Critics Cite 'Constrained' Mideast Policy
U.S. Refusal to Engage Syria, Iran and Palestinians Said to Limit Negotiation Options

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."

But critics of the administration's approach say the administration has simply lectured countries such as Syria, refusing to detail concrete benefits that might flow from closer cooperation. Leverett, now at the New America Foundation, interviewed Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, for a book after he left the White House and said Assad complained that all he heard from U.S. officials was a long list of demands.

Syria is "a state, not a charity," Assad told Leverett. "If it is going to give something up, it must know what it will get in return."

For instance, administration officials have always demanded that Syria prevent militant groups from operating on its territory but have never explained what Syria would get in return. Leverett said the administration should have explicitly linked Syria's removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism to its expelling groups such as Hamas and severing the links that allow arms to flow to Hezbollah.

Syria also could be induced to cooperate if it receives some acknowledgment that it has a role in an Arab-Israeli peace deal, experts said. Syria nearly reached a peace agreement with Israel during the Clinton administration, but the Bush administration has been reluctant to involve Syria in its peace efforts.

Richard N. Haass, the State Department's director of policy planning in Bush's first term and now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that after intense diplomatic engagement, Syria in the 1990s joined the coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait and was the first country to accept the U.S. invitation to join an Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid. "This administration tends to look at diplomatic interaction as an inducement or a reward, something to bestow, rather than seeing it as a neutral tool in foreign policy," he said.

After Syria was suspected of involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri last year, Rice withdrew the U.S. ambassador in Damascus. In the absence of high-level U.S. contacts, the European Union has tried to fill the breach, sending Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos to meet with Assad.

Moratinos reported that Assad was willing to help but also wanted to take part in talks on a "comprehensive and lasting peace" for the region -- suggesting he is seeking the return of the Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 war.

Syria provided intelligence about radical extremist groups after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Leverett said. The CIA praised the quality of the information, he said, but a State Department effort to build on that relationship was thwarted by the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office.

"As unattractive as they are, the Syrians are in a position to affect U.S. interests in Iraq and Lebanon," Haass said. "We should be having a broad-based dialogue with them -- not as a favor to them but as a favor to ourselves."

James Dobbins, former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and now at the Rand Corp., said the administration's approach has similarly been counterproductive in countering the deteriorating situation in Iraq. He said the United States has made little effort to engage Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in helping to stabilize the country.

"We can't possibly stabilize Iraq unless we use the same methods that we used to stabilize Bosnia and Afghanistan," Dobbins said. "In both cases, we did that by engaging our adversaries and giving them a privileged place at the bargaining table."

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