Now that the Democrats have won control of both the House and the Senate, President George W. Bush has finally succumbed to pressure and replaced his unpopular defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, with an old-school conservative, Robert Gates. Those advocating engagement with Syria and Iran over Iraq seem to have taken a major step forward toward implementing their regional agenda.
But do the advocates of political engagement, as opposed to military engagement, really have what it takes to address the various crises in the region, especially the Iraq war, the standoff with Iran, growing Syrian belligerence under the Assad regime, and the potential implosion in Lebanon? That’s not to mention the genocide in Darfur and the rising specter of all-out war in the Horn of Africa, to say nothing of the war on terror itself?
If various recent statements from some officials or former officials in the United States on the American relationship with Syria are any indication, the more likely path that political “realists” in Washington intend to pursue will take us all deeper into the quagmire. How so?
Consider all the talk about engaging the rulers of Syria. Advocates of this course of action argue that the Assad regime can be instrumental in disarming Hizbullah, or at least keeping it in check; in facilitating the dialogue between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority; in helping against the insurgents in Iraq; and in moderating Iran, or even cutting ties with it, which would weaken Tehran’s regional influence.
What these advocates forget to mention, however, is that, in order to get all this from the Assads, the Syrians will almost certainly demand, in return, that the United Nations probe into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri be scuttled, as it promises to implicate high-level Syrian officials, perhaps even President Bashar Assad himself. The Syrian regime will also likely seek to reimpose its hegemony over Lebanon, contrary to the provisions of Security Council Resolution 1559 and the wishes of a majority of the Lebanese people. And it will ask for a major stake in the affairs of Iraq and of the Palestinian Territories.
This empowerment of the Assads will come on the heels of the empowerment of Iran, following the removal of two of its main regional competitors: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Baath regime in Iraq. Considering the longstanding alliance between Syria and Iran, one that dates back to the days of the Islamic revolution and that was formally renewed earlier this year during the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus, the policies advocated by the pro-engagement crowd will shore up Iran’s standing as a major regional power, complete with its own satellites. It is not clear to how this could be in the American interest or that of regional stability.
It is not clear either how Washington’s reneging on the agenda of democratization and human rights, by empowering the region’s cruelest dictatorial regimes and supporters of terrorist activities (both Syria and Iran have been on the State Department’s list of nations supporting terror since the early 1980s), will help the US improve its credibility in a world growing more anti-American with every passing day. Nor is it clear how such a policy will improve the US stand in the global war on terror.
Giving the Assads a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for their crimes in Lebanon and leaving out any serious consideration of democratic reform in any future talks with Syria or Iran will deal a devastating blow to American credibility in the region and to any aspirations of democratic change. How can states in the Middle East be expected to respect each other’s sovereignty and their own people’s basic rights when the international community invariably caves in to extortion by the region’s thugs?
What the people of the Middle East need is for their states, Israel included, to conform to international norms and conventions, not bend international norms so that they conform to the penchant for brutality and lawlessness in the region. Holding despotisms to a different, ethically inferior set of rules under whatever realist or culturalist pretext will only serve to perpetuate their brutality and lawlessness, not to mention the region’s status as the world’s major exporter of terror.
The politics of “jaw jaw” are always preferable to those of “war war,” but “jaw jaw” can be disastrous if not pursued on the basis of a clear understanding of the new realities that have been created on the ground in the last few years. The Syrian-Iranian-Hizbullah-Hamas axis is real and powerful and will not be broken by haphazard and narrow diplomatic adventurism. A return to the cynical realism of the Cold War will end up generating more terrorism. The engagement needed is one that takes into consideration all outstanding issues, does not ignore the basic rights and aspirations of the peoples of the region, and does not exclude democracy activists and opposition groups from the engagement process.