Lazy Diplomacy in Foreclosure

From the beginning, Iraq's problem has been Iraq's -- not an Iraqi problem for America to solve. If matters are improving at all in Iraq, as in superficial ways they are, it's because British, Australian and American forces (an axis of grudges if there ever was one in Iraqi eyes) have either withdrawn or scaled back their footprint while Iraqi forces are reclaiming their country -- from insurgents as much as from occupiers.

Difficult as it may be for the world's self-appointed policeman to accept, the non-English-speaking world can be better-suited to resolve its issues, even those created by Anglos. Britain created a politically untenable Iraq of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites in the 1920s. Kurds have carved out their own de facto nation in the north, leaving Sunnis and Shiites to figure out how to get along. The United States posted a welcome sign to al-Qaida terrorists and recruiters with its 2003 invasion, leaving it to local Sunnis and Shiites (who, like the overwhelming majority of Arabs, despise al-Qaida) to clean up the blunder.

Maybe that wasn't as true 30 and 35 years ago, when a romantic like Jimmy Carter and an egomaniac like Henry Kissinger were willing to stake America's and their personal reputations on ending the Middle East's habit of a war per decade. But it's true today. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan more accurately than when he used the words, America isn't part of the solution in the Middle East. It's part of the problem. That's true in Iraq, in Afghanistan, with Iran, between Arabs and Israelis, even regarding oil prices, which spike whenever Bush free-associates Iran with bombing. America's touch arrests or buries progress. It's not exclusively a Bush thing. In the 1990s, the only two substantial agreements in the Middle East (the 1993 Oslo accord meant to set Palestine on a path to independence and the Israeli-Jordan peace treaty of 1994) were negotiated in secret without American involvement, until the signing ceremonies.

If regional peace is its real aim, the United States could do nothing better than to withdraw, as Barack Obama promises to do. One would like to say that the United States could do nothing worse if it stayed, as John McCain promises to do. But the past seven years' run suggests that the United States can always find new ways to make a bad situation worse. It surely won't buck that trend just because an old veteran of very foreign wars takes over for a younger veteran foreign to anything that doesn't rhyme with East Texas. Look at how the Bush administration is trying its usual worst to do just that even now.

In the last few weeks, positive developments and peace initiatives between perennial enemies have been sweeping the region. Israel and Syria are talking, with Turkey mediating. Israel and Hamas are talking. Israel and Hezbollah just agreed to a prisoner exchange, possibly a first step toward resolving the capture of two Israeli soldiers that triggered the senseless 2006 war between those two. Lebanese factions, through mediation by Qatar, resolved an 18-month constitutional crisis that left the country without a president and near civil war again. Even Iran appears to be moving away from its own uncompromising president, with moderate conservatives winning a parliamentary majority and electing as their speaker a rival and likely opponent to hot-headed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential election next year.

The Bush administration is involved in not one of those initiatives. In some cases (Syrian-Israeli talks and Lebanon) the administration opposes the initiatives, which tells you to what extent its ideological refusal to engage anyone it doesn't like disconnects it from what real people with real lives -- not "stakeholders" -- are desperate for: An end to conflict, even if they've yet to figure out how to end the hatreds that feed them. The administration wants us to believe that talking to the enemy is a sign of weakness. That's not really the reason Bush isn't involved. "Lazy diplomacy," as Richard Armitage called it, is. Armitage was formerly the deputy secretary of state during George W. Bush's first term, under Colin Powell. "We don't like [Venezuela's Hugo] Chavez, so we're just not going to speak to him," he said. "We don't like North Korea, we don't speak to them. We don't like Iran, we don't speak to them. Pretty soon we won't speak to Peru. . . . Guess what? Pretty soon you're not speaking to more people than you're speaking to."

The Bush administration hasn't isolated its enemies and many of its allies. It's been written off by them. They know the administration's policies are in foreclosure. Refinancing bankruptcy won't keep the United States from being evicted from where it doesn't belong.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at

(c) 2008 News-Journal Corporation

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