Today at the New Republic Lee Smith explains the trouble with talking directly with Syria and other rogue regimes. Given today’s news that Jimmy Carter is planning to talk with the head of Hamas in Damascus, I asked Lee if he would expand on his column to address Carter’s prospective coffee klatch in Damascus. He has graciously responded:
Next week Jimmy Carter is headed to Damascus to speak with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. The former president is only the latest in a series of American legislators and policymakers, including Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzenziski, to have visited the Syrian capital to dialogue with parties responsible for targeting American civilians, soldiers and diplomats, US allies and interests around the Middle East. Carter’s antipathy to “apartheid” Israel is well known and so it is hardly surprising he should make time to chat with the representative of an eliminationist movement. What’s interesting about Carter’s mission however is that it spotlights the curious habit of American statesmen to persist in their errors.
We have seen this in Syria time and again, not only with the stream of recent tourists, like Nancy Pelosi and Arlen Specter, who believe they are accomplishing something when the only obvious result of their engagement with Bashar al-Asad is to embolden the Syrian president to arrest dissidents. Former Secretary of State James Baker never learned the painful lesson Hafez al-Asad taught him in the ’90s that Syrian diplomacy is maximalist, and so the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group advised the Bush administration to talk with Syria. During Colin Powell’s tenure as Secretary of State he lost credibility with the Bush administration when he came back from Damascus humiliated by Bashar, who after promising to shut down the Iraqi oil pipeline and to close the offices of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, did neither. Perhaps out of fear of embarrassment, Powell insists to this day that his negotiations with Syria were fruitful.
But compared to these examples, Carter’s trip promises to be an opera bouffe of blinkered diplomacy. Khaled Meshaal is not a Hamas “hardliner” ostensibly at odds with more “moderate” Hamas figures; rather he is the man who calls the shots. This is why chief of Egyptian military intelligence Omar Suleiman dealt primarily with Meshaal during the Gaza breakout in February, and not, say, Ismail Haniyeh. In Damascus, Meshaal gets his marching orders from Tehran, which means that the former American president, during whose tenure the US lost a pillar of its Persian Gulf security strategy to the Khoemeinist revolution, will effectively be talking to a representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Carter and his White House staff misunderstood the nature of the Khomeini government back in 1978 and it seems that he, like the incorrigible Brzenzinski, have learned little about Iran since then. It is, above all, a revolution and one of its goals is to overthrow the established order by routing the US and drive it from the region. In the Persian Gulf, Iran is bullying Washington’s Sunni allies and, as General Petraeus’s Senate testimony yesterday made plain, waging open war against the US in Iraq. In the Eastern Mediterranean it is fighting US allies in Lebanon and Israel and threatening Egypt, the largest Arab state and still in many ways the most influential.
Egypt’s alliance with the US is the fruit of the 1978 Camp David accords, and the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt is the one foreign policy achievement the Carter White House can point to with pride: It secured the Pax Americana in the Eastern Mediterranean, and US hegemony throughout most of the Middle East. The Iranian project is to put an end to all that, and this is what lay behind Hamas’s breakout in Gaza, to force Cairo eventually into a situation that would lead to it breaking the treaty with Israel. Unfortunately, it is difficult not to conclude that Jimmy Carter is unaware that the man he will be sitting down with is plotting to turn his legacy into dust.
If Barack Obama becomes president, we have to hope his diplomatic hubris will be checked by a Bush White House that seems to have understood how tempting Damascus must be for American statesmen eager to sit down with American enemies.