by Eric Martin
ABC News is reporting today that General Petraeus has been pushing for a meeting with Syria's leadership but the Bush administration has refused. Although ABC News labels this an exclusive scoop, in truth, the story has been circulating for some time. Josh Landis, for example, was on the beat months ago:
The following “Exclusive” ABC story is not so exclusive. Syria Comment has been writing since August 2008 that Petraeus tried to go to Damascus in the fall of 2007, but was refused permission by the Vice President. It wasn’t the president.
As Daniel Levy mentioned recently, Petraeus and Pentagon leadership have been pleased with recent overtures from the Syrians, and cautiously optimistic about the potential to build on that cooperation:
The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled "Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria".
But then, despite this progress and the continuation of peace talks between Israel and Syria, the Bush administration went ahead with a cross border raid and airstrikes aimed at targets in Syrian territory. Instead of supporting and expanding the diplomatic process, the Bush administration opted for a show of force. According to initial reports, which, admittedly, should be taken with a grain of salt, this hasn't worked out too well:
The Syrian government has broken relations with Baghdad. It has completely opened its border. This article in Al-Arabiya (Al-Arabiya is generally fairly reliable) says that the Syrians have reduced their forces on the border. That's NOT what I'm hearing from BOTH sides of the border. What I'm hearing from very trustworthy sources whom I've known for years is that the Syrians have completely withdrawn their forces from the border.
- No troops.
- No border guards.
- No police.
Do I have to spell it out? Maybe I do. The Syrians have worked massively to close their border. They have worked massively to prevent armed groups getting across the border. All of that has now come to an end.
But then, the belief in the efficacy of force, coupled with an uncompromising refusal to accommodate the vital interests of various adversaries, is a particular maladay of the Bush administration. This passage from Ron Suskind's One Percent Doctrine (pp. 104-105) is prophetic as to the many foreign policy stumbles and tragedies to ensue:
...it became clear at the start of 2001 that [the Bush] administration was to alter the long-standing U.S. role of honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to something less than that. The President, in fact, had said in the first NSC principals meeting of his administration that Clinton had overreached at the end of his second term, bending too much toward Yasser Arafat -- who then broke off productive Camp David negotiations at the final moment -- and that "We're going to tilt back ward Israel." Powell, a chair away in the Situation Room that day, said such a move would reverse thirty years of U.S. policy, and that it could unleash the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Israeli army in ways that could be dire for the Palestinians. Bush's response: "Sometimes a show of force by one side can really clarify things." [emphasis mine]
Sometimes it does, but as Sharon learned, as we learned in Iraq, and the Israelis relearned in Lebanon in 2006, the clarification that follows a show of force isn't always a positive. War, the use of force, armed conflict - each has myriad unintended, and often painful, consequences for all parties involved. Yes, that is stating the obvious, but then, our foreign policy during the Bush years has been modeled on a doctrine that disdains reality and empiricism so common sense takes on the air of wisdom.
If it is true that Syria has flung open its borders, then what exactly is the value of clarifying the situation with such bellicosity when the net result is a negative?
To echo publius' point, the Republican Party's foreign policy consensus - drawing heavily from neoconservative doctrine - has been repeatedly discredited and battered by reality. Yet the Bush administration, when Cheney's wing gets too much say, stumbles on. And the McCain campaign, instead of repudiating the neocon program, has doubled down by recruiting the most committed and doctrinaire advocates to fill out his roster of advisors.
Petraeus, much more in line with the progressive/Obama school of thought, recognizes the wisdom of engaging adversaries diplomatically, differentiating between opponents so as to deal with each entity and issue discretely (which disrupts alliances of convenience among enemies rather than encourage them) and, lastly, when the opportunity presents itself, even working with erstwhile battlefiled opponents. Petraeus implemented this strategy in Iraq by encouraging the Awakenings movement that coopted former Sunni insurgents, is beginning to pursue it in Afghanistan by reaching out to certain Taliban elements and is trying to do the same with Syria - where he sees a potential opening and wedge to be driven between Syria and Iran.
Oddly, considering the extent to which he is lionized by so many McCain/Plain supporters, Petraeus would likely have to wait for an Obama administration to see any further exploration of normalizing relations with Syria. McCain/Palin, like the Cheney wing of the Bush administration, label this type of pragmatism reckless, naive appeasement. They don't negotiate with evil, dontcha know.
Because that's worked out so well over the past eight years.
[UPDATE: I forgot to add this bit from McCain/Palin advisors Max Boot and Richard Williamson:
A McCain administration would discourage Israeli-Syrian peace talks and refrain from actively engaging in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.