Obama administration needs to adopt 'patience-plus' diplomacy

By David Ignatius
Thursday, August 19, 2010

"The Diplomat's Dictionary," compiled by the mischievous former ambassador Chas. W. Freeman Jr., contains this familiar proverb about the virtues of patience: "Everything comes to those who wait."

By that measure, the Obama administration is heading into this fall's round of diplomatic tests in an awkward balance of patience and impatience. The people who are best positioned to wait for the proverbial "everything," alas, are not Americans.

The first major event up may be the opening of direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It can be argued that the very fact of talks rewards the patient strategy adopted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Middle East negotiator George Mitchell. They waited for the parties to crawl to the table, rather than seeking to impose a U.S. template.

The problem is that patience here ultimately works for the obstructers of peace, on both sides. They can wait out the do-gooders. The time bombs are already planted: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could refuse to extend his settlement freeze, prompting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to walk out. Abbas could refuse to discuss disarmament or a Jewish state, leading Netanyahu to quit.

A better approach here (and on other pending issues) would be "patience plus" -- the plus in this case being a set of basic guidelines to accompany the opening of the talks and provide some coherence to the process. Once these principles are set, delay won't work so well for the wreckers.

President Obama has sided so far with Clinton's patience on this issue. But if Obama wants to avoid getting nibbled to death by the patient naysayers, it's time for the president to add the "plus."

A second issue that would tax the patience of the almighty is Iraq's formation of a new government. It's now five months after the March elections that gave a narrow victory to former prime minister Ayad Allawi over incumbent Nouri al-Maliki. The Shiite parties that were once allied with Maliki have mostly abandoned him, yet he hangs on as though he were prime minister for life, Arab-style. Meanwhile, the bombs keep going off in Baghdad.

The administration has waffled between patience with Iraq's molasses-like political process and impatience about getting our troops home. This basically has left the field to the iron-butts of Baghdad and Tehran, who are prepared to wait out each other and the United States until the Tigris freezes over.

Here, again, the answer is patience plus. The United States has to keep reminding the Iraqis (as Vice President Biden has sporadically tried to do) that America still has troops in Iraq, as well as friends, interests and "red lines."

Iran is a third waiting game. The administration has admirably tried to remember that it's operating in a carpet bazaar here -- and patiently offer a mix of negotiations with economic sanctions. (I like diplomatic ambiguity, so I think this sometimes confusing stop-go approach is about right.)

Still, a clock is ticking loudly, in the form of Iran's nuclear program. So the "plus" in this case of patience plus requires that the United States promptly seize opportunities for negotiation when they arise.

The administration is laudably planning just such a test of diplomacy: In September or October, Iran and the the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany ("P5 plus 1") are likely to meet in Geneva or Brussels to discuss a broad range of issues, including the nuclear file; other technical talks may happen in Vienna involving Iran, the United States, Russia and France about enriching uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor. And most intriguing, the United States wants to begin a dialogue with Iran about stabilizing Afghanistan.

The ultimate test of America's patience is the war in Afghanistan, coupled with the explosive situation in neighboring Pakistan. Setting a July 2011 deadline for the beginning of America's withdrawal obviously enhances the leverage of those who can wait us out. But it's a political fact that America is a war-weary nation that does not -- and should not -- have infinite patience on this one.

So this final patience-plus bromide is simple: America should squeeze the insurgents hard over the next year and be as patient about results as the national mood allows. This pressure campaign should focus on a more decisive effort to close the Taliban's havens in Pakistan. If U.S. adversaries lose their resupply bases and their freedom of movement, the Af-Pak clock at last begins to work to America's advantage.


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