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For those who might not know, Annapolis - site of Tuesday's Middle East conference - sits on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, an area rich in Native American history. Indeed, Chesapeake Bay, according to a Web site on the area called baydreaming.com, is a translation of the Powhatan Indian word chesepiooc, which means "great shellfish bays."
That Indian word has little relevance to what is happening in Annapolis on Tuesday. But another Indian word, mugwump, does have relevance, a great deal of relevance. Mugwump, according to the World Wide Words Web site, is derived from the Algonquian dialect of Native Americans in Massachusetts and has come to mean a politician who either could not or would not make up his mind on some important issue, or who refused to take a stand when he was expected to do so. Many an American schoolchild is familiar with the word because generations of teachers taught it with the following verbal illustration: a mugwump is someone who straddles the fence, his mug on one side, and his wump on the other.
Hence the Annapolis relevance.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, en route to Washington Sunday, told reporters that the Annapolis conference was important because it would clearly demarcate the lines in the Middle East, with those attending the conference in the "moderate" camp, and those on the outside being the "extremists." But life is not that simple. For instance, where is Syria? Are they all of a sudden moderate, just because they come to Annapolis? What about their attempts to undermine the Fuad Saniora government in Lebanon, their support for Hizbullah, their serving as the world headquarters for Hamas, and their ties to Iran?
The US, obviously, is pleased that Syria accepted its invitation to attend Tuesday's conference, hoping that this would be the beginning of a process that could potentially lead to peeling Syria out of the Iranian orbit.
But there is a catch. In a move of quintessential mugwumpery, the Syrians announced Sunday that they were not sending their foreign minister to the conference, as are most of the rest of the participants, but rather their deputy foreign minister, a man unknown for the most part outside of Syria by the name of Faisal al-Miqdad. This would be the equivalent of Israel sending its deputy foreign minister, Majallie Whbee.
By sending al-Miqdad, Damascus is trying to dance at all weddings. Syria is signaling to the US that it wants to be within the mainstream Arab consensus and should be taken off the "axis of evil" list. If those Arab countries coming to the conference are the ones who will be defined as the "moderate" or "mainstream" Arab states, then Syria can argue that by sending a representative, it has earned this moniker as well, and can join that coalition.
But the Syrians are also sending a message to the Iranians, to Hamas and Hizbullah - all of whom did not want to see the Arab countries attend the Annapolis conference - that by sending a lower-level representation, their heart is really not in the conference.
In other words, a day before the long-awaited Annapolis event, Syria is still skillfully sitting on the fence, likely to benefit from just coming to the conference, but at the same time not going to the conference in a manner that would cut it off from their friends in Gaza City, Beirut and - most importantly - Teheran.
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