WASHINGTON – This past July, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an extraordinary joint visit to key Middle East countries. Focused on securing greater Arab support for Iraq and isolating Iran, the mid-summer trip put the spotlight on a new $20 billion military sales package to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Rice stated this military package will help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.
Though restarting the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process was also on the trip s agenda, it seemed almost an afterthought, with Rice and Gates merely encouraging selected Arab leaders to attend an international meeting on Middle East peace planned for this fall. No serious work seemed to be accomplished in setting the agenda for this meeting, and several Arab leaders openly worried that the Bush administration was simply looking for another photo opportunity rather than trying to achieve substantive progress after seven years of lean and strife in the Middle East.
This trip seemed to confirm something that President Bush s Deputy National Security Advisor, Elliott Abrams, reportedly told a group last May – that the State Department is simply going through the motions to make Europeans and certain Arab governments think that the United States is serious about advancing the Arab-Israeli peace process. It also demonstrated that the Bush administration s posture in the Middle East remains crouched in the defensive – aimed at containing Iran and the fallout from the Bush administration s Iraq strategy, rather than reshaping regional dynamics to enhance stability through more active and constructive diplomatic initiatives.
Conspicuously absent from the agenda was an effort to address continued and growing tensions on the Israeli-Syrian-Lebanese front – the front that represented one of the deadliest conflicts in the Middle East in 2006. With tensions still simmering between Israel, Syria, and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the United States and other global powers cannot afford to rely on piecemeal and half-hearted efforts to prevent escalated conflict on this front. Four key steps are necessary.
First, global powers like the United States should work to make this fall s international meeting on Middle East peace inclusive, with representatives from all of Israel s immediate neighbors as well as the sponsors of the Arab peace initiative. Including countries like Syria will not be easy given the tensions and suspicions throughout the region, but intentionally excluding key countries will not likely yield any serious results.
Second, the United States should increase its bilateral diplomatic engagement with Syria. In the past six months, US officials have participated in regional sessions on Iraq, including a security conference hosted by Syria this past summer, but it has avoided engaging in the tough diplomacy to test the Syrian regime s intentions and shape its actions on the Lebanese and the Arab-Israeli fronts. This diplomacy is complicated by a number of factors – including the continued investigation into the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq El Hariri, Syria s relationship with Hezbollah, and its relationship with Iran – but trying to isolate Syria has not advanced US interests or stability in the region. The United States should make clear that the pursuit of a Syrian track will not come at the expense of Lebanese sovereignty or efforts to advance the Israeli-Palestinian track.
Third, the international community must continue its efforts to stabilize Lebanon. To build a functioning and viable Lebanese state with control over the entirety of its territory, the United States should pursue both political and military assistance tracks. A new effort must be made to fully implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 – including the provision that the Lebanese government must exercise full sovereignty over southern Lebanon.
Fourth, the United States needs to develop a separate diplomatic track for Iran, which has seen its power and influence increase throughout the region since 2003. The United States has a long list of legitimate concerns about Iran: its nuclear research program; its support for terrorist groups; and its leaders provocative statements. Standing on the sidelines has not contained Iran. Except for a handful of meetings related to Iraq and Afghanistan, US officials have refused to meet with Iran, and as a result, regional stability has suffered.
In 2002, President Bush and his top supporters argued that the road to peace in the Middle East ran through Baghdad and that the Iraq war would stabilize the region. By getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the United States would set into motion a democratic wave that would topple Middle East autocrats who were state sponsors of terror threatening democracies worldwide. More than four years later, it is clear that the opposite has happened. Last year, when Secretary Rice described the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as the birth pangs of a new Middle East , it was clear that this new Middle East that had emerged was less stable and less favorable to US interests.
In the long run, the United States cannot reshape the Middle East s complex political dynamics through military assistance packages, fly-by visits, and partial diplomatic efforts. The leaders of the region must shape their own future. The United States and other global powers can however, play an important role in mediating these conflicts and tensions. Resolution won t be simple and won t come quickly, but it will require a determined and consistent effort that must begin now.
Brian Katulisis advisor to the Middle East Progress project and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a research consultant at the Center for American Progress. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.