U.S. playing a weak hand in diplomacy

Arab enmity, war in Iraq complicate efforts to end fighting in Mideast


WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration seeks to negotiate a diplomatic end to the fighting in the Middle East, it finds it has a strikingly weak hand.

The war in Iraq, the halting U.S. efforts to respond to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and the fighting in Lebanon and Israel have led to unprecedented anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Alliances with longtime Arab friends are strained, and the United States has no relations with two key countries in the area, Iran and Syria.

"The Lebanon crisis is the end of the myth that we can tell the world what to do and they'll line up to do it," said Nancy Soderberg, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration. "They are going to have to do real diplomacy."

Adding to the challenge is inexperience. Despite more than five years in power, Bush's foreign policy team has been involved in few high-stakes negotiations in the region.

The draft U.N. resolution painstakingly crafted by the United States and France over the weekend was a first effort at negotiating an end to the fighting in Lebanon. But it took a week to reach the agreement, despite U.S. officials' constant assertion that it was only a matter of details. In that week, many Lebanese civilians died, leading many in the region to believe that the United States cared little about their lives.

The landscape looks grim for serious diplomacy.

Since U.S. forces captured Baghdad without a serious fight in the spring of 2003, fear of U.S. military might has melted away as soldiers and Marines have been unable to control the Iraqi insurgency or the increasing sectarian violence there. That has eroded the U.S. aura of complete power and, with it, the ability to bend others to its will.

Successful diplomacy requires serving as a broker between enemies by having the trust of both parties and enough force, moral and military, to enforce a deal. Recent foreign forays by the United States have relied largely on force, and its short-lived victories have left it unable to bring about the democracy it promised.

"In the Middle East, historically people always go with the strong horse, but we don't look like the strong horse anymore," said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

The Bush administration also faces unprecedented anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, caused in part by its image as an unquestioning supporter of Israel and also by allegations of torture and abuse of Muslim detainees.

Against that backdrop, a U.S. diplomatic offensive involving substantive negotiations to alter the map of the broader Middle East would be a first for Bush. Few U.S. presidents have initiated greater change in the political landscape of the Middle East than has Bush, but little has come through consensus-building or negotiations.

Political transformation in Afghanistan and Iraq followed invasions, the end of Syria's occupation of Lebanon resulted mainly from intense international pressure triggered by the assassination of a former prime minister, and gradual expansions of political pluralism in countries such as Egypt resulted from high-profile rhetoric and a firm political nudge.

"This administration doesn't do diplomacy well," said Judith Kipper, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They are like the Arabs: They say something and think it's been done."

In addressing the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the White House has not turned to a special U.S. envoy or rounds of intense shuttle diplomacy like those used by previous administrations to achieve breakthroughs. Instead, Bush chose former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unilateral approach to carve a separate, independent Palestinian state out of the West Bank and Gaza, on Israeli terms.

The White House sees the struggle in the region fundamentally as one between terrorism and freedom. That, coupled with Bush's sense of mission to defend Israel and spread democracy to the region, leaves little room for the kind of compromise required for effective diplomacy, experts say.

Those who have been involved in the administration's decisions say there is little airing of contrary views.

Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin L. Powell when Powell was secretary of state, has said that Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld dominate national security issues and that nether showed an inclination for diplomatic consensus-building.

Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin write for the Los Angeles Times.

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