Give long-spoon diplomacy a try

October 10, 2003|By Thomas L. Friedman

WASHINGTON - There is an old proverb that says, "If you're going to sup with the devil, use a long spoon." Does the White House pantry have any long spoons?

I ask because if President Bush really wants to achieve his objectives in Iraq, he may have to sup a little with Yasser Arafat, the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei and Syria's president, Bashar Assad.

First, let me state my own bias: Iraq is the whole ballgame. If we can produce a reasonably decent, constitutionally grounded Iraqi government, good things will happen all around the Middle East. If Iraq turns into a quagmire, it will be a disaster for U.S. interests all around the world. So, for me, everything should be focused on getting Iraq on the right path.

Which is why we may need to let some of the "axis of evil" out on parole - or at least out on work-release. We can't allow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to spread into a Israeli-Syrian-Shiite-Hezbollah conflict. It would greatly complicate the ability of Iraqis to work openly with us and would greatly enhance the ability of anti-U.S. forces in Iraq to mobilize militants.

I have enormous sympathy for Israel's predicament in confronting the madness of suicide bombers. No society has ever faced such a thing. But every military strategy Ariel Sharon has tried has failed. Maybe the only way Israel can deal with this phenomenon is by trying anew to do business with Mr. Arafat - indirectly, through his new prime minister, Ahmed Qureia.

Here's the logic: Israel says Mr. Arafat is totally irrelevant as a negotiating partner and totally responsible for all Palestinian terrorism. But Israel keeps him totally powerless under house arrest, and the Bush team says Israel can't kill or deport him. Israel has the worst of all worlds: It's getting nothing for keeping Mr. Arafat locked up - except the inability to get any other Palestinian figure to work with Israel, because Mr. Arafat still holds the legitimacy.

Former Mideast envoy Dennis B. Ross has a useful suggestion: Israel should try to strike a deal with Mr. Qureia. Offer to give him what he needs: "a two-way ticket" for Mr. Arafat (so he can come and go without fear of deportation). In return, Mr. Arafat would have to give Mr. Qureia "carte blanche," Mr. Ross says, to crack down on Islamic terrorists in exchange for Israel's easing up on Palestinians.

I know there are no simple solutions or sure things here, but to not explore every alternative, again and again, is to invite total despair. Moreover, the best way to create an alternative to Mr. Arafat is to strengthen Mr. Qureia.

As for the Syrians, they got the message from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but maybe too much so. They are so convinced they are next on the Bush hit parade that they have been easing the entry of anti-U.S. guerrillas into Iraq - because the more preoccupied the United States is there, the less likely it is to invade Syria. It may be worth a new high-level strategic dialogue with the Syrians to strike a deal assuring them they will not be treated as part of the axis of evil, if they stem the flow of militants and arms into Iraq.

Finally, Iran. There is enormous pressure within the Bush team to confront the Iranians before they develop a nuclear option. Iran, though, is worried about a pending U.S. invasion. I would use that leverage to open a strategic dialogue with Iran about the nuclear issue and about using its considerable influence among some Iraqi Shiites to help stabilize Iraq.

As Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the U.S. National Defense University, wrote in the latest issue of The National Interest: "The Bush administration finally has the opportunity to arrive at the modus vivendi with Iran that has eluded previous U.S. administrations. Washington should capitalize on Iran's emerging pragmatic tendencies and reach a settlement with the theocracy on issues of common concern."

The Bush team's tough-minded approach to all of these bad actors has gotten their attention. Hats off. But now it has to decide whether U.S. interests can best be served by trying to take them all down at once, which the U.S. public has no energy for and which would clearly hamper us in Iraq, or try to engage them - with a long spoon - to maximize the chances of success in Iraq.

Trying to remake Iraq is hard enough; trying to do it with the opposition of all the neighbors would be even harder. And most important, a liberalized Iraq would be the greatest long-term force for change in Iran and Syria. I don't see what we have to lose by trying, but I sure know what we have to win.

Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times and appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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