Edward Djerejian, director of the Baker Institute for Public Policy, and one of James Baker’s most trusted aides, wrote an eye-opening article in Foreign Affairs Magazine, urging a new U.S. policy toward Syria. Normally, such an article would be worthy of a read, but not much more. But in this case, what Djerejian says has added import because young Bush has assigned his father’s consigliere to get him out of the Mideast quagmire in which he’s foundering. Just how serious a project is the Iraq Study Group created by Baker? Will Junior listen if it’s directives counter his own notions? The jury is still out. But one thing is for sure–if George Bush takes what Baker offers seriously, then what Djerejian writes has extreme significance in terms of engineering a possible U-turn in policy toward Syria.
Instead of the current ‘freeze-out’ in relations with the Assad government, Djerejian calls for re-engagement with Syria in an effort that could both resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict and detach Syria from Iran’s sphere of influence. And the Baker ally has an even larger ambition. He wishes to set the stage for a tamping down of Islamic radicalism and especially the deep hatred of the U.S. engendered by our policies since 9/11:
The United States should seize this moment to transform the cease-fire in the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict into a step toward a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Doing so would facilitate the marginalization of the forces of Islamic radicalism and enhance the prospects for regional security and political, economic, and social progress.
The Hezbollah-Israeli confrontation has further proved what should already have been painfully clear to all: there is no viable military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even with its military superiority, Israel cannot achieve security by force alone or by unilateral withdrawal from occupied territories. Nor can Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and similar groups destroy Israel. Peace can come only from negotiated agreements that bind both sides.
Hezbollah may have ignited the spark that set off this latest confrontation, but it is not the root cause. The fighting was the combined result of the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle between the forces of moderation and those of extremism within the Muslim world — two issues that are linked by the radicals’ exploitation of the Arab-Israeli conflict for their own political ends. U.S. policy in the region should thus focus both on trying to promote a peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute and on helping Muslim moderates by facilitating political and economic reform across the Middle East.
The former U.S. diplomat focuses on Syria as a key player in the potential resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict:
Syria, meanwhile, poses both a danger and an opportunity. The Assad regime could undermine security arrangements in southern Lebanon, hinder progress in Iraq, and continue to support Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and radicals in Hamas. But it could also play a constructive role in the region — a possibility that has yet to be fully explored…Since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Damascus has looked to Washington as the key interlocutor between itself and Israel in negotiations over the return of the Golan Heights. The extensive talks that took place during the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton may not have resulted in a final agreement, but they came very close…
Even more radically, considering the absolute Nyet the Bush Administration has uttered regarding Iran is this conciliatory advice from Djerejian:
Any sustainable agreement with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon…would also have to involve Iran.
Dealing with Iran is problematic. Nevertheless, Washington and Tehran have engaged each other on Afghanistan (constructively), Iraq (less so), and the nuclear issue (as part of an international process). And although Iran sees it as being in its interest to have the United States suffer in Iraq, it does not want U.S. policy there to fail and the country to slip into full-scale civil war or territorial disintegration. Iran’s population is just over half Persian, but almost a quarter of the population is Azerbaijani and a small part is Kurdish or Arab, making communal unrest a constant worry. Accordingly, the United States should consider dealing more directly with Iran on specific areas of interest, disavowing regime change as a specific goal and focusing on long-term policies to encourage and support political and economic liberalization and indigenous reform efforts there.
Now, wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air if that were the real policy of our government toward Iran? Somehow, I simply cannot see George Bush, who has invested so much political and emotional capital is painting Iran as the ultimate evil, turning his back on such received wisdom and walking such a radically different path. Bush is not a man who makes U-turns as we can see with his current truculent “defense” of our failed Iraq mission. But perhaps Baker can work a miracle that no other moderate Republican can.
The Ambassador’s prescription on the Palestinian front are far less specific and illuminating. Nevertheless they diverge strongly from current policy:
The external wing of Hamas, led by Khaled Meshal in Damascus, has demonstrated a more militant and radical bent, while Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who is from Hamas, and his colleagues inside the territories are struggling with the requirements of governing and have to consider difficult political compromises. U.S. policy should be sensitive to these political dynamics and encourage Hamas to move in a more moderate direction.…
On the economic front, the international community must help promote reforms and avoid a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian territories, particularly Gaza, by focusing on four key issues: the payment of monthly salaries to the PA’s civil and police employees; the financing of health, education, and social programs for the population at large; covering the running costs of essential public institutions and municipal services; and the financing of infrastructure projects. Israel should also be encouraged, with all due consideration for its legitimate security needs, to increase the number of Palestinian workers inside its economy and facilitate the movement of goods across its borders.
This is not earth-shattering stuff. Any high school student could tell you that these are the types of things that need to be done to restore a possibility for good will and dialogue on both sides. But this is so far from our current policy that it appears as a radical and welcome prescription for change.
In the essay’s conclusion Djerejian rather remarkably addresses President Bush directly as if to say, “Sonny, you can buckle down and solve this thing or you can continue to drift into the political ether. What’ll it be?”
…With strong presidential leadership, the United States can be an effective interlocutor between the Arabs and the Israelis.
President George W. Bush should therefore reiterate the vision of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement that he presented in June 2002, including his explicit call for a two-state solution involving a Palestinian state living in peace and security next to the state of Israel, and make it clear that he will work toward that end with the international community for the remainder of his presidency. This could give the parties in the region the political space they need to make the tough decisions and compromises for a negotiated peace. This thorough approach to peace, which would bring all the Arab and Israeli parties together to address the issues on the Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian fronts in a parallel manner, could be modeled after the Madrid peace conference of 1991.
All of the key issues in the Middle East — the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for regionwide political and economic reforms, extremism, and terrorism — are inextricably linked. Nothing short of a comprehensive strategy can solve the problems, marginalize the radicals, and promote the values and interests of the United States and the parties in the region. Washington has waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The question now is whether it can muster the political will to wage peace as well.
Once again, the essay is long on generalities and short on specifics. But it so different from the current bankrupt policy that one can only hope (yes, sometimes I do wish for Bush’s success strange as it may be to admit it) for its success and wish Baker well in his efforts to set the ship of state aright after six years of absolute foundering on the shoals of radical triumphalist foreign policy.