Dealing with the Self-Righteous
The news that was not news was that there would be no news. Friday, December 15, we were told she said it again -
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected a bipartisan panel's recommendation that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the "compensation" required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq.
"If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway," Rice said in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporters and editors.
Nothing new here. In late summer, regarding talking to Syria about the short Israel-Hezbollah war that had devastated Lebanon, she had said then that there was no point in talking with them about the issues in the region, as "they know what they must do," slamming that door shut. We don't talk. Others know what they should do.
It's just passive-aggressive nastiness. Any man who has been married knows all about the tactic. Anyone who had a guilt-inducing Jewish or Catholic martyr-mother knows too. You can ask what you did wrong, what you're supposed to do, but your receive silence - until you do whatever it is you should, or stop doing whatever it is you shouldn't. You have to guess a lot. It's supposed to be educational, one presumes. If you finally figure out what's going on, without being told what the problem is at all, or, if you luckily do guess the problem, and actually figure out why it matters, and then do what you were too stupid to know you should have done - the "right thing" you just didn't understand - you get a pat on the head, maybe.
Sometimes you just say "screw it" and walk away. It's both insulting and frustrating, and once you get over your anger, somehow comic. Why did you even buy into it, if you did?
Those who follow "the new American diplomacy" - we don't talk - shake their heads at this official stance. For example, Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly notes that Rice's statement isn't really anything new, but he's still freshly astounded whenever he hears it again -
This is, basically, an argument for never negotiating with anyone. After all, why bother if states will simply do what they want to do regardless? (cf. President Bush's belief that Syria already "knows my position.")
Conservatives often accuse liberals of elevating negotiation into an end in itself. It's a fatuous charge, but its mirror image isn't: as a matter of principle, contemporary conservatives really do seem to have broadly rejected even the concept of negotiating with our enemies. I guess you could armchair psychoanalyze this belief forever, but I imagine it's mostly caused by a fear that they might actually succeed. Take a look at Iraq: in the end, it acquiesced to every American demand in 2002 and 2003, and that just made it harder to gain support for the invasion we wanted.
It's no wonder Bush hates the idea. He's probably afraid the same thing might happen with Syria.
Matthew Yglesias agrees that may be true - we're afraid negotiation might work and then we'd really be in a bind - but says he would press further -
Conservatives combine this with an oddly expansive view of who "our enemies" are. Iran is plausibly characterized as an enemy who liberals think we should negotiate with. Our lack of diplomatic relations dates back to the hostage crisis in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, and the Revolution was loaded with anti-American rhetoric and ideology from the get-go. It's a bona fide enemy, and we should negotiate with them.
But in what sense is Syria "our enemy" except in the sense that the Bush administration won't conduct diplomacy with the Syrian government? Syria isn't pushing for regime change in the United States. Syria isn't trying to conquer Mexico as part of a first step to restructure the politics of North America. Syria was part of our coalition during the first Gulf War. Throughout the Clinton administration there were frequent US-Syrian diplomatic talks running parallel to US-Israeli diplomatic talks aimed (unsuccessfully) at resolving the dispute over the Golan Heights and normalizing relations between Syria and Israel. After Operation Grapes of Wrath the US and Syria worked together on the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Agreement. After 9/11, Syria offered intelligence cooperation against al-Qaeda.
Syria's not an ally of the United States. But it's not our enemy in any meaningful sense. It's just a country the administration more-or-less severed diplomacy with unilaterally for no real reason.
"After 9/11, Syria offered intelligence cooperation against al-Qaeda." They did. Yep, we sent that Canadian fellow we grabbed at the Newark Airport to Syria for a year. They tortured him for us, to get him to confess he was an al Qaeda operative and to get him to tell us what the big plan was and where the top bad guys were hiding. Yes, he turned out to be just a completely innocent electrical engineer returning from vacation, just as the Canadians had warned us, and he couldn't tell us "the big plan" - he didn't know what we were talking about - and he knew no one and nothing useful at all, but that wasn't exactly the Syrians' fault. As for Operation Grapes of Wrath, that was the Israeli Defense Forces' code-name for a sixteen-day military blitz against Lebanon in 1996 in an attempt to end shelling of Northern Israel by Hezbollah. Hezbollah called it the April War. Israel names things better. Israel did a lot of airstrikes and shelling, just like last summer - and a UN installation was hit causing the death of one hundred eighteen Lebanese civilians. Hezbollah's cross-border rocket attacks targeted civilian northern Israel, which was equally nasty. But they also fought directly with Israeli and South Lebanon Army forces. The conflict was "de-escalated" on 27 April of that year with the agreement mentioned - all parties agreed to stop with the killing civilians stuff. Syria brokered it. They have been helpful.
