Posted by Joshua on Wednesday, April 11th, 2007
The two best articles on the Pelosi visit are by Robert Malley and Jim Lobe (copied below).
Malley is fed up with the internal US bickering about the Pelosi visit with good reason. It diverts us from the main issue – Syria is prepared to play a constructive role in the region if the US and Israel are also willing to play constructive roles. For the US, constructive means backing international law and UN resolutions to encourage Israel to return the Golan Heights to its rightful owner. For Syria, constructive means stopping its support for resistance groups which attack Israel and thwart international laws and recognized government authority. Syria has turned a deaf ear to US and Israeli demands that it stop support for resistance groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas before achieving guarantees that the Golan will be returned. Syria understands that without an effective resistance it stands no chance of getting the Golan back. The US has no power to impose its demands on Syria. The demands have become pointless preconditions designed to thwart dialogue. It takes two to tango – that is the key.
Jim Lobe points out that Elliot Abrams and V.P. Cheney are behind the anti-Pelosi campaign. Their aim is ideological. It has nothing to do with realizable policy. Some want to explain that Abrams and Cheney, as well as Pelosi, are slaves of the pro-Israel lobby. While they may all find the pro-Israel lobby important instruments in their campaigns or in supporting their policies, the Lobe article reminds us that Abrams behaved exactly the same way toward Latin America in the 1980s, where Israel was not concerned, as he is behaving towards Syria today.
Another example of Abrams' ideological stubborness was toward Angola and Cuba in the 1980s. A former US ambassador to South Africa told me of how he had helped set up talks with Cubans and Angolans in order to get all foreign armies out of Namibia, including that of South African. Elliot Abrams tried to stop the talks with Cuba, claiming that "they are Communists. We do not talk to Communists." For an oblique reference to this episode, see: Edward J. Perkins, Mr. Ambassador: Warrior for Peace, University of Oklahoma Press, 2006, p. 416. Ambassador Perkins writes:
[The Cubans and the Angolans] were easier to deal with than the U.S. assistant secretary of Inter-American Affairs, then a hard-line right-winger. Until then, I thought he and I were friends, but he took a stand that branded Cuba as a country not worthy of relations with the United States.
Ambassador Perkins and Assistant Secretary Chet Crocker were able to overcome Abrams' objections and helped forge an end to the regional conflict between South Africa and Angola over Namibia, which had sucked in both the US and USSR and its surrogates. Ambassador Perkins writes:
"We were realists and that was what made this protracted but successful negotiation possible; we recognized that massive solutions could not be based on the concrete historical realities of a given situation. 'Just as man cannot eat slogans, neither can statesmen solve problems with rhetorical cliches and abstract formula.'" (p. 418.)
Forget Pelosi. What about Syria?
U.S. isolation of Damascus rests in a misunderstanding of Syria's position in the Mideast.
By Robert Malley, ROBERT MALLEY, former special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, is the International Crisis Group's Middle East program director.
April 11, 2007, LA Times
UNDERTAKING HER first major diplomatic foray, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got an earful. As she met with Syrian President Bashar Assad, she came under immediate, stinging attack. The White House condemned her encounter as counterproductive, asserting that it undermined U.S. policy aimed at marginalizing a so-called pariah regime.
The charge is, on its face, absurd. The European Union's top diplomatic envoy just visited Syria. Assad attended the recent Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Republican and Democratic officials have been traveling to Damascus for months. The Syrian regime is no more isolated in the world than the Bush administration is embraced by it. But the fuss about Pelosi's perfectly legitimate visit obscured a far more intriguing question: What should be done about Syria?
Over the last several years, the consistent response from Israel and the United States has been: Ignore it. It is difficult to recall the last time Israel rejected an Arab invitation to negotiate — let alone the last time the U.S. actively encouraged it to do so — but in this case that is exactly what it has done.
