“Peace is at hand,” Henry Kissinger famously announced in October 1972 after a seeming breakthrough in Vietnam negotiations. But it wasn’t at hand. It took three more months to complete the Paris Peace Accords, which collapsed in 1975 when North Vietnam overran Saigon.
This Vietnam history is a caution against premature optimism about diplomatic solutions to deeply embedded conflicts, such as the one in Afghanistan. But the fact remains, as is so often stated, that there is no military solution to such conflicts. The challenge is creating a dialogue among people who profoundly mistrust each other — and averting a pell-mell civil war.
President Obama is embracing the logic of a political settlement for Afghanistan with his speech Wednesday night. With Osama bin Laden dead, Obama can claim that America’s core mission of combating al-Qaeda is succeeding. He can bring some troops home and step up diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban to reach a broad peace deal by 2014.
Obama’s strategy for the Afghanistan negotiations highlights two factors that could also be relevant in the increasingly messy conflicts in Libya and Syria. First, the dialogue must be sponsored by people inside the country that’s facing internal strife. The United States may encourage contacts, but the process has to be “Afghan-led,” or “Libyan-led,” or “Syrian-led.” Second, this dialogue requires a regional framework, so that the combatants don’t turn to meddling neighbors for help.
America’s secret contacts with the Taliban have made progress partly because President Hamid Karzai wants them to succeed and, perhaps more important, because India, Pakistan, Russia and China are also supporting the outreach process — with silent acquiescence from Iran, too. This regional framework is the real exit ramp that will allow withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Let’s think about how this diplomatic model might apply to Libya and Syria. In both cases, the insurgents are seen in the West as the “good guys,” battling corrupt, autocratic leaders. Personally, I wish that both Moammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad would give up power tomorrow. But that doesn’t seem in the cards: Both leaders have shown they’re willing to kill thousands of their citizens to hang on, and the rebel movements in both countries seem too weak to displace the dictators by force. Outside military intervention may seem tempting, but it isn’t working very well in Libya, and might fare even worse in Syria.
The right goal in Libya and Syria (as in Afghanistan) is a transition to an inclusive, democratic government — with as little bloodshed along the way as possible. The alternative to such a settlement is a protracted conflict that could mean massacres of civilians and, on present evidence, a bloody stalemate that further destabilizes the region.
It’s distasteful to contemplate dialogue with leaders such as Gaddafi and Assad who, to put it bluntly, have blood on their hands. But this approach is worth exploring if it can foster a transition to a democratic government — where the autocrats cede power to a coalition that includes reformist elements of the old regime and the opposition.
An emissary who is close to Gaddafi’s inner circle has outlined in recent interviews a Libyan formula for transition. He proposes a gradual transfer of power to a new government that would unite the rebel Transitional National Council with “reconcilables” from the regime. Gaddafi himself would quit Tripoli and give up power, but this would be an outcome of negotiations, rather than a precondition. State Department officials are skeptical, but they should test the emissary’s ability to deliver.
The Syrian case is also complicated by the blood-soaked history of the regime. In a speech Monday, Assad proposed a national dialogue, in which the democratic opposition would select 100 participants to meet with government representatives — and plan elections and a new constitution. Given Assad’s disappointing record, it’s doubtful that he can or will deliver. But it makes sense to test his offer — not least because such a process would terrify Assad’s patrons in Iran. If the dialogue fails, the Syrian demonstrations will be all the more potent, and Assad’s hold weaker.
These internal dialogues should be bolstered by regional support, as with Afghanistan. The right shepherds for Libya are its newly democratic neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia, backed by France, Britain and Germany. In Syria, the obvious mediator-in-waiting is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, backed by the Gulf countries.
Here’s the point: The Arab Spring should not turn into a summer of blood, if there are diplomatic alternatives.