War Stories

Spaced Shuttle Diplomacy

Why did it take so long to get to Annapolis?

President George Bush speaks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

As Condoleezza Rice sat in Annapolis, Md., this week, watching unpopular statesmen pledge to undertake vague negotiations toward an undefined peace, she might have recalled the moment, almost a year and a half ago, when an opportunity for a real breakthrough was within reach—and she, and her president, let it slide by.

It happened in July 2006, a few days after Hezbollah militiamen in southern Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel, stole across the border, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and killed three others, prompting retaliation from Israeli rockets and artillery. On July 18, the Arab League, meeting in an emergency summit in Cairo, released a statement—authored by Saudi Arabia—condemning Hezbollah for committing “unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts.”

This was an astonishing event. The official stance of most of these states was that Israel had no right to exist; yet here they were, upholding Israel’s right to coexist in peace and to defend itself from attack.

Dennis Ross, the former Middle East envoy to President Bill Clinton and to the first President Bush, received a call from a friend at the State Department, who asked what he thought George W. Bush should do in response.

Ross replied that Condi Rice, with whom he had worked in Bush 41’s National Security Council, should fly to the Middle East right away. The Saudi statement, he said, marked a potential turning point—a rare, if not unprecedented, opportunity to forge a new alignment between Arabs and Israelis, not only on Lebanon but also on the gamut of contentious issues. The Saudis needed to coordinate a common Arab position on Israel-Lebanon security. The Israelis needed to cut back on their airstrikes, to align their military tactics with feasible political objectives. Neither the Saudis nor the Israelis could do this on their own; they had no diplomatic relations, and it would be politically risky for either to make the first move. They needed the United States as a go-between. In short, this was a prime moment to revive the art of shuttle diplomacy. But Ross emphasized, it was just a moment; it wouldn’t last.

Quite separately, Philip Zelikow, Rice’s counselor at the State Department and another longtime friend and colleague, had a similar idea. He sent her a memo, encouraging her to fly to Israel—preferably to Haifa, the northern city where Hezbollah rockets were exploding—to display American solidarity. Then she should pressure Israeli officials to stop the airstrikes—which would have no political effect—and to nudge them, and the region’s other powers, into a settlement.

Bush and Rice were attending a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time. Tony Blair, still Britain’s prime minister, also urged Bush to send Rice to the region immediately, noting that the conflict could quickly “spiral out of control.” Bush interrupted him and said (on an open mike), “Yeah, she’s going, I think Condi’s going to go pretty soon.”

But she didn’t go to the Middle East for another week, and by that time, the moment—as Ross had warned—was over.

Why did Bush and Rice pass up this chance? While I was doing research on a forthcoming book on foreign and military policy (titled Daydream Believers), former Bush officials—including Zelikow—told me there were two reasons.

First, they said, Bush was disinclined to do shuttle diplomacy because that was what previous presidents did, and he wasn’t like previous presidents, especially the one named Clinton. Second, he wanted to wait a while, to give the Israelis a chance to demolish Hezbollah.

This latter hope was a delusion. To have any chance of destroying Hezbollah, Israel would need to send a massive invasion force into southern Lebanon. Yet Israel had only recently ended an 18-year occupation there, and few of its people or leaders had the stomach to start another one. The Israeli military’s chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, was an air force officer who convinced inexperienced Cabinet ministers that he could win the battle with air power alone—emulating the greatest miscalculation of recent American strategy.

By the time Rice finally got on a plane, Israel had stepped up its bombing and shelling so drastically—displacing and killing so many Lebanese civilians in the process, to no avail—that the Arab powers backed away from their condemnation of Hezbollah. (Even some Israeli newspaper columnists were criticizing the escalation as “disproportionate.”)

After her first stop in Israel, Rice wanted to meet with friendly Arab diplomats in Cairo, but Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, refused. No Arab leader wanted to host such a session and risk looking like a handmaiden to American one-sidedness. Instead, they met in Rome and, predictably, accomplished nothing.

(By the way, this may have been the genesis of a new Israeli verb, lecondel—in Hebrew, “to Condel,” short for “to Condoleezza”—meaning, as the New York TimesSteven Erlanger has explained, to come and go for meetings that produce few results.)

The consequences of Bush and Rice’s passivity were disastrous. Israel didn’t lose the war, but it didn’t win, either, and that’s what it had to do to maintain its image of invincibility, which has long deterred hostile neighbors from contemplating aggression. Hezbollah didn’t win, but all it had to do was not lose, and it clearly achieved that goal, enhancing its reputation as the power that had stood up to the Zionists and faced them down.

Before this crisis, and even for a while after, Rice echoed—and, to some extent, believed—Bush’s sentiment that American statesmen of the previous 60 years had erred in promoting stability over democracy. Annapolis signifies that she—and, to some extent, Bush—now recognize, however reluctantly, that sometimes stability is more important, and may be the only feasible goal, after all. The very fact that Syria was invited to the conference represents an end to Bush’s doctrine of “regime change.”

The fact that Syria attended may mean something larger still. As David Brooks noted a few weeks ago in a very intriguing New York Times column (which, I’m told by someone else, was inspired by a briefing from Rice aboard her plane), the main goal of the then-impending Annapolis conference would be not so much the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty as the forging of an anti-Iran alliance. “Flipping” the Syrians—offering them an incentive to break away from Iran—would go a long way toward that goal. As NPR’s Deborah Amos has observed, Syria’s attendance might mark a step toward this flip.

Of course, the flip—and much else—could have taken place far more dramatically in July 2006, when the Sunni-led powers of the Arab League were not only ready to confront the Iranian-backed Shiite Hezbollah, but to do so in support of Israel. At Annapolis, by contrast, the Saudi delegation pointedly refused to shake any Israeli’s hand.

There are larger issues. Even if Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas strikes a deal with Israel, it’s extremely unlikely to be accepted by Hamas, which controls the Palestinian parliament (and much of “the street”). Or, to put it another way, it’s extremely unlikely that, in the next 14 months, Israel will sign a deal that Hamas would find acceptable.

And yet the fact that Bush has pushed Israel to open negotiations with the Palestinians—remarkably, the first time he has done so in his entire seven years in office—makes it politically easier for other Arab leaders to take part in other kinds of talks with the United States. The question is: What kinds of talks is Bush willing to hold? What is Bush willing to offer the Syrians in exchange for splitting from Iran? He’s taken one big step by meeting in the same room with them. Will he go one further and cut a deal with them, too?

In short, will Annapolis turn out to be the staging ground for a major leap forward—or another round of lecondel-ing? The early signs point to the latter. President Bush, who stayed at the one-day conference for only a few hours, seems less than fully engaged. Even Rice, who has put all the hopes of her legacy in this basket, is oddly backing away from a full-court personal press. She reportedly will soon name retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones as the U.S. envoy to the Middle East. (It is staggering that, until now, the Bush administration has had no such envoy.) Jones, a former NATO commander, is able and astute, but he has little experience in the region and—more to the point—little standing as a surrogate for Bush or Rice. An envoy needs to be able to speak—and, at times, to negotiate—with authority. It’s unclear that Jones has, or will be perceived as having, that authority.

Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column today that we’ll know something real is happening in these talks if we pick up a newspaper and read that moderates in the negotiations are “doing things that surprise you.” One big—and essential—surprise would be that President Bush is getting on a plane and putting himself on the line.