Syria may be assisting the insurgents in Iraq now, which is what we claim. We say that's obvious, and they say they're doing no such thing. Both are probably lies. But really, we just don't like their attitude - they openly say our war is wrong-headed and destabilizing the region. That is insulting. You don't just come out and say the President of the United States made a monumentally bone-headed decision. That makes George and Dick and Donald resentful. Of course the Syrians also have to deal with wave after wave of Iraqi refuges from the chaos in Baghdad flooding Damascus and overwhelming the infrastructure there, which, in turn, seems to make them grumpy. There may be much to talk about, when you think about it. But we won't talk, until they stop doing what they say they're not doing, and maybe not even then.
So enter the freelancers -
The White House said Thursday that a Democratic senator's meeting with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria was inappropriate and undermined democracy in the region, while three more senators, including a Republican, made plans to visit Damascus in defiance of President Bush.
The visits are troublesome for the Bush administration because they come in the wake of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which has called for the United States to engage in direct talks with Iran and Syria. Mr. Bush has steadfastly resisted such talks, and the visits by the senators could add to public pressure on the White House to change that policy.
Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, was in Damascus on Wednesday to meet with Mr. Assad; he later told reporters that he saw a "crack in the door" for the United States to cooperate with Syria on Iraq. Senators Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut; John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; and Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, all plan to visit Syria in the coming weeks.
That is rather extraordinary. The administration says no jaw-jaw in this case - we will not talk with these insulting troublemakers. And senators from both parties say "screw that" - as that makes no sense - and fly over for a chat. They just took our foreign policy out of the hands of our passive-aggressive leaders, preferring more "direct" communications. The words "lame duck" come to mind.
Kerry - "The bottom line is we have a very clear and distinct responsibility to ask questions. A lot of Americans wish a lot more questions, a lot tougher questions, had been asked before we got into the mess we're in over here."
Dodd - "Members need to go to hot spots, not just garden spots."
Specter, the "moderate" Republican, had already said in a statement on the Senate floor that he had "long advocated" negotiating with Syria - "We need to keep our friends close and our enemies closer." Not original, but a power play. When the State Department and administration won't do their job, someone has to.
And it got hot. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary - "We think it's inappropriate. The concern here, among other things, is that this does not strengthen the hand of democracy in the region."
Who knows what that means, logically? The White House says that Syria is helping to fuel the insurgency in Iraq, and is "particularly incensed" at Syria for supporting Hezbollah and for trying to destabilize the Lebanese government. You don't talk to people who do such things. One has to assume then that the Syrians are fighting the big "democracy plan" we have for the region, and we don't much care about their parochial and local or politically pragmatic motives. They're messing with George's plan. That's unforgivable. And Snow warned that these visits "may cost some people their credibility" - Nelson from Florida will be on Rove's hit list now, or something. There will be some sort of smear - Snow pretty much promised that.
Nelson contends he did the right thing, and he may have. Later he was in Lebanon with its prime minister -
"I told Prime Minister Siniora that I told Assad to keep his hands off Lebanon," the senator said. He said he approached his meetings in Syria with "realism, not optimism," and added of Mr. Assad, "I don't trust him at all."
Despite the harsh words from the White House, the Bush administration does have diplomatic ties with Syria, and Mr. Nelson said American Embassy officials have been "just ecstatic" to receive reports from his visits, "because so often they don't have access to a highly controversial leader in the country until somebody like a senator comes along."
Mr. Nelson said he had already briefed R. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third ranking official, about his meeting with Mr. Assad.
He's just doing the job the administration won't do. It's almost a coup, when you think about it.
And even the press is getting into the act. David Ignatius of the Post is, with this column -
DAMASCUS, Syria -- What positions would Syria take if it entered a dialogue with the United States about Iraq and other Middle East issues? I put that question Thursday to Walid Moallem, Syria's foreign minister, and he offered surprisingly strong support for the recommendations made last week in the Baker-Hamilton report.
And note this assessment from Yglesias -
There's good and there's bad in David Ignatius column on diplomacy with Syria but the genuinely absurd part of the column is not-at-all something Ignatius can be blamed for.
… Note the dateline: Damascus. Note the interviewee: Syria's foreign minister. It's not that hard. I don't have the budget for a trip to Damascus, and I bet I lack the clout for an interview with the foreign minister. But the State Department can surely swing the trip. Exploring the possibility of diplomacy requires, quite simply, nothing more than for Rice or Robert Zoellick or David Welch to, you know, go to Syria and ask what's up. It's lazy, insane, or just insane laziness not to do it. But no. Top officials will meet with the Syrian opposition but not the Syrian government. Because, I guess, if we close our eyes and wish hard enough, the Syrian government will just go away and the opposition will take over?
At any rate, here's Ignatius' complete interview with the Foreign Minister, and good for him for making the trip.
