Archive for Monday, September 18, 2006

Bush should engage Shiites

September 18, 2006


We've survived the first five years after 9/11. It's time to think differently about the next five years in the war against terrorism. We need to see trends and adapt to them, so we can try to turn them to our advantage.

The rethinking will require the swagger President Bush possessed when he grabbed a bullhorn in the rubble of Lower Manhattan and informed the world we weren't going to back down. Some will see this approach as a retreat, but its boldness will shock the pants off the Bush-hating world and give us another tool in fighting the ideology that spawns terrorism.

Here's the drill:

The president needs to engage the Shiite world, much like Ronald Reagan engaged the Soviets at his presidency's end. Reagan's unexpected diplomacy, matched by military might, boxed in the Soviets.

A diplomatic press from Iran to Lebanon and points in between would include offering economic development alternatives and educational exchanges and working harder on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This effort will require using every imaginable back channel, dispatching diplomats to meet with every reasonable cleric they can uncover and finding partners who can lead us Indiana Jones-style through the Middle East's bizarre political and religious alleys.

Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld may melt down, along with those who think dealing with Shiites whose states sponsor terrorism is like Neville Chamberlain going soft with Hitler. But the Hitler metaphor is the wrong example. We need to think about how we outfoxed the Soviets over time through military toughness and diplomatic initiatives.

The president already has met with folks who advocate engagement. Last month, he heard from Naval Postgraduate School professor Vali Nasr, who's advancing the engagement theory in articles, books and on television.

Dr. Nasr's point is simple: The Shiites are the force because they make up about half the population from Lebanon to Pakistan. And they are ascending because the Iraq war elevated Iraqi Shiites, who now are in accord with Iranian Shiites.

He believes engagement could work because Iran and the United States both want stability in the Persian Gulf. Iran can't afford another bloodbath with Iraq.

Testing his theory, I turned to Rola El-Husseini, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M.; Trained in Middle East politics and Islamic movements, she made these points:

Yes, we should engage the Shiites because of their influence, but it will be hard. For one thing, she says, Shiites have a hierarchical system that's more akin to Catholicism. You have to find the spiritual leaders with clout.

Our diplomats will need to think about more than political leaders and fervently court religious ones. This will require Karen Hughes' public diplomacy shop to get ambassadors thinking differently, which she's tried to do.

Iran has a peculiar problem, Dr. El-Husseini said. There are the elected president and parliament, and there are the appointed clerics. The clerics' supreme leader has the power, she says. So, it takes getting to him - and he hates us.

Not easy. This is where the back channels matter. Europe has better relations with the Middle East than we do. For example, Tony Blair talked Sunday to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas about a new unity government.

As bad as his standing is in places, President Bush has two qualities that suit him for this mission. First, he loves going against the grain, much like he did when he became he first American president to propose a Palestinian state in return for peace for Israel. Second, he understands how religion is its own force, one that can matter more to people than their political allegiance.

But this effort will require the president to beat back advisers entrenched in military solutions. And he will need to show this is not an abandonment of the last five years. It's instead an evolution.

There's no guarantee of success, but Iraq has shown we can't simply fight to victory. We also need to be as shrewd as serpents, much like Reagan was with his Soviet move. There's more than one way to win this war.

- William McKenzie is an editorial columnist for The Dallas Morning News. His e-mail address is


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