Israel spurns Assad's calls to renew unconditional peace talks, claiming that the Syrian regime has no intention of concluding a peace deal and is merely seeking to lessen international pressure and shift attention away from the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria may wish to regain sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the argument goes, but it desperately wants to restore its hegemony over Lebanon. To engage Syria now would reward its support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, its attempts to destabilize Lebanon and its funneling of jihadists into Iraq. Seen in this light, a resumption of Israeli-Syrian negotiations is considered futile or, worse, damaging, an escape hatch for a regime that will respond only — if at all — to sustained pressure.
The arguments have merit, but the conclusion does not stand up to scrutiny. As any one visiting Damascus these days doubtless will notice, the regime is displaying a peculiar mix of supreme confidence and outright anxiety. Convinced that the regional tide is turning against the U.S. in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, Syrian officials sense that any American attempt to destabilize their regime is a thing of the past.
Yet America's defeat is not necessarily Syria's victory. Sandwiched between civil strife in Iraq and Lebanon, facing increasing sectarian polarization throughout the region, losing political legitimacy at home and confronted with acute economic problems, the Syrian regime is eager for renewed domestic popularity and international investment. What better than a peace deal with Israel and recovery of the Golan Heights — with all the attendant diplomatic and economic benefits — most notably normalization with the West — to achieve those goals?
As for Syria's regional posture, this much can be said: Damascus will not cut ties with Hezbollah, break with Hamas or alienate Iran as the entry fare for peace negotiations. Syrian officials make clear that they will not forgo their few strategic cards ahead of a deal. But they are equally clear that a deal would change the entire regional picture — the country's alliances as well as its policies.
If, as Israeli and U.S. officials assert, the regime's priority is self-preservation, it is unlikely to sponsor militant groups, jeopardize its newfound status, destabilize the region or threaten nascent economic ties for the sake of ideological purity once an agreement has been reached. Israeli and U.S. demands will not be satisfied as preconditions to negotiations, but there is at the very least solid reason to believe that they would be satisfied as part of a final deal.
Even assuming that Washington and Jerusalem are right and that Syria is more interested in the process than in the outcome, what is the downside of testing the sincerity of its intentions? To the contrary, the mere sight of Israeli and Syrian officials sitting side by side would carry dividends, producing ripple effects in a region where popular opinion is moving away from acceptance of the Jewish state's right to exist, and putting Syrian allies that oppose a negotiated settlement in an awkward position. It has gone largely unnoticed, but Assad has been at pains to differentiate his position from that of his Iranian ally, emphasizing that Syria's goal is to live in peace with Israel, not to wipe it off the face of the Earth. That is a distinction worth exploiting, not ignoring.
Rigidly rebuffing Syria is a mistake fast on its way to becoming a missed opportunity. The U.S. says it wants to see real change from Damascus, and it takes pleasure in faulting visitors — Pelosi only the latest among them — for returning empty-handed. Syria's response is that it will continue to assist militant groups, maintain close ties to Iran and let the U.S. flounder in Iraq for as long as Washington maintains its hostile policy and blocks peace talks. It also could change all of the above should the U.S. change its stance. That's a message Pelosi can hear and one she can deliver, but not one she can do much about. Rather than engage in political theatrics, the president should listen.
A crisis area – in this case, the Middle East – finds itself in desperate need of a peace process capable of tamping down the forces of violence and destabilization which the United States itself has played a central role in unleashing.
Regional efforts at diplomacy – in this case, led by Saudi Arabia – gain some momentum but are frustrated by die-hard hawks in a U.S. administration. While increasingly on the defensive both at home and abroad, they are determined to carry through their strategy of isolating and destabilizing a hostile target – in this case, Syria – despite its oft-repeated eagerness to engage Washington and its regional allies.
Sensing an increasingly dangerous impasse, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives – in this case, Nancy Pelosi, backed by a growing bipartisan consensus that the administration's intransigence will further reduce already-waning U.S. influence in the region – tries to encourage regional peace efforts by engaging the target directly.
But, worried that her quest might actually gain momentum, administration hawks – in this case, led by Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Vice President Dick Cheney – accuse the speaker of undermining the president and, working through obliging editorial writers at the Washington Post, among other sympathetic media, including, of course, the Wall Street Journal, attack her for "substitut[ing] her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president."
