Most people in the western MSM have for some days now seemed strongly fixated on the elections in Iran. (And my thanks to Scott Harrop for getting his excellent post on that up here this morning.)
However, something else really important is happening in the Middle East in these days. That is the latest trip around the region being made by special peace envoy George Mitchell.
Today, Mitchell has already visited Lebanon, and is probably just about now arriving in Syria.
My sense is that after he returns to Washington, after everyone has heard what Israeli PM Netanyahu will say in his much-touted speech on Sunday, and after the important people on Washington’s Arab-Israeli policy have been able to do some joint brainstorming there… we might see some significant “next steps” emerging from the White House.
I hope so. I certainly hope there is some decisive move to expand the administration’s actions from words to deeds, and to expand its purview from “merely” the issue of a settlement freeze (which is only an interim-stage issue, anyway, however important it is), to the all-important goal of securing a fair and sustainable final-status peace between Israel and ALL of its neighbors.
Syria is, of course, an important part of this, so Mitchell’s visit there is extremely timely (or, in fact, long overdue.). This is his first visit either there or to Lebanon in his present round as envoy, since he skipped both countries during his earlier three trips around the region.
On this trip, Mitchell has already been in Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon…. All this, in the wake of Obama’s June 4 speech at Cairo U.
It is worth reflecting a little on the meaning, for Syrians and for their relations with the US, of Mitchell’s visit to the country. So long as G. W. Bush was president, as I noted in this recent piece, high officials in the neocon-swayed US administration considered themselves to be “in a state of quasi-war” with Syria. This manifested itself in Bush-era acts like the following:
- * supporting the imposition and maintenance of tough economic sanctions on Syria;
* expansively interpreting and energetically enforcing the sanctions legislation;
* funding projects wrapped in the innocuous covering of “democracy promotion” that were actually aimed at building networks capable of implementing regime change in Syria, from within (shades of the 1950s, there… )
* aggressively exploiting developments in Lebanon– including the investigations launched by the UNSC and by the ‘Special Tribunal for Lebanon’– that would further corner and attack key portions of the Syrian government;
* withdrawing its ambassador from Damascus in February 2005 (there is still no ambassador there today!); and taking numerous other steps to isolate and delegitimize the Syrian government;
* giving a green light to Israel to undertake its September 2007 military attack on a target in northern Syria at which Syria was allegedly engaged in illegal nuclear activities;
* undertaking Washington’s own smaller-scale military attack against targets in eastern Syria, in October last year;
* pleading with the Israeli government in 2008 not to proceed with its peacemaking overture to Syria…
Taken together, all these actions constituted a thinly veiled attempt to effect regime change in Damascus. Hence, the appropriateness of the term “a state of quasi-war,” used by that former high Bush-era official. Of course, this is not a technical term in the diplomatic lexicon, a fact that reflects Bush’s reliance on fuzzy, under-the-counter activities rather than clarity and compliance with the norms of international law.
But now, Bush is history. And presidential envoy George Mitchell will be visiting Damascus, treating it just as seriously as all the other governments in the region that he and Pres. Obama are seeking to engage in pursuit of a speedy, stable, and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
This is great news.
Mitchell’s visit comes in the wake of a number of constructive interactions (including face-to-face visits and telephone calls) that Pres. Bashar al-Asad has had with Sen. John Kerry. Who is, of course, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and thus has considerable ability to steer the positions that the Senate adopts on key foreign-relations issues. Including, of course, theapproval of ambassadors (who have first to be nominated by the president.)
Mitchell’s visit was also preceded by the phone conversation that Secretary Clinton had with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moualem May 31st, which he characterized as extremely constructive.
Clinton, by the way, probably still has some serious work to do within her own house in the State Department, given that all the senior career diplomats in place there now are people who made rose to seniority precisely during the GWB years… at a time when those career diplomats who simply couldn’t stomach the prospect of trying to “represent” a foreign policy that was arrogant, militaristic, and divisive simply took early retirement or were otherwise sidelined from further promotion within the ranks.
All power to Hillary’s elbow as she does this! Sad that the norms of diplomatic engagement should even need to be restated in an institution that is intended (and generously funded) by us taxpayers to be on the leading edge of engaging in fine diplomatic outreach to other countries… But there we are.
Anyway, if you haven’t read the “17 points” that I penned earlier this week on some aspects of the need to include Syria in the problem-solving diplomacy, then now would bea good time to do so.
Bottom line: If Washington really wants to build a new peaceable political order in the Arab-Israeli arena it should actively work for the restoration of good relations among the Arab state and parties as part of that, rather than continuing the Bush-era approach of trying to foment inter-Arab divisions at all levels.
A last couple of words about Iran, its election, and all this.
Firstly, several people in Syria, including some pretty well-connected ones, told me they were transfixed by the open giver-and-take of the Iranian elections, including during the presidential debates there. The debates were broadcast at some length on Iran’s Arabic-language t.v. station, al-A’lam. I gather that people in several Arab countries were really intrigued by them, wondering aloud when their own countries might see a political process that was equally open to an open competition of ideas.
(Of course this is not to say, by any means, that Iran’s elections have been perfect. But they’ve been more robustly contested than any elections in the Arab world in living memory, except those in Lebanon and Palestine… And unlike Lebanon’s elections, they are at least run on the basis of fundamental political equality among all citizens.)
Secondly, I know Scott has argued that the Iranian election campaign has been “all about” foreign affairs. But honestly I don’t think the outcome of the election will make any difference in the substance of Tehran’s foreign relations.
In the atmospherics, perhaps yes; and they can certainly affect the ability of any government to pursue its diplomatic course in the most effective way possible. (Q.v., Ahmadinejad’s hostile bluster on the Holocaust, and against Israel… )
But I don’t think anyone should imagine that the content of Tehran’s foreign-relations stand will be much different, whether Moussavi or Ahmadinejad wins. (Just my two cents there. Scott is quite free to differ.)