Across the Bay

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Trouble With Talking

Lee Smith pens a sharp piece about the "talking" fetish. An Arabic version appeared in Asharq al-Awsat here:

The Bush administration itself, of course, also knows what it's like to get played by Asad. After a visit to Damascus in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell boasted that he'd gotten Asad to close the local offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, only to later discover that they were still open for business. The administration's last official mission to Syria was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage's trip in January 2005, when one of the main topics of interest was political tension in Lebanon. Weeks later, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others were killed in a massive car bomb explosion in downtown Beirut. The next day, Washington recalled its ambassador, a post that has been vacant ever since.

So, it was not doctrinaire anti-diplomatic tendencies that led the Bush administration to curtail relations with Syria. The administration's outreach had done nothing to alter Syria's behavior, and to keep talking would merely demoralize anxious American allies in Lebanon, which has become one of the U.S.'s most valuable assets. Not only has Lebanon been a key venue for taking on Iran by facing down its proxy, Hezbollah, but the pro-Western government there led by Christians, Druze, and moderate Sunnis represented precisely the sort of Middle East the administration's democracy advocates had envisioned. An Obama White House may have no interest in "regional transformation," but the delicate diplomacy required to support Lebanon still represents an almost insurmountable barrier if it chooses the road to Damascus.

President Obama may be surprised to discover that Bush's Lebanon policy is a model of multilateral consensus, formed in partnership with allies like France and regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Still, Washington is clearly the senior partner, and engaging Syria at this point would mean shaking the cornerstone of a coalition built on international law, including a string of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and a U.N. tribunal established to try Hariri's murderers.

More than three years after the assassination of the former Prime Minister, the tribunal is finally ready to go and may begin as early as early summer at the Hague. Judges have been selected, and if, as expected, members of the Syrian regime are indicted, there is a mechanism for trying suspects in absentia. According to the U.N.'s chief legal counsel, Nicolas Michel, "There is no way it can be halted."

Of course, there is one way Bashar al-Asad might be spared the Milosevic treatment, and that's with a diplomatic initiative from the White House. "Washington's friends and enemies in the Middle East would understand engagement with the Asad regime as the end of U.S. commitment to the tribunal," says David Schenker, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and previously the office of the Secretary of Defense's Levant country director. "It's difficult to imagine the White House opening a dialogue with Damascus with international indictments pending."
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The Syrians, for their part, aren't giving anything away, even at the behest of a White House eager to sit down with them. Let's say, hypothetically, that Obama could arrange to tank the Hariri tribunal in exchange for Asad agreeing to leave Lebanon alone. The problem is that Syria cannot afford to abandon its claims on its smaller neighbor and so it wants the whole package: protection from the tribunal and hegemony in Lebanon. "He wants more than anyone can deliver," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident now living in Washington, "and he has nothing to offer."

Bashar has to have Beirut. It is a cash cow for a financially strapped Syrian regime desperately squeezing the last drops out of its oil revenue. But most importantly, Syria needs to maintain an open front against Israel, and since it dares not risk war on its own border from the Golan, it fights instead via Hezbollah on Lebanon's border. Without that front in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Damascus cannot project power in the region.

Syria's demands then are necessarily maximalist--no to the tribunal, yes to a renewed role in Lebanon, including an open front on the Israeli border--and thus unacceptable to the international community, including, presumably, an Obama administration. The question is whether a new president would do the math before rushing off to engage Damascus. The Bush White House, perhaps having foreseen this possibility, has built in checks that will be difficult for the next President to override.

Read it all, and make sure to also read Lee's other excellent piece for Pajamas Media.

Update: Lee Smith elaborates some more over at Power Line blog, commenting on Carter's latest idiotic shenanigans.