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.
Accordingly, this is not a partisan issue, though it might have seemed so when Richard Holbrooke, a likely secretary of state if John Kerry had been elected in 2004, in an Aug. 10 Washington Post op-ed column called for negotiations with Syria and Iran. On the next day in the Post, Newt Gingrich (who is eyeing a Republican presidential bid) accused Holbrooke of appeasement. To avoid such an attack, Democrats are unlikely to follow Holbrooke's course.
Officials familiar with Bush's thinking say he agrees with Gingrich. Indeed, the president regards going to the negotiating table with Syria, as every U.S. administration has dating back to Richard Nixon's, as a sign of weakness that will encourage the enemy.
Bush's overriding attitude is linked to Israeli policy instituted by Sharon and continued by his designated successor, Ehud Olmert: Forget about a negotiated Palestinian settlement and unilaterally impose borders and other conditions, backed by the threat of force. The president's mindset is hardened by his administration's "war on terror" rhetoric that asks: How is it possible to negotiate with a terrorist regime?
But Bush must deal with a new reality. George Friedman of the private intelligence service Stratfor reported last week that because "Hezbollah has demonstrated that total Arab defeat is not inevitable . . . Israel has lost its tremendous psychological advantage." That leads non-government sources in Israel to forecast Olmert's demise, replaced either by hard-liners preparing for more aggressive military action or a regime attempting to reconstruct the peace process.
Unanswered is the question of whether the Bush administration will continue as an uncritical supporter of current Israeli policy, whatever it might be. The alternative includes trying to negotiate with Israel's most bitter enemies.