Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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The limits of diplomacy

THE Israeli-Hezbollah war wouldn't have happened if John Kerry were president, John Kerry told the Detroit News last Sunday.

President Bush hasn't devoted the attention to the Middle East that he would have, Senator Kerry told reporter Valerie Olander.

Mr. Kerry didn't explain how his personal attention would have prevented Hezbollah's abduction of two Israeli soldiers, or its firing of rockets into Israeli cities, and Ms. Olander didn't ask.

Mr. Kerry has misplaced confidence in his own persuasive powers, and in what can be accomplished by diplomacy.

President Clinton hoped a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be the crowning foreign policy achievement of his presidency. He lavished attention on PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who was a guest at the White House more often than any other foreign leader. The upshot of all this attention was the intifada.

Wars typically start because people have irreconcilable goals. This conflict arose because Hezbollah wants to destroy Israel, and Israel doesn't want to be destroyed.

It's hard to see how it can be resolved by negotiation. Hezbollah wants to kill all the Jews. What's the middle ground? Should we let Hezbollah kill half the Jews? Or whack an arm or a leg off all of them?

And why should western diplomacy focus, as it so often does these days, on (so far futile) efforts to placate the unreasonable demands of unlovely people?

Advocates of a "diplomatic solution" whatever the circumstances tend to believe (a) that nothing is worse than war; (b) that everybody agrees with (a), and (c) that there is no problem that can't be solved if people talk about it long enough.

But most people who aren't liberals think submission to tyranny is worse than war, and tyrants tend not to bargain in good faith for part of what they want if they think they can get it all by force.

When acts of aggression are met with gestures of appeasement, the aggressors (not unreasonably) assume the appeasers are afraid of them. And since it was bad behavior that brought forth the gestures of appeasement, the aggressors are encouraged to behave worse, not better. Diplomacy based on hubris and cowardice inevitably leads to failure.

But that's a lesson some people never learn. Advocates of a "diplomatic solution" are pushing for two destructive steps: a cease-fire that would preserve Hezbollah from destruction and direct negotiations with Hezbollah's string pullers, Syria and Iran.

But the Bush Administration understands that in war, diplomacy can succeed only when it is an adjunct to force, or the threat of it, not a substitute for it.

A condition precedent for a satisfactory peace deal is that Hezbollah be degraded sufficiently so that it is no longer (much of) a threat to Israel or to the fledgling Lebanese government. That's why President Bush has opposed calls for a premature cease-fire.

The goal of U.S. policy is to split Syria off from its alliance with Iran. Iran is the driving force behind Hezbollah, but - thanks to geography - the terror group can be effectively supported only from Syria.

The odds of this occurring are slim. But the payoff for success would be huge. And there is a precedent.

Libya was one the most active terror supporting states. But in 2003 Libya abandoned its weapons of mass destruction, including an advanced nuclear program.

Libyan dictator Muammar Kaddafi responded in part to carrots offered by the United States and Britain. But his change of heart occurred within days of U.S. troops pulling Saddam Hussein from his spider hole in Iraq. Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister of Italy at the time, said Kaddafi phoned him at the time and said: "I will do whatever the Americans want, because I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid."

The President realizes Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, like Kaddafi, is more likely to be motivated by fear of consequences than by hope of reward. That's why Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been playing hard to get. She's refused to go to Damascus, or to permit Syria and Iran to participate in multinational talks on Lebanon.

In the past, the world came to Syria's door, and an arrogant Syria gained much and offered little in return. Now Ms. Rice is forcing Syria to beg to get in the club. She knows Bashar Assad is more likely to be forthcoming if he fears international isolation (or worse).

It's still a long shot. But because it's grounded in reality rather than liberal illusions, the Bush Administration's diplomacy may succeed where President Clinton's failed.

Jack Kelly is national security writer for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: or 412-263-1476.

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