Thursday, May 22, 2008

Fearing to Negotiate

I've done several posts now on the wisdom (or not) of holding high-level talks with unfriendly groups and regimes. I do indeed have ideas about other topics, to which I hope to move very shortly, but given recent events, as well as the continuing national dialogue about how the United States ought to relate to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas and governments like those in Damascus and Tehran, I think one final post is in order.

Today's Times features an op-ed by Nathan Thrall and Jesse James Wilkins that critically examines Kennedy's willingness to negotiate with Kruschev - a relevant topic because of its lately ubiquitous use as an example of America's appropriate diplomatic flexibility in the face of a determined adversary. Thrall and Wilkins essentially argue that for all of Kennedy's lofty talk about 'never negotiating out of fear, but never fearing to negotiate,' the talks were in fact a disaster, convincing Kruschev that Kennedy could be pushed around and leading the U.S.S.R. to dangerously escalate the Cold War in Berlin and Cuba.

Recent days have also revealed that Israel, against American advice (though with American knowledge), has been negotiating with Syria through Turkish intermediaries on the final status of the Golan Heights. I must say I was surprised to hear this (I've always been a bit skeptical of Israel's true willingness to give back the Golan, since Syria hasn't been able to put the kind of intense pressure on Israel that groups in the West Bank and Gaza have), and am reluctant to be too optimistic about the results, particularly given Olmert's current political weakness, but am happy to hear that the issue has been taken up in a real way for the first time in nearly a decade.

Finally, against some fairly steep odds, Lebanon's feuding factions seem to have reached a power sharing deal that should keep the recent violence there from metastasizing into a full scale war (at least for now). Though Hezbollah's increasing political power is cause for serious concern, a war in Lebanon would be an absolute disaster for both American and Israeli interests in the region, and the agreement at least gives everyone some breathing space.

Lest the reader think I am merely jotting disparate sentences about recent events to post in an incoherent mess, let me explain my thinking. As I have argued before, Washington's strategy of attempting to isolate its adversaries in order to induce either changes in behavior or changes in regime - a strategy that it has pursued with a fair degree of consistency since the end of the Cold War - is now ill-matched to the global balance of power. I do take Thrall and Wilkins' point, though, that high-level negotiations, when pursued without appropriate diplomatic preparation, a detailed and focused agenda, and clear attainable goals, can be even more counterproductive than silence. Many think, for example, that poor preparation before the Israeli-Arab peace talks in the waning days of the Clinton/Barak/Hafez al-Assad administrations left all sides unclear about each others' final goals, and led everyone involved to take overly hard-line bargaining positions, which came across as simple obstinacy, leading to the breakdown of the talks even though a mutually acceptable solution was there for the signing. The Camp David talks were not in and of themselves problematic - they tried to address the real and resolvable strategic concerns of everyone involved - they were just badly executed.

This brings us to recent news. The power-sharing deal in Lebanon means that war (which would irrevocably harden the regional balance of power) has been averted but at the price of a strengthened Hezbollah. The fact that Israel has been negotiating with Syria gives the United States an opening (which we should have seized long ago) to "flip" Damascus, helping to engineer a mutually acceptable settlement on the Golan in exchange for Syria ceasing to support (and ceasing to be a conduit of Iranian support for) Hamas and Hezbollah. This would have the dual effect of cutting off an important source of arms and political cover for Hezbollah in Lebanon, opening the way to re-strengthen the pro-western factions there over time, as well as severely weakening Iranian proxies in the Levant, putting the U.S. in a stronger position to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear program and Iraq.

That's how one negotiates in a strategically practical and intelligent way.

Don't get me wrong, negotiations aren't a panacea. They can, and do, fail. I don't want to come off as naively assuming that if everyone just sat down and had a good talk all of our problems in the Middle East would be solved. Iraq is still oscillating between low and high levels of sectarian bloodletting, with U.S. troops and Persian Gulf oil (now priced at $135 a barrel and rising fast) stuck in the middle. Much depends on the byzantine workings of the Iranian and Syrian governments, and the extent to which power brokers there believe it is in their interest to refashion their relationships with Israel and the West. Much depends too on the political viability of the Israeli government (opposition parties are already claiming that Israeli-Syrian talks are just a means of distracting from Ehud Olmert's legal troubles), its willingness to make the concessions that are necessary for peace, and the ability of the United States to apply sufficient pressure to all sides (as Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar seems to have done in Lebanon). Hamas and Hezbollah, of course, could also prove to be spoilers, particularly if they feel that their backs are to the wall (which is why, albiet with many misgivings, I think it's time to begin talking with them as well).

The bottom line is that, voluminous depressing headlines aside, the political situation across the Middle East is actually quite plastic at the moment. Ending up in a strong position will take cunning, flexibility and foresight on the part of American leaders. All the more reason, in my view, to put an end to our absurd refusal to negotiate.

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