Archive for Sunday, May 14, 2006

U.S. must keep diplomatic options open

May 14, 2006

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— The United States and Israel exercise absolute conventional military domination over the Middle East, but are bled by costly asymmetrical warfare. They must now pursue war by other means, through asymmetrical diplomacy and statecraft built on flexibility and open-ended tactics.

For the Bush administration, that means pursuing a strategy of "as if" to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and from interfering in Iraq. Washington should act as if it will secure Russian and Chinese support for sanctions against Tehran, and as if Iran will eventually make a deal - even though neither event is likely.

Moving to asymmetrical diplomacy will involve President Bush - at the right moment - expressing a willingness to talk directly with Iran about all subjects, including security in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Memo to Bush: You don't have to answer the letter you get, you can answer the one you wanted to get.

For Israel's new coalition government, asymmetrical statecraft means taking active steps to avoid humanitarian and political disaster in the Palestinian territories rather than constantly raising the temperature under a boiling pot. Ehud Olmert has shown early signs of adopting that approach - up to a point.

The Israeli prime minister visits Washington this month for meetings with President Bush that should contribute to a redrawing of strategy toward the Islamic radicals now in power in Iran and in the Palestinian territories. By giving the radicals the room they need to fail on their own, Bush and Olmert can build international acceptance for the hard choices they will be called on to make and present to the world in the near future.

That is the essence of containing what Charles de Gaulle called la force du faible, or the strength of the weak: the willingness of people to give up the relatively little they have in suicide bombings or "irrational" nuclear saber rattling. They have no other way to respond to the unchallengeable military might that the United States and Israel have established in the region. This in turn creates the need for asymmetrical statecraft by the strong.

The White House has flirted with a complete cut-off of Western economic help to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in hopes of splitting Hamas or forcing Palestinians to oust the radicals who won January's legislative elections. U.S. agreement last week to work with the European Union, Russia and the U.N. to provide funding to relieve the looming Palestinian humanitarian crisis is a welcome sign that a scorched earth policy - a symmetrical response to Palestinian violence - has not been firmly adopted at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The White House went along with a European initiative on emergency aid after Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni telephoned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last Sunday and supported help for the Palestinians that did not go through Hamas. Defense Minister Amir Peretz on Thursday went further, saying Israel should rethink harsh policies that contribute to the humanitarian crisis in the first place.

The rejectionist policies of Hamas and the rantings of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have brought U.S. and European Union policies on the Middle East closer together. That is an outcome that a distrustful Israel often sought to avoid in the past. But Olmert's flexibility suggests that he understands the importance of Washington's building as broad a front as possible to pursue war by other means if conventional diplomacy fails.

The Treasury Department, not the Pentagon, holds the key to the next steps if the United Nations does not mandate action against Iran. The asymmetric weapon of choice is Treasury's ability to deny foreign banks and firms access to the lucrative U.S. market if they cooperate with an international outlaw. The market-access threat recently helped blunt North Korea's counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and would be devastating to the investment flows Iran needs to rebuild its deteriorating oil industry.

But Washington must act as if it has gone to the limits of its ability to consult and compromise with its partners before taking actions that will affect French, Russian and other international enterprises. And acting as if a deal is possible with Iran is the only way to get Moscow and Beijing to support the effort.

So Bush is right: He should not take any option off the table - including talking to Ahmadinejad or Hamas in certain circumstances, or to Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in July. That will be the last chance for a U.N.-blessed deal on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"We are in a who-blinks-first game," Bush said of Iran to a recent White House visitor. It is in fact a who-thinks-first, and best, game.

- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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