Yes, the senators and press meet with the Syrian government, to see what the lay of the land is and what can be worked out, if anything, and our administration will only meet with the wild-eyed rebels, to provide them funds to somehow get their act together and overthrow the government there. We, officially, don't do diplomacy. We only do regime change. The traditionalists, who still believe in classic diplomacy - hard nosed negotiations where you say what you won't give up and what is on the table, and ask the other side to do the same, and see what can be worked out - are doing what they can. The administration would prefer the twenty-year-olds with their AK-47's to take over that Syrian joint. Dealing with them is a whole lot easier than dealing actual adults who have their own issues and ideas, and concerns you may not realize, and want to know what you think, and may or may not want to see if everyone can get at least part of what they want. Dealing with the children is easier. It's a matter of courage. The administration may just be afraid. That would make them cowards, putting us all at risk. That couldn't be, could it?
Well, at least we'll have a "new way forward" and all that. That Iraq Study Group report shook things up. At the end of the week the best rundown on that came from an item from the McClatchy newspapers (formerly of Knight-Ridder), the crew that was alone in getting things exactly right before the war.
The baseline -
The president signaled Wednesday that neither the study group's pessimistic assessment nor the bleak situation in Iraq nor the results of the midterm elections have shaken his belief that victory in Iraq is possible.
"We're not going to give up," said Bush, who plans to announce his new strategy early next year.
While some key decisions haven't been made yet, the senior officials said the emerging strategy includes:
- A shift in the primary U.S. military mission in Iraq from combat to training an expanded Iraqi army, generally in line with the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.
That sounds a lot like "as they stand up, we stand down. The new way forward will be more of the same. And victory is possible, even if no one can precisely define it in this case.
There is some additional filigree of course - "A revised Iraq political strategy aimed at forging a 'moderate center' of Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish politicians that would bolster embattled Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. The goal would be to marginalize radical Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents."
Isn't it pretty to think so? We just get them, as John McCain has put it, to stop this bullshit. We tell them, simply, to stop thinking about religion so much, and just stop blowing things up. And they will. It's a fine idea. Of course they'll do that. And pigs will fly.
And this - "More money to combat rampant unemployment among Iraqi youths and to advance reconstruction, much of it funneled to groups, areas and leaders who support Maliki and oppose the radicals."
That's not a bad idea. Who will be in charge of distribution? Do we send Paul Bremmer back? Will Halliburton handle this? The missing eight billion dollars, cash, from the first year or so of this war raises questions. Will someone keep any sort of books this time? There were no books before - not even an Excel spreadsheet. "We just don't know where the money went" may not fly this time. Ah, maybe they learned their lesson.
And this - "Rejection of the study group's call for an urgent, broad new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reach out to Iran and Syria. Instead, the administration is considering convening a conference of Iraq and neighboring countries - excluding Iran and Syria - as part of an effort to pressure the two countries to stop interfering in Iraq."
Huh? See above, and Josh Marshall - "Okay, so it'll be us, 'Iraq,' Jordan and the Saudis holding a conference to get the Syrians and Iranians to stop messing around in Iraq. Why didn't we think of this before?"
Actually, that parallels our efforts with North Korea - we won't talk directly with North Korea but think we can get other nations, China and Japan, to talk them into what we want them to do, not go nuclear, without us having to actually face them ourselves and say things and listen to things. And how did that work out?
And as for John McCain's "send in twenty-thousand" plan - "A possible short-term surge of as many as 40,000 more American troops to try to secure Baghdad, along with a permanent increase in the size of the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps, which are badly strained by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan."
So who's got the bigger dick now? McCain gets neutered. The president calls and raises, a double-down bet. He's the man. But see John Burns in the New York Times - Military Considers Sending as Many as 35,000 More U.S. Troops to Iraq, McCain Says - "Senator John McCain said Thursday that American military commanders were discussing the possibility of adding as many as 10 more combat brigades - a maximum of about 35,000 troops…" Did I say twenty thousand? The military wants more than double that, and I agree, and it wasn't George's idea, it was their idea, not his. So my dick is bigger. And so on.
Basically the Baker-Hamilton report backfired - "Bush appears to have been emboldened by criticism of its proposals as defeatist by members of the Republican Party's conservative wing and their allies on the Internet, the radio and cable TV."
They said his daddy's man was wrong. Bill Kristol said so. So did Rush Limbaugh - "This is cut and run, surrender without the words."
So who's do you turn to, if daddy's man tells you to surrender? That's obvious - "According to a senior State Department official, the president is listening closely to a former Republican secretary of state, but it isn't Baker. Henry Kissinger, a frequent White House visitor, has been to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a half-dozen times, he said."
Nixon. One more time. And how did that work out?
There is no forcing change in the case. The self-righteous are doing just fine, thank you.