A Time To Act

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By Warren Christopher
Friday, July 28, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's just-concluded trip to Lebanon, Israel and Rome was an exercise in grace, bravery and, to my regret, wrongly focused diplomacy. Especially disappointing is the fact that she resisted all suggestions that the first order of business should be negotiation of an immediate cease-fire between the warring parties.

In the course of her trip, the secretary repeatedly insisted that any cease-fire be tied to a "permanent" and "sustainable" solution to the root causes of the conflict. Such a solution is achievable, if at all, only after protracted negotiations involving multiple parties. In the meantime, civilians will continue to die, precious infrastructure will continue to be destroyed and the fragile Lebanese democracy will continue to erode.

My own experience in the region underlies my belief that in the short term we should focus our efforts on stopping the killing. Twice during my four years as secretary of state we faced situations similar to the one that confronts us today. Twice, at the request of the Israelis, we helped bring the bloodshed to an end.

In June 1993, Israel responded to Hezbollah rocket attacks along its northern border by launching Operation Accountability, resulting in the expulsion of 250,000 civilians from the southern part of Lebanon.

After the Israeli bombardment had continued for several days, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin asked me to use my contacts in Syria to seek their help in containing the hostilities. I contacted Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, who, of course, consulted with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. After several days of urgent negotiations, an agreement was reached committing the parties to stop targeting one another's civilian populations. We never knew exactly what the Syrians did, but clearly Hezbollah responded to their direction.

In April 1996, when Hezbollah again launched rocket attacks on Israel's northern border, the Israelis countered with Operation Grapes of Wrath, sending 400,000 Lebanese fleeing from southern Lebanon. Errant Israeli bombs hit a U.N. refugee camp at Cana in southern Lebanon, killing about 100 civilians and bringing the wrath of international public opinion down upon Israel.

This time Shimon Peres, who had become prime minister after the assassination of Rabin, sought our help. In response, we launched an eight-day shuttle to Damascus, Beirut and Jerusalem that produced a written agreement bringing the hostilities to an end. Weeks later, the parties agreed to a border monitoring group consisting of Israel, Syria, Lebanon, France and the United States. Until three weeks ago, that agreement had succeeded for 10 years in preventing a wholesale resumption of hostilities.

What do these episodes teach us?

First, as in 1996, an immediate cease-fire must take priority, with negotiations on longer-term arrangements to follow. Achieving a cease-fire will be difficult enough without overloading the initial negotiations with a search for permanent solutions.

Second, if a cease-fire is the goal, the United States has an indispensable role to play. A succession of Israeli leaders has turned to us, and only us, when they have concluded that retaliation for Hezbollah attacks has become counterproductive. Israel plainly trusts no one else to negotiate on its behalf and will accept no settlement in which we are not deeply involved. Further, based upon my experience in helping bring an end to the fighting in the Balkans, the Europeans are unlikely to participate in a multinational enforcement action until the United States commits to putting its own troops on the ground.

Finally, Syria may well be a critical participant in any cease-fire arrangement, just as it was in 1993 and 1996. Although Syria no longer has troops in Lebanon, Hezbollah's supply routes pass through the heart of Syria, and some Hezbollah leaders may reside in Damascus, giving the Syrians more leverage over Hezbollah's actions than any other country save Iran. Syria has invited a direct dialogue with the United States, and although our relations with Syria have seriously deteriorated in recent years (we have not had an ambassador in Damascus for more than a year), we do not have the luxury of continuing to treat it with diplomatic disdain. As the situations with North Korea and Iran confirm, refusing to speak with those we dislike is a recipe for frustration and failure.

Because Hezbollah has positioned itself as the "David" in this war, every day that the killing continues burnishes its reputation within the Arab world. Every day that more of the Lebanese infrastructure is turned to dust, Beirut's fragile democracy becomes weaker, both in its ability to function and in the eyes of its people.

The impact is not limited to Lebanon or Israel. Every day America gives the green light to further Israeli violence, our already tattered reputation sinks even lower. The reluctance of our closest allies in the Middle East even to receive Secretary Rice this week in their capitals attests to this fact.

It is time for the United States to step forward with the authority and balance that this moment requires.

The writer was secretary of state from 1993 to 1997.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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