The Magazine

All Talk and No Strategy

The limits of diplomacy.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By MICHAEL RUBIN
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AS ISRAELI WARPLANES pounded Lebanon last week, European leaders called for diplomacy. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan dispatched a three-member team to the region to urge all parties to exercise restraint. Even President George W. Bush said, "To help calm the situation, we've got diplomats in the region." Officials ritually promote diplomacy and dialogue, but absent an overarching strategy, these are no panacea. Indeed, diplomacy for diplomacy's sake can sometimes make matters worse.

On April 9, 2000, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared that Israel was a "cancerous body in the region . . . [which] must be uprooted." Like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmad inejad, Nasrallah added, for good measure: "Jews invented the legend of the Nazi atrocities." But rather than ostracize him, Kofi Annan became the first senior international leader to shake hands with the terror chief. His outreach did not moderate Hezbollah, but rather emboldened the group and endowed it with newfound prestige.

Within the United States, the efficacy of dialogue is a mantra among the foreign policy elite. "Diplomacy is much more than just talking to your friends. You've got to talk to people who aren't our friends, and even people you dislike," former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the New York Times on May 26, shortly before the Bush administration announced its decision to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. But just as Annan's intercession with Hezbollah made matters worse, Washington's perpetual willingness to give diplomacy a chance can backfire.

Many adversaries factor the West's preference for engagement into their strategies. In 1990, Saddam Hussein offered to negotiate a withdrawal from Kuwait, all the while consolidating his occupation. Had President George H.W. Bush heeded the advice of Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to accept Saddam's offer, Kuwait might still be Iraq's 19th province. As secretary of state, Powell was willing to entertain a second U.N. resolution on Iraq, which gave Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran time to organize resistance.

Misplaced confidence in an adversary's sincerity can hamper rather than hasten solutions to international problems. Following the 1993 Oslo Accords, U.S. officials failed to calibrate their level of engagement with Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat to his level of commitment to peace. President Bill Clinton in 1996 assigned the Central Intelligence Agency to train Palestinian security forces, but many graduates used their newfound skills to further terrorism, not to stymie it. After he graduated from a U.S.-led counterterrorism training course, Palestinian security officer Khaled Abu Nijmeh organized a series of suicide bombings and took part in the May 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity.

More recently, Hamas responded to a State Department deal to funnel aid to Gaza with rocket barrages and the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Diplomats can say the money did not go to Hamas, but money is fungible. The time was not right; nor was the strategy. Foggy Bottom may have thought the money was a show of compassion, but instead it gave a green light to terror. And even with the benefit of hindsight, Bill Clinton falls back on the same platitudes. On July 7, he suggested striking a deal with Hamas. "I'd still talk to them if they wanted to talk," he said. Such a move would, like Annan's with Nasrallah, legitimize terror.

Poorly timed dialogue is often worse than no talk at all. Lebanon once looked like a potential Bush administration success story. On April 18, Bush welcomed Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora to the White House. "We took great joy in seeing the Cedar Revolution. We understand that the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street to express their desire to be free required courage, and we support the desire of the people to [be] . . . truly free," Bush said.

How unfortunate, then, that during her first trip to Lebanon as secretary of state three months later, Condoleezza Rice chose to meet the pro-Syrian president Emile La houd, against whom the pro-democracy forces had rallied. Her aides may have counseled talk, but the timing and symbolism deflated the Cedar Revolution. Her meeting was out of place with the vision both she and the president had pledged to promote. Foggy Bottom's subsequent unwillingness to press demands that the Lebanese government disarm Hez bollah demonstrates that the price of dialogue can be high indeed.