Monday, December 27, 2004

Freeing Ourselves to Take Bold Diplomatic Action (washingtonpost.com)

Freeing Ourselves to Take Bold Diplomatic Action (washingtonpost.com): "Freeing Ourselves to Take Bold Diplomatic Action

By Robin Wright
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page B01

Shortly after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized on Nov. 4, 1979, several of the 52 American hostages were herded into a room festooned with skeletons, witches, ghosts and goblins. An Iranian, mystified by the images of death and evil, demanded an explanation. Joseph Hall, a military attache, described Halloween traditions and the embassy party that had taken place a few days earlier.

In disbelief, the hostage-taker replied, "You do this for children?"

I visited Tehran last month for the 25th anniversary of the embassy seizure, one of several stops on various trips over the past five months to Iraq, Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In each place, I was struck by how much political and cultural fissures still shape our relations a quarter-century later -- not only in Iran, but regionwide.

After hearing a wide array of opinions in the region, I also came away with an urgent sense that President Bush won't be able to achieve his lofty goals of a democratic, peaceful and nuclear-free Middle East unless he takes bold and imaginative strokes -- a kind of "shock and awe" diplomacy -- to generate movement in a different direction.

The region now has the feel of being on the cusp of profound change. It's not just the obvious flashpoints: An increasingly chaotic and costly war in Iraq. Tensions with Iran over its nuclear program, with rumblings of U.S. military planning on yet another front. The unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict entering unknown territory with the death of Yasser Arafat and the pending withdrawal of Israel's troops from the Gaza strip.

It's also the hint of new forces reshaping the Middle East -- and challenging U.S. interests -- in unknown ways: "Energy terrorism" targeting petroleum pipelines and workers in several countries and further roiling oil markets. Rising sectarian fears among Sunni Muslims about Shiite intentions regionally, playing off the change in Iraq's balance of power. Increasing violence and rippling instability even in authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia.

A year ago, in his major speech on the Middle East, Bush warned that it would be "reckless to accept the status quo" in the region. "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," he said at the National Endowment for Democracy. Without political change, the region "will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

Yet many in the Muslim world -- even admirers of the United States -- believe the Bush administration still charts Middle East policy with a double standard. It wants democratic change in Egypt, but it also wants President Hosni Mubarak's loyalty and intervention on Arab-Israeli peace. It wants Saudi Arabia to open up politically, but it also wants the royal family to crack down on Islamist dissidents and do whatever it takes to protect the oil fields. It wants free and fair elections in Iraq, but it also wants a pro-American government that will write a constitution to our liking.

Arabs, Persians and others no longer believe that Washington is well intentioned or that its goals will benefit them. Over the past four years, trust in the United States has plummeted from over 50 percent in key countries to the single digits, according to University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, who has polled the region. The antipathy was evident at the first "Forum for the Future" in Morocco this month. Muslim allies virtually rebuffed a dialogue with U.S. and European officials on democracy, largely on the grounds that other issues, such as the 56-year Arab-Israeli conflict, were their priority.

Over the next four years, it's going to take much more than regime change in Iraq to retrieve U.S. hopes for the region, even if Iraq turns out to be a success story. The stakes are enormous. "The relationship established over the next four years with the Islamic world will define the outlook for a generation. We're facing decisions akin to the decisions after World War II in defining America's relations with a large part of the world. That's the magnitude of the challenge," Telhami said.

Fostering political change has never been easy in a region as complex and as diverse as the Middle East. But next year will witness a rare confluence of opportunities -- elections in Iraq, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, as well as Iranian-European talks on nuclear disarmament -- for bolder initiatives to help close the fissures between the United States and the region. Many voices in the foreign policy community, both Republicans and Democrats, are now proffering ideas to take advantage of the moment on four of the most vexing issues.

• IRAQ: The central question is whether the open-ended timeline -- keeping the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq until the country is stabilized -- is still feasible or even practical. U.S. troops are increasingly targets. The attack last week on a U.S. base in Mosul, killing 22 and injuring 69, was the bloodiest of the war. The coalition is crumbling; Hungary pulled out its troops last week, while Poland, Holland and others plan to withdraw within six months .

The longer U.S. troops stay, the more Iraqis -- and others -- see the U.S. presence as an occupation. Some analysts question whether the United States has enough troops to achieve its mission any time soon. And the destruction left in the city-by-town-by-village hunt for insurgents has spawned wider anger.

"The United States has been depleting its military strength, diplomatic leverage, and treasure to pursue a worthy but unrealistic aim," writes Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in next month's issue of Foreign Affairs. "Given the bitter Muslim hostility to the presence of U.S. troops -- labeled 'Christian Crusaders' by the [Muslim] preachers -- their continued deployment in large numbers can only undermine the legitimacy of any U.S.-supported Iraqi government."

Some former U.S. policymakers are now urging the United States to identify an exit date, as early as the end of next year, after completion of Iraq's three-step transition. "This is never going to end as long as we're there. It's only going to get worse," said Edward Gnehm, former U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Kuwait. "We're now dealing with a real problem like Vietnam in terms of organized resistance with some important support from the people."

