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MIDEAST: Republican Realists Call for Major Course Change

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jul 31 2006 (IPS) - Some of the Republican Party’s most venerable foreign policy strategists are calling urgently for a major course change in U.S. policy in the Middle East, but neither the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush nor Republicans in Congress appear inclined to pay much heed.

Whether their view may change as a result of Sunday’s devastating Israeli missile strike of an apartment building in Qana in south Lebanon in which more than 60 people, two-thirds of them children, were killed, remains unclear.

The attack, which further fueled already-burning outrage throughout the Arab world against Israel’s nearly three-week-old military campaign and Washington’s rejection of international calls for an immediate ceasefire, reportedly prompted the administration to demand that the Jewish state curtail its air strikes.

But the deaths in Qana seem unlikely to persuade Bush and his increasingly hapless secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to reconsider their basic policies, such as refusing to negotiate with Syria or Iran, or providing virtually unconditional backing for Israel’s military offensives in both Lebanon and Gaza, as recommended by the former policymakers.

Indeed, the past week has witnessed a steady stream of columns, interviews and television appearances by some of the most influential foreign policy strategists of the past generation, almost all of them either implicitly or explicitly very critical of current administration’s course.

Most striking was the appearance in Sunday’s Washington Post of a column by Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to both presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, in which he explicitly rejected the administration’s contention that the “root cause” of the current crisis was Hezbollah and its attacks on Israel.

“Hezbollah is not the source of the problem; it is a derivative of the cause, which is the tragic conflict over Palestine that began in 1948,” wrote Scowcroft, who went on to argue in favour of Washington taking the lead in forging and imposing a “comprehensive settlement” of all of Israel’s security issues.

His plan, parts of which he has presented before, include the creation of a Palestinian state close to the 1967 Green Line, a broader Arab-Israeli peace along the lines of the 2002 Saudi plan by King Abdullah, and the deployment of a NATO or NATO-led international force to police traffic between Gaza and the West Bank and to enforce a ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon.

“The benefits of reaching a comprehensive settlement of the root cause of today’s turmoil would likely ripple well beyond the Israelis and the Palestinians,” according to Scowcroft. “(It) would not only defang the radicals in Lebanon and Palestine… it would also reduce the influence of Iran – the country that, under its current ideology, poses the greatest potential threat to stability in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.”

While not as ambitious as Scowcroft, who has been shunned by the White House since shortly after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, other Republican veterans have used the current crisis to urge the administration to engage its foes in the region, rather than to ignore or try to isolate them.

In a Post column Monday, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger renewed his appeal for Washington to negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear programme and cited the current crisis in Lebanon, which he called a possible “turning point” in Iran’s relationship with the region and the west.

“Hard as it is to imagine that Iran, under its present president, will participate in an effort that would require it to abandon its terrorist activities or its support for such instruments as Hezbollah, the recognition of this fact should emerge from the process of negotiation rather than being the basis for a refusal to negotiate,” Kissinger argued in a thinly veiled rebuke of the Bush administration’s diplomatic embargo of Tehran.

“Such an approach would imply the redefinition of the objective of regime change, providing an opportunity for a genuine change in direction by Iran, whoever is in power,” he wrote.

Richard Armitage, a senior Pentagon official under Bush’s father and deputy secretary of state in Bush’s first term, also decried Washington’s refusal to directly engage another key Hezbollah backer, Syria, during the current crisis in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) last week.

“We get a little lazy, I think, when we spend all our time as diplomats talking to our friends and not our enemies,” he said. “…We have to be able to sit and listen to the Syrians in this case and see if they have the desire, the courage and the wisdom to get involved in a positive way,” he noted in an implicit reproach to Rice’s use of Saudi Arabia and other intermediaries to communicate with Damascus.

In the same interview, Armitage also criticised Israel’s campaign for relying too heavily on air power, a tactic that he predicted would “end up empowering Hezbollah and perhaps introducing a dynamic into the body politic in Lebanon that will take some great period of time to recover from.”

Not just in Lebanon, but throughout the entire Arab world, and even in Europe, Richard Haass, former secretary of state Colin Powell’s top policy aide from 1981 to 1983, and currently the president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told the Post in an interview after the Qana killings.

“The arrows are all pointing in the wrong direction,” he said. “People will get a daily drumbeat of suffering in Lebanon and this will just drive up anti-Americanism to new heights.”

Haass, President George H.W. Bush’s top Mideast aide whose position as head of what has been the U.S.’ most influential diplomatic think tank since World War II normally commands a certain decorum, was uncharacteristically scornful of the administration’s mantra that the current crisis offers an “opportunity” to reach a permanent solution to southern Lebanon.

“An opportunity? Lord, spare me. I don’t laugh a lot. That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time. If this is an opportunity, what’s Iraq? A once-in-a-lifetime chance?” he asked.

To date, however, these critiques do not appear to have made much of a dent either within the administration, which made clear Monday it still opposes an immediate ceasefire, or among Republicans in Congress, only five percent of whom (compared to 30 percent of Democrats) believe that Washington has aligned itself too closely with Israel in the current crisis, according to a confidential survey of 41 lawmakers from each party by The National Journal last week.

The only exception is a handful of Republican senators, including Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible presidential candidate in 2008, who, in a policy address to the Brookings Institution Friday, warned that the U.S. relationship with Israel, while “special and historic… need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.”

“The United States and Israel must understand that it is not in their long-term interests to allow themselves to become isolated in the Middle East and the world,” he warned, adding, “The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Anticipating Scowcroft, Hagel said the “failure to address this root cause will allow Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorists to continue to sustain popular Muslim and Arab support (and) to undermine America’s standing in the region…”

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