We Have To Talk To Bad Guys

By John McLaughlin
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Although the fighting in the Middle East is still raging, it is not too soon to start drawing lessons from these tragic events. Even if this situation begins to cool, there are so many other flashpoints in the Middle East and so many other potential hot spots in the world that any respite from crisis is bound to be short.

Lesson No. 1 is that change occurs incrementally and almost imperceptibly in the Middle East, but when it reaches critical mass, the potential for surprise and disaster is enormous. The current situation did not emerge overnight. The death of Yasser Arafat presented a huge opportunity for the international community to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and reform the Palestinian Authority. But that effort largely stalled despite strenuous efforts by the special envoy representing the Quartet -- the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. This helped set the stage for the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. Hamas's control of the West Bank and Gaza and its estrangement from the international community gave Hezbollah, in Lebanon, unprecedented opportunities and reach into those areas. The continuing weakness of the Lebanese government allowed Hezbollah a free hand in its home base.

Lesson No. 2 is that the chances of detecting and heading off imminent disaster are enhanced when there is intense, unrelenting and daily attention by a senior and respected U.S. figure who wakes up every morning worrying about nothing else -- the role that Ambassador Dennis Ross played so effectively in the 1990s. It is true that plenty of able people in the U.S. government still focus on the Middle East. But without constant tending to the concerns of all the regional parties, rapid flagging of issues for decision in Washington and continuity of focus by one individual with access, we will lurch from crisis to crisis.

Lesson No. 3, related to all of this, is that process matters, especially in the Middle East, where the issues are so contentious and the parties so divided. Without ongoing, regular and near-continuous negotiation, there are few reference points that all the parties can accept when conflict breaks out. It may not even matter whether perceptible progress is occurring continuously. The important thing is that the table is always set, everyone has a chair and someone is in charge. That has not been the case for some time in the Middle East.

Lesson No. 4 is that even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. The absence of a diplomatic relationship with Iran and the deterioration of the one with Syria -- two countries that bear enormous responsibility for the current crisis -- leave the United States with fewer options and levers than might otherwise have been the case. Distasteful as it might have been to have or to maintain open and normal relations with such states, the absence of such relations ensures that we will have more blind spots than we can afford and that we will have to deal through surrogates on issues of vital importance to the United States. We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.

Lesson No. 5 is that there are no unilateral solutions to today's international problems, not even for superpowers. They have been rendered impossible by a host of factors unique to this era -- globalization, the Internet, the technological revolution and the increasing role of non-state actors with influence that spills across existing borders. The disproportionate influence of Hezbollah at the moment illustrates the point. This doesn't mean turning everything over to international forums. But it is tempting to think that successful passage through the current thicket might have been eased by steps such as a series of regional conferences, linked to our allies and to the United Nations, at which all parties could have been forced -- grudgingly and slowly -- to put their cards on the table regarding issues such as Iraq, regionally based terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would this have gotten us anywhere?

In a region as complex as the Middle East, nothing guarantees progress. But what is clear is that these problems are intertwined, that all the states in the region have vital interests at stake, and that approaching these issues serially will only prolong the familiar cycle of one step forward and two steps back.

The writer was deputy director of central intelligence from 2000 to 2004. He is a senior fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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