Condi's Free Ride
The fantasy of American diplomacy in the Middle East.
Thursday 29 March 2007
They must serve up some pretty powerful Kool Aid in the press room down at Foggy Bottom, judging by U.S. media coverage
of Condi Rice's latest "Look Busy" tour of the Middle East.
Secretary of State Rice's comings and goings have long been greeted with a jaded disdain by the Arab and Israeli media.
As Gideon Levy wrote plaintively (and typically) in Israel's Haaretz last August,
"Rice has been here six times in the course of a year and a half, and what has come of it? Has anyone asked her about
this? Does she ask herself? It is hard to understand how the secretary of state allows herself to be so humiliated. It
is even harder to understand how the superpower she represents allows itself to act in such a hollow and useless way.
The mystery of America remains unsolved: How is it that the United States is doing nothing to advance a solution to the
most dangerous and lengthiest conflict in our world?"
The fact that - this time - Rice professes to be advancing just such a solution has hardly convinced Middle Eastern
scribes. As Beirut's secular, liberal Daily Star put it in an editorial on Monday, "Already this is Rice's fourth Middle
East tour aimed at reactivating a stalled peace process, but so far the only measurable progress she has achieved has
been racking up extra mileage on her airplane."
Mainstream U.S. media outlets were alone in their willingness to swallow the preposterous narratives offered by Rice's
State Department spinners on the significance of her latest diplomatic efforts. For months, we have been reading a
fantasy version of American diplomacy in which Rice was at the center of a realignment of forces in the Middle East,
building a united front of Arab moderates to stand alongside the U.S. and Israel against Iran and other "extremist"
elements. Last week, we were asked to believe that Rice was now about to head back to the region to choreograph a
complex and dramatic diplomatic dance that would include such "challenges" as "trying to get the Saudis to talk to the
Israelis." Perhaps none of her aides bothered to let her in on the open secret that the Saudis have been doing that for
months - and not under the tutelage of, or at the prompting of, the Secretary of State either.
On the eve of her departure, the Washington Post informed us, Rice would remake the peace process via a new math:
4+2+4. This was cute jargon for grouping various discussions among the Israelis and Palestinians, the "Quartet" (the
U.S., the European Union, the UN, and Russia), and an "Arab Quartet" comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the
United Arab Emirates. By Monday, only three days later, however, the new math had mysteriously disappeared - as if Rice
had suddenly entered a world of innumeracy - replaced by "parallel discussions." With the Israelis unwilling to talk to
the Palestinians about the "contours of a Palestinian state," each side was instead to discuss such things separately
with Rice in a kind of diplomatic confession booth.
For anyone disappointed by the sudden demise of "4+2+4," Condi assured all involved that "we'll use many different
geometries, I'm sure, as we go through this process." A day later, the trip's crowning achievement was reported by the
New York Times: "After three days of shuttle diplomacy between Israeli and Arab cities and a late night of haggling,
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that she had persuaded Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hold talks
twice a month." But not, it turned out, on the "final-status issues" - the contours of a Palestinian state. They would
simply chat to "build confidence," while, presumably, regularly reentering her confession booth.
As Lebanon-based Jordanian journalist Rami Khouri put it,
"To overcome the chronic stalemate of bilateral Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy, [Rice] is now expanding this into a
trilateral failure, as the principal parties who won't talk to each other only to talk to her. It's hard to decide if
this is a comedy or a horror show."
It may be a sign of the contempt with which the Bush administration treats the American media that Condi expects such a
Pollyannaish pantomime to be reported as if it were history-in-the-making. And it may be a mark of the naivetŽ with
which much of the U.S. media has, over these last years, chronicled Condi's adventures that, in fact, it is reported as
if it were history-in-the-making. The Secretary of State has not only chalked up the miles in the air recently, in media
terms here in the U.S., she's invariably been given a free ride.
Whose Diplomacy Is This Anyway?
In reality, if significant diplomatic maneuvering is currently underway in the Middle East, it is the work of the
Saudis. The Saudi royals had grown so alarmed by the passivity and incompetence of the Bush administration - and by the
rising influence of Iran as well as Islamist movements in the Arab world (whose popularity and credibility is boosted by
their willingness to stand up to Israel and the U.S.) - that it launched an uncharacteristically robust diplomatic
campaign on a number of fronts. The Condi-spun media tends to explain this as the Bush administration coaxing Riyadh's
royal wallflowers onto the diplomatic dance floor. The Saudi efforts are, however, so clearly at odds with
administration policies and desires on key issues that this characterization is impossible to sustain.
