The Region: The talking process goes on and on

Good for Syria. Good for Iran. But what's in it for the West?

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
The Middle East. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship International Affairs, its mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no diplomat/journalist/politician has gone before. Let's say you are captain of a starship. You arrive on a newly-discovered planet to deal with the local aliens who are "strange" and "new" to you. It makes sense to start by saying, "We come in peace. Take me to your leader!" This should not, however, be how one deals with the Middle East. After all, it has governments, movements, and ideologies with a long track record. And by this point we should understand something about them. Lately, it has become commonplace to claim that the Bush administration didn't try hard enough to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict or get along with Syria or Iran. This is nonsense. It was the situation and the countries themselves that created this problem. We learned all this when Bill Clinton was president. And if he was still in the White House - whatever one can say about Iraq - the other three problems would be just as big and unsolvable. TWO CURRENT crises underline that reality. The first was Iran's kidnapping of British military personnel. The Iranians played it perfectly. They grabbed them in Iraqi waters, got a couple of sailors to "confess" Iran was right, and put a hijab on the sole woman sailor. The world was shown to be 100-percent impotent. The British government, European Union (of whom the sailors are citizens, too), and UN (on whose behalf the sailors' mission of searching ships was conducted) were incapable of any strong response. Lesson to the Muslim world: Iran stands up to the West; the West fears Iran. Ensuring nobody in Iran takes pressure against its nuclear program seriously? Convincing. Teaching that a hard line cows the West into submission? Effective. Showing that aggression and terrorism pay? Superlative. THAT WAS only Act One. In Act Two the Iranians released the sailors as a "gift" to Britain. Lesson? Iran is the world's most powerful country; Iran is generous. Some Western observers have argued this proves it isn't necessary to take a strong stance because they let hostages go when confronted by... appeasement. Score: Double bonus points for Teheran. Before leaving this subject, though, let me share with you a minor mess-up by Iran's propaganda machine. According to Teheran's official news agency, the Iranian Jewish community issued a Pessah statement supporting the radical Islamist regime: "In obedience to the instructions of Jesus... Iranian Jews voice their readiness to defend all national interests... and to observe the guidelines set by the Supreme Leader for the sake of strengthening national unity and solidarity in the fight against present-day Pharaohs." Oops! Memo to Teheran: More work needed on phony messages from Jews. NOW ON to our other issue, the high-level congressional delegation visit to Syria. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi went to Damascus. Pelosi began with a Star Trek sort of message: "We came in friendship, hope and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace." Pelosi should have known how this validates the Syrians' big justification for being extremists and ignoring demands to change their policy: Everyone must come to us to get peace in the region. Quick, give us Lebanon, the Golan Heights, a free pass to commit terrorism; and drop the investigation about our murdering the former prime minister of Lebanon because we hold all the cards. She played right into their hands, and doesn't even understand it. Something else is missing here which should be obvious: some toughness. As in "We come in friendship, etc. - but there's a real cost for continuing to trample on US interests." Pelosi's idea of the big stick is to express "our concern about fighters crossing the Iraq-Syria border, to the detriment of the Iraqi people and our soldiers." "To the detriment" means blowing up Iraqi civilians and American citizens through terrorist acts. Why can't she say so? That is the problem with this kind of dialogue. The American or Western side must be nice, polite and complimentary, while the radicals can do or say whatever they want. And this is precisely why the Syrians and Iranians want such a talking process. TO MAKE matters worse, Pelosi let the Syrians cheat her without protest. She was given a message by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert saying Israel wants Syria to stop backing terrorism before there can be peace talks. The Syrians ignored that point. Nevertheless, Pelosi uncritically stated: "We were very pleased with the reassurances we received from" Syria's president that he was ready to negotiate with Israel. Sure, nowadays Syria wants to talk as it daily encourages acts of terrorism and arms Hamas and Hizbullah. It would welcome a nice long process lasting years, without ever achieving any result and guaranteeing no one will take a tough stance toward Syria. THE VISIT'S most shameful line was Pelosi saying, "The road to solving Lebanon's problems passes through Damascus." In other words, Lebanon can be fixed only if Syria agrees. Oh, sorry, just sold out Lebanon's independence from Syrian rule and betrayed the aspirations of most Lebanese. As the Lebanese analyst Tony Badran puts it: "This is 'hard-headed realism?' Eating dates, checking out carpets, and taking the official tourist tour with a regime that's killing American soldiers, is a sponsor of every kind of terrorist, stands accused of multiple political assassinations in Lebanon, and is seen as acting like an outlaw by almost every country on earth except Iran?" As Mr. Spock would say, "Quite illogical, captain." The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary University, and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.