If that scenario sounds familiar, your foreign policy memory dates back at least to 1987, when, despite intensified regional peacemaking efforts for which Costa Rican President Oscar Arias won that year's Nobel Peace Prize, the Ronald Reagan administration was persisting in its efforts to isolate and overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
It was then-House Speaker Jim Wright who, with the quiet encouragement of Republican realists, notably Reagan's White House chief of staff, Howard Baker, Secretary of State George Shultz, and his special Central America envoy, Philip Habib, sought to promote Arias' plan.
Like today's Republican realists on the Iraq Study Group (ISG), who have urged the Bush administration to engage rather than continue to isolate Syria, they understood that popular and congressional support for a "regime change" policy in Nicaragua was not sustainable and Washington should seek a regional settlement on the most favorable terms available.
But Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, worked assiduously with fellow hard-liners in the White House and the Pentagon – just as he works today with Cheney's office – to torpedo both the Arias plan and Wright's efforts to advance it throughout the latter half of 1987.
As Abrams' assistant at the time, the future neoconservative heavy thinker, Robert Kagan, put it later, "Arias, more than any other Latin leader single-handedly undid U.S. policy in Nicaragua." And when he won the Nobel Prize, "all us of who thought it was important to get aid for the contras reacted with disgust, unbridled disgust."
As part of their strategy, hard-liners led by Abrams rejected appeals by Nicaragua for high-level talks, thus forcing Habib to resign by late summer and insisting – as they now do with Syria – that direct negotiations would serve only to legitimate Sandinistas and demoralize the contras.
In November 1987, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega came to Washington with a proposal for a cease-fire with the contras. After the administration refused to receive him, Wright, seeing an opportunity to jump-start a stalled peace process, attended a meeting at the Vatican Embassy here at which Ortega asked his main domestic foe, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, to mediate between the Sandinista government and the contras.
Wright's participation in the talks was seized by Abrams as the launching pad for a public – if barely concealed – attack on the speaker. Interviewed by the Post under the guise of an unnamed "senior administration official," Abrams charged Wright with engaging in "guerrilla theater" and "an unbelievable melodrama" that had dealt a "serious setback" to the administration's policy.
"This was not forward movement; this was screwing up the process," the "senior official" complained to the Post, which, as in its criticism Friday of Pelosi's meeting with Assad, obligingly followed up with its own editorial, entitled "What is Jim Wright Doing?," charging the speaker with having acted "as though the actual conduct of diplomacy in this delicate passage were his responsibility."
The Journal's neoconservative editorial writers swiftly joined in, accusing Wright of a "compulsion for running off-the-shelf foreign-policy operations," just as last week they charged Pelosi and Democrats of seeking "to conduct their own independent diplomacy."
Within just a few months of his meeting with Ortega, however, the Democratic-led Congress rejected Reagan's request to fund the contras, a step that Abrams incorrectly predicted at the time would result in "the dissolution of Central America."
According to Roy Gutman's aptly named 1988 book about Reagan's Central America policy, "Banana Diplomacy," Washington soon found itself "at the margins of the region's diplomacy."
Unlike his high-public profile as assistant secretary 20 years ago, Abrams, who now presides over Middle East policy at the National Security Council, is today far more discreet, no doubt in part because his conviction in 1991 for lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-contra scandal has made him an easy target for Democrats.
"He's very careful about not leaving fingerprints," one State Department official told IPS earlier this year.
But there is little doubt among Middle East analysts here that Abrams is playing a lead role in White House efforts to discredit Pelosi for meeting with Assad, just as he did with Wright for meeting Ortega in 1987.
And just as he worked with Reagan hard-liners to undermine the Arias Plan 20 years ago, so he appears to be doing what he can to undermine recent efforts by Saudi King Abdullah to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace process and, for that matter, by Republican realists, and even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to push it forward. (Inter Press Service)