As Washington pressed for the isolation of Iran, Riyadh - supposedly the leader of a new Axis of Moderation being
constructed by Washington - spent the winter vigorously engaging Tehran at the highest level. The purpose was to begin
to calm Shiite-Sunni tensions across the region, aggravated by the catastrophic situation in Iraq, and to bring
Lebanon's warring factions back from the brink of confrontation. While the U.S. press was generally reporting that the
Saudis were entering a period of muscular confrontation with Iran, that country appeared to be searching for mechanisms
to manage Saudi/Iranian differences based on a mutual recognition of each other's regional roles. Not exactly what
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Condoleezza Rice seems to have had in mind.
Then came the Saudi attempt to bring the warring Palestinian factions together in the Mecca Agreement. Here, the Saudis
brokered negotiations to draw Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party into a unity government with Hamas - even as Washington
continued to warn Abbas against doing so. Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority, has rarely
exhibited any independence from Washington. His willingness to take this step offered a clear signal that the Saudis
were orchestrating things on the Israeli-Palestinian front with little patience for indulging Bush administration
fantasies. The U.S. had, of course, been seeking the literal overthrow of Hamas since it won legislative elections in
2006 - something the Saudis recognized as infeasible, given that Hamas is, at this point, far more representative of
Palestinian sentiment than Fatah. Saudi leaders were also aware that Washington's campaign to isolate Hamas in the Arab
world left it little option but to seek Iranian patronage.
In reality, the Bush administration seems increasingly at odds with the consensus among the Arab moderates it claims to
be leading. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, in particular, appears to have sent a signal of this in cancelling - with
little explanation - a special state dinner that was to be hosted by President Bush on April 17th. Then, at Wednesday's
Arab League Summit in Riyadh, the King followed up by demanding an end to the crippling financial siege of the
Palestinian Authority imposed by the U.S. and denouncing the American military presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate
foreign occupation." This is strong stuff from the Saudis.
Rather than a patient plan crafted by the U.S. Secretary of State as some miraculous alchemist of grand strategy, the
latest flurry of activity reflects the maturing of a range of crises in the Middle East that have festered dangerously,
while Condi fiddled. These include:
• The fact that the Bush administration has only exerted itself - and then just symbolically - on the
Israeli-Palestinian front when it was desperate for favors from allied Arab regimes on other fronts, notably the roiling
crises in Iraq and Iran. With the U.S. struggling unsuccessfully on both fronts, its vaunted ability to influence events
in the region is in precipitous decline.
• The fact that the Arab regimes most closely allied to the U.S. face mounting crises of legitimacy at home,
damned not only by their authoritarianism, but also by their paralysis in the face of U.S. and Israeli violence against
Arab populations. Delivering the Palestinians to statehood is now seen by those regimes as essential to their own
domestic political survival.
• The fact that an Israeli government, which came to power promising peace through unilateral "disengagement" from
Gaza and parts of the West Bank, having fought a disastrous war in Lebanon and facing a never-ending struggle in Gaza,
is seemingly disengaged from itself, its policies in tatters. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is drowning in a sea of
corruption, scandals, and recriminations over the strategic and tactical incompetence he demonstrated in last summer's
Lebanon war. With his own approval ratings at an astonishing 3%, he desperately needs a new idea to persuade Israeli
voters that there's any reason to keep him in office.
• The fact that the Palestinians are experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian and political breakdown. All
factions of the Palestinian government share an overwhelming incentive to get the financial siege lifted from battered,
strife-torn Gaza. President Abbas' political future and legacy rest solely on completing the Oslo peace process; while
for Hamas - at least for its more pragmatic political leadership - allowing President Abbas to pursue that course
(particularly when it carries pan-Arab blessing) makes a certain sense. Hamas's political choices have always reflected
a keen sense of Palestinian popular sentiment. By maintaining a distant and ambiguous stance towards Abbas's diplomatic
efforts, it can plausibly deny complicity if the outcome proves unpopular on the Palestinian street.
