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A Middle East Opening

By Brent Scowcroft
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page A25

With a hard-fought election behind us, the United States is now free to refocus its energies on the myriad problems that have a direct impact on its security and destiny. Nowhere do those problems press more insistently on our vital interests than in the Middle East.

The region has been changed forever by the decision to go into Iraq. The debate about the timing and rationale for the war is behind us, but the continued presence of U.S. forces, and changes in the regional balance of power, mean that we no longer have the luxury of treating Middle East policy as a series of unrelated events running on separate calendars. We face the need for simultaneous actions to avoid failed states while reducing the incentives to violence and instability that threaten America and friendly states throughout the region.


Palestinians honor Yasser Arafat outside their embassy in Amman, Jordan. (Reuters)

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Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Iran and terrorism are parts of a whole and can only be satisfactorily engaged as such. To cut through this Gordian knot will require not only a new approach but the deep, sustained commitment of the United States and a significant investment of the president's attention.

But American resolve will not suffice without the willing engagement of other states, especially those of Europe and the region itself. Our appeal to the Europeans, with whom our differences over the Middle East have been significant, must be based on reaching out to them on the Palestinian peace process and Iran, and soliciting their help on Iraq. Similarly, we need to ensure that the Arab states are substantive participants in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and we must engage them more fully in securing Iraq's future.

The goal we seek in Iraq is to create a secure environment in which reconstruction of the economy can vigorously get underway and national reconciliation can proceed. Unpalatable though it may be, the reality is that providing such an environment in a reasonable time frame will require a larger coalition force than is currently deployed there. This force increment must come either from our own already stretched military or from our friends and allies.

Comfortably reelected, President Bush is in an excellent position to renew his appeal for a greater international presence in Iraq. The leaders of Europe and the Arab world surely recognize -- even if their publics may not -- that a failed Iraq would affect their countries every bit as seriously as it would the United States. As evidenced by the NATO deployment in Afghanistan, our allies are also stretched thin. But European willingness to provide even a modest nucleus of troops could provide inducement and cover for other states, especially Muslim ones, to make militarily meaningful contributions. This would also serve to reduce the profile of the United States in Iraq but, it must be emphasized, would not -- and should not -- provide any near-term basis for reducing our own forces.

This essential step in Iraq needs to be accompanied by a U.S. undertaking to revitalize the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat has passed from the scene. His death represents a sea change in the Palestinian situation and, as the president has remarked, "an opening for peace." Both the United States and Israel have refused to deal with Arafat. The United States must seize this unique opportunity to make a decisive move.

The president should add substance to his commitment to an independent Palestinian state. It must include steps to provide security to Israel and to give the Palestinians the ability and means to construct a viable political entity free from the crushing presence of Israeli troops. The United States should insist that Israel stop construction of its wall on the West Bank and mirror its withdrawal from Gaza with the evacuation of the West Bank. In return, the wall and Israeli troops would be replaced by an international force, principally European or perhaps NATO troops.

The Palestinians should be pressed to take urgent measures to replace Arafat with political leadership that is both willing and able to undertake responsible negotiations and deliver on its commitments. Arab friends, notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, should provide vital guidance, encouragement and support.

The "road map" plan of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations should be revived and fortified by the actions I've described and vigorously pushed by its sponsors to final settlement. The outlines of such a settlement have, by the otherwise unfortunate stagnation of the process, become much less contested. A unified Jerusalem would serve as capital to both peoples. While the "right of return" could be left as a principle, the reality is that most Palestinian refugees will remain outside Israel, just as most Jewish settlers will return to Israel. A donor pool may need to be organized to provide compensation for both groups. Border rectifications would be necessary to compensate for the settlement solution and would complete the package.

Substantial, visible progress on the Palestinian issue would significantly improve the atmosphere in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, including Iran, the third side of this triangle of tension and violence. The United States has three objectives with respect to Iran: a cessation of any moves toward nuclear proliferation; cooperation that contributes actively to stability in the Persian Gulf and in Iraq; and Iranian restraint on Hezbollah and other radical groups. To obtain these goals -- and encourage European cooperation -- the United States must take several initiatives.

To begin, it should modify its attitude toward the British-French-German negotiations with Iran over its pursuit of uranium enrichment capabilities. We should actively embrace the European position, urge the Russians to join us and jointly approach Iran. Such an approach would support Iranian efforts to develop nuclear power, including the offer of an ensured supply of nuclear reactor fuel (low enriched uranium) at concessionary prices -- or even gratis -- in exchange for a comprehensive, verifiable freeze of Iran's uranium enrichment program.

Iran not only has strong interests in the future of Iraq but a powerful influence through its religious connections to the Shiite majority there. We should engage Iran about the future of Iraq, comparing our separate perspectives and emphasizing our joint interests. In that regard, the multilateral discussions over Iraq scheduled later this month at Sharm el-Sheikh should become the start of a dialogue, with U.N. participation. Those discussions could be broadened to include a Gulf security group of nations, blessed and supported by the United States. This could serve to assuage Iran's security concerns and temper its urge to acquire a nuclear capability.

Finally, the United States should indicate a willingness to modify its sanctions regime and thereby its relationship to Iran, were Iran willing to restrain Hezbollah and exercise its influence over other extremist groups. This would greatly minimize the risk that violence and other radical disruptions would hinder the Palestinian peace process.

The stakes are high. Progress in the region, in addition to being extremely critical for its own sake, holds the promise of making a substantial and lasting contribution to the war on terrorism.

The writer was national security adviser under presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. He is founder and president of the Forum for International Policy.


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