Reach Out To the Red Zone

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East this week, trying to bolster America's allies to confront an enemies list that includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and the all-party anarchy in Iraq. My worry is that Rice is becoming a traveling version of Baghdad's Green Zone, talking about hopeful strategies that are disconnected from events on the ground.

The focus of Rice's trip is to talk with moderate Arab governments -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states -- about how to form a united front against Iranian-backed extremism. This mission of containing Iran has become increasingly urgent because of growing signs that Iran is resisting a diplomatic compromise over its nuclear program. In recent weeks, European diplomats have offered various formulas to finesse the West's demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks, but so far the mullahs in Tehran haven't budged.

Talking to your allies is always a good idea, but consider the parties Rice isn't engaging on this trip: Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran -- the sources of the trouble. The idea of traveling to a Middle East in crisis and talking only to your friends is, I'm sorry to say, the equivalent of meeting Iraqi leaders in the protected Green Zone and imagining that you are thereby stopping the brutal killing out in the "Red Zone," which is the term U.S. officials in Baghdad have been using to refer to the real world.

U.S. officials talk hopefully about how the recent war in Lebanon "clarified the fissures" in the region and encouraged the moderate Arab states to finally take decisive action to curb Iran and its allies. They hope the squeeze on the Hamas government will embolden Palestinians to embrace the moderate leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas and resume negotiations with Israel. To which a cynic would respond: Are you kidding? This is the Middle East.

The lesson for Rice should have been clear after the war in Lebanon: Left to themselves, our moderate Arab allies will make the deals that are necessary for their survival. They will quietly cheer for America in Iraq and Israel against Hezbollah -- until it's clear that the extremists are winning. Then, for self-protection, they will lean in the other direction. I'm told that Sunni women from Bedouin tribes in Jordan were carrying amulets of the Shiite militia leader Hasan Nasrallah at a wedding in Amman last week. That's a small sign of which way the wind is blowing.

America needs to break out of its diplomatic Green Zone, or it will become a prisoner of events beyond its control. What's needed is aggressive, innovative policy that, to use a favorite Israeli term, "creates new facts on the ground." To me, that means a process of engagement -- especially now, when the mullahs in Tehran and their allies in Damascus and Beirut seem so afraid of it.

We should send an ambassador back to Damascus, tomorrow. We should encourage the widest possible contacts with Iran, leading to an eventual resumption of diplomatic ties. We should treat reconstruction of postwar Lebanon with the urgency we should have applied to postwar Iraq. We should deepen our contacts with a Lebanese government that includes two Hezbollah ministers. We should designate a special presidential envoy for the Middle East -- the obvious choices would be former secretary of state James A. Baker III or former president Bill Clinton.

Absent more aggressive action, the situation will keep slipping away from the United States, day by day. Iraq shows the price of the Green Zone mentality. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says all the right things about a "government of national unity," but every night dozens more bodies are dumped in the streets. Tragically, Maliki can't connect his upbeat unity talk with reality. A good example of the disconnect is the fundamental economic issue of oil: Maliki's central government has been stalled working out the details for sharing Iraq's potentially massive oil revenue. Meanwhile, the regional government in Kurdistan is about to sign new oil drilling agreements with three companies, including one in the United States, with more deals pending. The Kurds' argument is simple: The Green Zone government is a fiction. It's time to move on our own.

To escape a traveling Green Zone mentality in the Middle East, Rice needs to create a process for engaging America's friends and adversaries. This is not a time for holding back, for testing the waters, for "staying the course" of current diplomacy. If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will keep getting what we've got -- which is a mess.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues at His e-mail address

© 2006 The Washington Post Company