By David Ignatius
Thursday, July 8, 2010; A15
The two modern American masters of Machiavellian diplomacy, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, both practiced their art at times comparable to this one -- with the country suffering from reversals in war and loss of confidence in its political leadership.
So it's an interesting thought exercise to imagine how a national security adviser with the secretive, back-channel style of a Kissinger or Brzezinski would play America's diplomatic hand now. Mind you, I'm not suggesting what policies these two would actually recommend today but, instead, what a more creative diplomatic approach might produce in a time of difficulty.
When I say "creative," what I partly mean is devious. Both Kissinger and Brzezinski did not always state publicly what they were doing in private. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kissinger opened a secret intelligence channel to the Palestine Liberation Organization, at the very time he was branding it a terrorist group and refusing open recognition. Similar secret conversations surrounded the entire Arab-Israeli peace process.
Not all of Kissinger's machinations were successful: He accepted a Syrian intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 to aid the Christians against the PLO that arguably still causes trouble. But he created space and options for an America that had otherwise been weakened by the Vietnam War.
Brzezinski, too, was adept at concealing his hand and adding heft to the drifting presidency of Jimmy Carter. When an emboldened Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan, Brzezinski crafted a secret intelligence alliance with China and Pakistan to check the Soviets. Here, too, we are still living with some of the negatives. But it must be said, the Soviet Union is no more.
Let's look at how this approach might be applied today in four problem areas: Iraq, the Arab-Israeli mess, the India-Pakistan standoff and the endgame in Afghanistan. Again, I want to stress that these gambits are in the style of the venerable strategists but not necessarily what they would advocate now.
Iraq is a place where America, having fought a messy war, must shape political outcomes with minimal use of force. It's a place where you have to hope the CIA has been busy making friends and contacts, and where a strong U.S. ambassador will be essential. It's good that Vice President Biden spent the Fourth of July weekend there, urging formation of a new government. He met all the right parties; now, he and the new ambassador, Jim Jeffrey, will need to pull those strings hard.
The Palestinian problem is one on which I hope the United States is engaging in some secret diplomatic contacts -- with Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and, yes, even Hamas. When the open road seems blocked, that's a time to experiment with new passages. History tells us that when America makes secret contact with rejectionist groups, they split; that's what happened with the PLO in 1974.
The India-Pakistan stalemate has been in the "too hard" box for years. But as with negotiations in the 1990s between Britain and the Irish Republican Army over Northern Ireland, America can subtly encourage greater contact between two parties -- and facilitate the exchanges of counterterrorism intelligence and military information that will be essential in building confidence. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wants a settlement; the United States must encourage reciprocal moves by Pakistan that make both countries safer.
Finally, there is the sublime strategic challenge of Afghanistan. The arrival of Gen. David Petraeus is a useful "X-factor" there. He will give the Taliban second thoughts about the otherwise shaky proposition that the United States and its allies can reverse the enemy's momentum on the battlefield.
But the real test will be in back-channel contacts with reconcilable adversaries -- something at which Petraeus was adept in Iraq. The Obama administration needs to decide what kind of outcome it wants and then use every element of power -- overt and covert, military and diplomatic -- to achieve it. Secret contacts with elements of the Taliban will be especially useful if they can gradually build confidence about what each side can deliver.
Perhaps all of these diplomatic corkscrews are already at work. It's in the nature of successful secret diplomacy that you don't know about it until it's over -- and maybe not even then. But if ever there were a moment when a battle-fatigued United States needs a wily strategist to explore options, this is it.
Just who could play this role among the administration's current cast of characters isn't obvious, and that's a problem President Obama should address.