As alternatives, U.S. and NATO troops have a year to intensify training of the Iraqi army. And the new Iraqi government can go to the United Nations, which mandated the current coalition, to mobilize a replacement force. "That creates an opportunity to reconstitute the mission in 2006 and allows others to take a bigger role," said James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton administration now at the Brookings Institution. "We may or may not lead it, or even be part of it."



The cusp of change: With the Middle East in turmoil and Secretary of State Colin Powel (above, with Kuwait's prime minister in July) soon to depart, will President Bush and his new diplomatic team pursue his 2003 vow to push the region's authoritarian states for reforms? (Roshan Crasta -- Reuters)


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• IRAN: For 25 years, U.S. policy has been based on containing Iran. Estrangement has lasted longer than the break between the United States and China after the Chinese communist revolution or with Vietnam after a war that killed more than 58,000 Americans.

In pressing Iran to abandon development of a nuclear weapon, the question is whether Tehran will fully cooperate as long as it feels vulnerable living in a nuclear neighborhood and with U.S. troops now a major presence in countries on its borders. Throw in its own eight-year war with Iraq, when the world did nothing while Saddam Hussein killed some 50,000 Iranians with chemical weapons, and the answer is probably not -- unless the United States participates in the final deal, analysts say.

The situation is now ripe to test Iran with diplomacy, said Dennis Ross, a Middle East envoy for both Republican and Democratic administrations, "with the clear understanding that if engagement fails, isolation will be the result. This would require Washington to talk directly with Tehran, coordinated with the Europeans to finalize an agreement."

The key is to develop a package that addresses security concerns on both sides, said William Quandt, a former National Security Council staffer in the Nixon and Carter administrations who just returned from a visit to Iran. The package could include Iran terminating its nuclear weapons program in exchange for security guarantees. It could also focus on ending Tehran's support for all extremist groups in exchange for Iraq and the United States evicting the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, the largest Iranian opposition group, from Iraq.

Reengagement may also spur political change, add some analysts. "The more Americans go there, the more things will change," said Quandt. "It's like all those things that went on between Russia and the United States before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It weakens the Old Order and gives sustenance to those who want to do things differently."

• THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT: For the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, peace depends on principles laid out in their "road map." But it has failed to end extremist violence against Israel or to produce a temporary Palestinian state, which was supposed to happen a year ago. For the Israeli government led by Ariel Sharon, peace is based on its impending troop withdrawal from Gaza and a barrier separating Israel from the West Bank, which falls short of the road map.

The question is how to reconcile the two visions -- and finally produce movement after a new Palestinian leader is elected on Jan. 9. "Sharon's 180-degree shift has turned Israeli politics upside down -- and the United States should be as bold as the prime minister," said Geoffrey Kemp, a former Reagan administration national security aide now at the Nixon Center.

To make progress, many analysts say, the United States and its partners can offer incentives: With the Palestinians, strike a deal to move decisively to end terrorism against Israel in exchange for mobilizing international resources to rebuild the Palestinian Authority and its economy. Otherwise, with the Authority in crisis and unemployment rampant, they have few prospects for the future.

With Israel, strike a deal requiring them to freeze Jewish settlements and to acknowledge that eventual dismantlement will not end with four West Bank settlements -- part of the Gaza withdrawal proposal -- in exchange for a U.S. security role, possibly as monitors.

If that doesn't work, the time may have come for the United States to outline the final framework for peace, say the foreign policy advisers to two former presidents who recently appeared together on CNN's "Late Edition." "If you leave it wide open, the Israelis and the Palestinians distrust one another so much that they'll never move towards peace," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser. "But if we lay on the table a package -- and there are several key elements of that package which are generally known and understood -- and say, this is what the settlement will be based on, then I think we move the parties concerned toward serious negotiations."

Added Brent Scowcroft, who was the first President Bush's national security adviser, "There are a few rough edges that need to be honed off, but it is not difficult to see what a settlement is now. But we are the ones that have to impose it."

• DEMOCRATIC REFORM: Transforming the Middle East politically is the unifying theme of disparate U.S. actions in the region. The question is whether Muslim societies will take Washington seriously as long as its closest Arab allies are among the world's worst human rights offenders.

The answer may be in Egypt, which has over half the Arab world population -- and elections next year. "The great and proud nation of Egypt has shown the way toward peace in the Middle East, and now should show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," Bush also said in his 2003 speech. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 76, has ruled since 1981.

The Bush administration could press Cairo to lift the emergency law, in place for decades, that is "a huge inhibiter of political life," said Thomas Carothers, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's democracy project. That law limits the number of people who can meet without a government license and empowers the regime to detain people without charges, in turn inhibiting free speech. "It would be a political shock for Egypt," Carothers said.

As a far-reaching step, President Bush could "have a serious tete-a-tete with Mubarak to say the time has come to be the pacesetter on democracy in the region -- another way of saying we don't want him to run" for a sixth term, said Quandt.

Whatever happens on these four issues, this much is clear: In his first term, President Bush created grand expectations for the Middle East. Like every president over the past half-century, he has experienced the region's frustrating volatility. He now faces extraordinary pressure to deliver during his second term. Accomplishing his agenda, analysts say, will require greater diplomatic engagement -- and perhaps imagination -- than demonstrated by the administration thus far.

Author's e-mail:
wrightr@washpost.com
Robin Wright covers U.S. foreign policy for The Post. She has reported on the Middle East for the past 30 years."