The Failure to "Get There"
It is this combined political weakness, the loss of power among all the main players, that makes a renewed push for
peace suddenly so attractive - and so dubious. In recent weeks, both Rice and Olmert have expressed guarded enthusiasm
for the Saudi peace proposals, as if they represented some remarkable new set of suggestions. The plan, which offers
Israel recognition for full withdrawal to its 1967 borders, a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and
a solution to the Palestinian refugee question based on a "right of return," was actually adopted by the Arab League
five years ago. It was simply ignored by Israeli and American administrations that then felt too powerful to consider
it. Their sudden willingness to embrace it, even if on their own terms, underscores the failure of their guiding
Secretary of State Rice now treats discussions over the contours of a Palestinian state as if everyone were beginning
with a blank slate. This is simply a self-serving evasion - Israelis and Palestinians are well acquainted with the
parameters of a final-status agreement, because they've already negotiated over them at length at Camp David and later
at Taba in 2001, where they came pretty close to concluding a final status agreement. Even the "roadmap" adopted by the
Bush administration in 2003 (partly as a reward for Arab and British support for the Iraq invasion) calls for a
settlement that "will resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and end the occupation that began in 1967, based on the
foundations of the Madrid Conference, the principle of land for peace, UNSCRs 242, 338 and 1397, agreements previously
reached by the parties, and the initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah - endorsed by the Beirut Arab League Summit."
The basic assumption that emerges through all of those venues, resolutions, and initiatives is that the 1967 borders
should be the basis for negotiating a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It's the Bush administration that has failed, or refused, to grasp this. "If we all know what [a political settlement]
looks like," Condi said last week, "then why haven't we been able to get there?" That's the right question, of course,
although Condi clearly intended it only as a rhetorical conversation-stopper. What she refuses to recognize is that the
question has an answer: We haven't gotten there because there are elements on all sides of the conflict who don't want
to get there.
Sure, the U.S. mainstream media will tell you all about the Palestinian rejectionists. What American reporting seldom
makes clear is that Ariel Sharon was also elected prime minister in February 2001 on a rejectionist platform. He
rejected the very idea that the conflict could be resolved through a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.
Instead, Sharon envisaged a unilateral withdrawal from about half of the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the Palestinians a
little over 42% of the territories they occupied in 1967. A "non-belligerency agreement" would then be concluded for a
"lengthy and indefinite period." The latter, of course, sounds not dissimilar to the "long-term truce" advocated by
Hamas, which shares Sharon's distaste for a final political settlement - although nobody in our world pilloried the
Israeli leader as an extremist for holding exactly that position.
Sharon's position was so important precisely because it was so influential in Washington. Back in 2001, when Secretary
of State Colin Powell warned against the consequences of encouraging Sharon to seek a military solution to the
Palestinian uprising, President Bush reportedly snapped, "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify
things." That could be an epitaph for the Age of Bush.
Indeed, to the extent that it was to be addressed at all on President Bush's watch, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
was framed primarily as a problem of "terrorism." Sharon was encouraged to escalate the war on the West Bank on the
basis that Israel had a right to defend itself. Under Sharon's tutelage, the administration put the onus for restarting
any peace process purely on the Palestinians. They were not only tasked with preventing any further violence against
Israelis, but also with dismantling the military infrastructure of the likes of Hamas and Fatah. The administration did
occasionally pay lip service to the idea of Israel freezing settlement activity, but without conviction (or significant
When President Bush courted Arab support on Iraq in 2002, he made a symbolic declaration of support for Palestinian
statehood - but it was promptly hedged with qualifications. Not only would the Palestinians have to fulfill Israel's
security demands before there could be any movement towards such statehood, they would also have to thoroughly reform
their political system: President Arafat would have to transfer control of Palestinian funds and security forces to the
democratically elected legislature and the cabinet and prime minister it appointed. (The irony, to anyone paying
attention, was that, after Hamas won last year's election, the Bush administration did a 180-degree turnabout and now
insists that funds and security forces be entirely under the control of the politically reliable President Abbas.)
As Rice's erstwhile mentor, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, put it three years ago, "Sharon just has
[President Bush] wrapped around his little finger. I think the president is mesmerized."
In fact, far from being orchestrated or designed by Secretary of State Rice, events currently underway in the Middle
East correspond more closely to a prescription outlined by Scowcroft in an explicit rebuke of Rice at the height of last
summer's Lebanon crisis. As Scowcroft warned, the grand bargain that would stabilize the region depended, first and
foremost, on the U.S. mustering the political will to press the parties to make unpopular choices. For the past six
years, such political will has been conspicuously absent in Washington.
Those, Madame Secretary, are some of the reasons why we haven't yet "been able to get there."
As the Daily Star noted in an editorial last Monday, if Condi Rice wants to revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace
process, then her powers of persuasion would be more productively deployed not in the Middle East, but in the West Wing.
Tony Karon is a senior editor at TIME.com where he analyzes the Middle East and other international conflicts. At his
own blog, Rootless Cosmopolitan, he offers a more pugilistic take on the universe.