purpose.

The subtlety of the administration's strategy is its attempt to exploit an Arab split against the Iranian-allied, Hezbollah-enabler Syria. The Saudis and other key Arab states have denounced Hezbollah's initial cross-border attack, and a Saudi cleric has issued an anti-Hezbollah fatwa. The idea is to have the Arabs threaten to isolate Syria, and thus turn it away from its alliance with a Shiite Iran distrusted and feared by the other Sunni-majority Arab states. Whether this play can work is open to doubt, but its status as complex international diplomacy is not: It involves a classic diplomatic tactic of divide and conquer in the service of enforcing a United Nations resolution (1559, calling for the disarming of Hezbollah) and creating a meaningful international force in Southern Lebanon.

All sides can pick at this strategy. Liberals can rue the damage to Lebanon and doubt that the Arab coalition against Syria will hold in light of it. Neoconservatives can denounce the folly of trying to turn a recalcitrant Syria and agitate for the straightforward bombing of Iran instead. The current please-no-one Bush approach is a neorealist synthesis that takes the ambition of changing the Middle East of the neocons and combines it with the appreciation for diplomacy and of small steps toward larger goals of the realists. It is a strategy that makes sense in theory, but as the Iraq War has demonstrated during the past four years, the Middle East is a graveyard for finely wrought theories.

Whether this theory has an unhappy end or gives the Bush administration a major Middle Eastern diplomatic triumph will be known soon enough. But anyone who suggests that the administration is doing nothing is simply blinded by anachronisms.