Realists Negotiate, Idealists Make War
Gidon D. Remba
Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
December 28, 2006
Negotiations, as a tool for dealing with our enemies, get a bum rap. Hardliners mock them as the feeble crutch of Kumbaya liberals who imagine that if only we talked with our adversaries, everything could be hashed out with a dollop of reason and a gallon of good will. But our foes are truly evil, they cavil. Dialogue with the devil will lead to naught, or worse, to mortal dangers to ourselves and our friends—especially Israel.
It helps to bear in mind the difference between “hawks” and “hardliners.” I’m a selective hawk; sometimes force is both necessary and just. Hardliners, by contrast, are emotionally and ideologically ossified when confronting the threats facing America and Israel. Their response is invariably to scoff at talk and brandish get-tough hit-em-hard panaceas.
But the biggest champions of negotiations aren’t mushy romantic liberals and Birkenstock-clad doves. They are rock-ribbed American and Israeli military strategists, high officers, combat veterans and intelligence analysts. Uber-hawk Donald Rumsfeld, sacked by President Bush for orchestrating our Iraq fiasco, was replaced by former CIA Director Robert Gates, who for two years has urged the US to engage in direct talks with Iran. Gates is noteworthy for his membership in the “realist” camp in foreign policy circles, to which Bush’s father, and his moderate Republican advisors, belong. That’s the school of Republicans and Democrats who, looking at the likely impact of the Iraq war on our fight against Al Qaeda, the regional balance of power between America's Sunni Arab allies and Iran-linked Shias, and our ability to project a credible threat of force against the greater dangers from Iran and North Korea, opposed the invasion and occupation of Iraq for purely realist, strategic reasons, even had it been handled competently.
Our new defense chief served on the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, the blue-ribbon government panel of ten luminaries chaired by Republican James A. Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton. In their report, “The Way Forward: A New Approach,” the panel unanimously recommended to the President and Congress that the US talk to both Iran and Syria, one pillar of a comprehensive new Mideast diplomatic initiative for Arab-Israeli peace and Iraqi national reconciliation. The purpose of such discussions would be to enlist Iranian and Syrian help in stabilizing neighboring Iraq through their Sunni and Shia allies, enabling the US to draw down troops without Iraqi chaos drowning the entire Middle East in a bloodbath—a maelstrom from which no one, including Israel, will emerge unscathed.
The US will need to offer some quid pro quo to Iran and Syria, a package of political, security and economic incentives, in exchange for plucking our chestnuts from the Mesopotamian fire. The more we are prepared to give, the more we can demand from the Iranians and the Syrians, and not just on Iraq, but on other issues of deep concern to us and our allies, not least Iran’s nuclear ambitions. A US opening to Syria will likely pave the way for Israel to resume peace talks with President Bashar Assad, blocked, as Prime Minister Olmert has recently acknowledged, by the opposition of President Bush. At the same time, Syria will be expected to stanch the flow of arms to Hezbollah from Iran and its own storehouses, and cut off support for Hamas militants, showing good faith as negotiations begin (incentives are a two-way street). Israel Radio quoted Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya on December 19 as saying that Assad “has sent a message to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert via Germany, in which he offered to crack down on Hamas and Hezbollah in exchange for a return to negotiations.” Such offers afford Israel and the US the chance to put Assad’s intentions to the test.
A train of moderate Republican and Democratic senators has visited Damascus in recent weeks to test the waters with Assad, notwithstanding the expected howls of protest from the Bush Administration. Incoming Democratic House majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), one of Israel’s best friends in Congress, has told JTA that the new Democratic Congress will encourage US contacts with Syria and Iran. Yet the usual suspects in the organized American Jewish community, AIPAC foremost among them, are opposing this and other recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission and the Democratic Congress, aligning once again with the most reactionary forces in American and Israeli politics. This despite the fact that 87% of American Jews voted Democratic in the mid-term election, repudiating the Bush Administration’s wildly successful formula for Mideast peace. A majority of Israelis, polls show, favors talking with Syria. In response to my brief in Ha’aretz for a moderate pro-Israel lobby (see http://tough-dove-israel.blogspot.com/2006/11/haaretz-wanted-moderate-pro-israel.html ) AIPAC insisted that its role is “not to advance a prescriptive agenda. It is the voters in Israel and the United States who decide which governments to elect and what policies to follow.” Precisely which voters is AIPAC representing now?
Hardliners trot out aborted peace talks as if they prove negotiations irredeemably hopeless. Yet when war fails to achieve many of its aims at a reasonable cost—as for the US in Iraq, Vietnam a generation before, and Israel (twice) in Lebanon—the war-mongers rarely conclude that military action has proven futile, impotent to solve our problems. Instead, they call for war again, now on a grander scale (next stop Iran and Syria), imagining that if only we change our martial tactics or strategy, throwing bigger and better munitions at our enemies, arms will prove themselves in the next round. Never do they suggest that negotiations fell short because external conditions, specific leaders, or a faulty approach imposed obstacles, so that when one or more of these is changed, bargaining might hold greater promise. They would revolutionize tactics and strategy so the next armed clash might bring us nearer to victory. But never would they make such bold changes to raise the odds that the next negotiation meets with greater success, perhaps preventing the next war.
Hardliners blame national conflicts on efforts to solve them (see the “Oslo caused the intifada” mantra) rather than on the underlying grievances which keep them aflame. For hardliners, the lesson of the failed Oslo peace process is that one can’t negotiate with Palestinians; not now, not ever, or not until they become, well, Finns (in Sharon advisor Dov Weissglas’ famous phrase, a stand-in for “peace-loving liberal Jeffersonian democrats”). But for realists, the lesson is: change the program. Radically rethink our approach to negotiations. Revamp our tactics and strategy, the actions we take, and neglect to take, before, during and after we bargain for peace. Revise our demands of the other side, and our expectations of third parties. Create stronger incentives for constructive moves by our opponent, and disincentives against bad acts, building a regime of accountability with trusted outside arbiters.
Israeli and American realists, and now the illustrious Iraq Study Group, have offered a series of dramatic innovations to the way we bargain for peace and security with Syria, Lebanon, Iran and the Palestinians; most, if not all, have yet to be tried. Just ask former CIA analyst and National Security Council Senior Director Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann, whose New York Times op-ed recounting public information on post-9/11 US-Iranian cooperation against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan was heavily censored last week by the Bush White House. Said Leverett: “They don’t want us to say how many opportunities this administration has missed to put relations with Iran on a better track.” (see http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/22/opinion/22precede.html )
Peace talks are a grand idea, Israeli author Amos Oz once quipped, if only we’d really try them. But with Olmert’s unpopular government facing mounting regional security threats from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Hamas, with few answers, and a chastened Bush Administration seeking in its final act a way out of the Mideast morass, the realists may finally get another chance. But only after the idealists make a “grave and deteriorating” situation worse. And by then it may well be too late.
Gidon D. Remba is co-author of the forthcoming The Great Rift: Arab-Israeli War and Peace in the New Middle East. His commentary is available at http://tough-dove-israel.blogspot.com/ He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israel Prime Minister’s Office during the Egyptian-Israeli peace process from 1977-1978. His essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times, the Nation, the Jerusalem Report, Ha’aretz, Tikkun, the Forward, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Chicago Jewish News, JUF News, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.
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