The diplomatic imperative

This report by Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post, “For Rice, High-Stakes Shuttle Diplomacy,” suggests once again that diplomacy is not important enough to be left to the diplomats. Secretary Rice is shuttling back and forth between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Abbas trying to bring about a “peace” arrangement between the two parties that will also include their Arab neighbors.
This is a fool’s errand. Olmert is too weak politically to lead Israel into any kind of deal with Abbas, whose Fatah party is now participating in a government with Hamas, an organization committed to Israel’s destruction. Even Olmert apparently has enough sense to insist that Israel cannot be a peace partner with the new Palestinian government. And if, somehow, Rice managed to broker a deal, it would not bring peace anymore than the Oslo deal did.
But this is old news. The interesting thing about Kessler’s story is the fervor Rice exhibits when, for example, she states:

I am commmited to this. This takes hard work. It takes patience, it takes perseverance, it takes getting up after a bad day and trying to make a better day. And that’s what I am going to do. As long as I am secretary of state, that’s what I am going to do. And that’s what the president wants me to do.

Rice is talking like a football coach hoping to will his team to victory in the Super Bowl. Kessler probably does not exaggerate when he says that Rice “is staking her reputation as secretary of state on her ability to leverage the talks.” And that’s absurd. If there’s no good deal to be had, then there’s no point in pushing for a deal because in that event the alternatives are failure in the weak sense (no deal) and failure in the strong sense (a bad deal). In other words, lose-lose.
But diplomats too often fail to appreciate this because their initiatives take on a life of their own. The imperative becomes brokering a deal without much regard to whether it will accomplish our objectives and serve our interests. We saw this with Oslo, and we almost saw it at Camp David under Clinton. We’ve seen it once with North Korea, and now we seem to be seeing it again.
And that’s one answer to the Democrats when they ask what the harm is in talking with Iran. The last thing we need is for a Condi Rice or a Madeleine Albright to become obsessed with getting Iran’s signature on a piece of paper, any piece of paper.

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