Critics Cite 'Constrained' Mideast Policy

Portraits in Damascus depict Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, and Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah.
Portraits in Damascus depict Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, and Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah. (By Bassem Tellawi -- Associated Press)

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By Glenn Kessler and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 6, 2006

The Bush administration's policy of refusing to engage with nations and groups linked to terrorism, including Syria, Iran and Palestinian factions, has sharply limited U.S. maneuvering room during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, according to former administration officials and outside experts.

Iran is Hezbollah's prime sponsor, and Syria is the key conduit for the flow of missiles that have rained on Israeli territory -- facts that experts say make those countries essential to achieving a lasting solution. But after nearly six years in office, the administration has had increasingly limited contacts with those countries, if such contacts exist at all. Former officials charge that the administration has missed numerous opportunities to encourage Syria and Iran to cooperate more closely with U.S. interests.

"This has constrained U.S. foreign policy in many damaging ways," said Flynt Leverett, a White House official during President Bush's first term who said he argued unsuccessfully for deeper engagement with Syria. "The United States does not have effective diplomatic channels for managing the situation, much less resolving it."

Leverett's comments are echoed by other former administration officials, including former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage, who made the last senior-level official visit to Damascus in January 2005. Armitage told National Public Radio last month that the administration needs to have dialogue with Syria. "We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not to our enemies," he said.

Paul R. Pillar, former national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, said that "we have greatly handicapped ourselves by our refusal to use all the diplomatic channels and avenues available to us," leaving Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "trying to accomplish the seemingly impossible essentially with one hand tied behind the back."

Senior administration officials reject the criticism, saying they have made it clear what they expect from countries such as Syria, which they say has failed to respond appropriately. "The problem is, talking is not a substitute for strategy, and at the end of the day, countries make choices, and Syria has made, in our view, bad choices -- bad for them, bad for us and bad for the Syrian people," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley.

The administration's approach is enshrined in the National Security Strategy released earlier this year, which asserts that "the fundamental character of regimes matters as much as the distribution of power among them."

Administration officials want countries to change their policies, but in general they have been unwilling to negotiate over the terms of a shift, or even grant legitimacy to the interests of adversaries, believing that would only reward bad behavior. In the Middle East, the administration has taken that approach with Syria, Iran, former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and Hezbollah, as well as with Hamas after it won Palestinian legislative elections. It also invaded Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.

The one exception to this approach is Libya, which gave up its weapons of mass destruction after receiving a list of assurances, including restoration of diplomatic ties -- a process that Bush inherited from the Clinton administration. More recently, under pressure from allies, the administration has joined in offering incentives to Iran, including direct talks, if it suspends its enrichment of uranium.

Administration officials say Damascus never responded to repeated attempts to encourage a change in policies. One sore point has been the flow of foreign fighters across the Syrian border into Iraq. U.S. agencies have been divided over how much of an effort Syria has made to halt this traffic.

Hadley said a succession of U.S. envoys has made the same argument to Syria, to little effect: "Look, you're out of step with what's happening in the region -- you are supporting terror, you are oppressing your own people, and you're obstructing the Middle East process, and you need to get on the right side."

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East expert now at the American Enterprise Institute, said the administration's approach is the correct one. "It is one of those recurring dreams that you are somehow going to engage the Assad regime and they're going to become a responsible member of the Middle East," he said. "It is fairly cyclical. It never really works, and it's never really clear why you would believe the regime could be bribed and what that bribe would be."

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