There is no deal.
"It doesn't matter what you say," says one Lebanese analyst here in Washington with close ties to March 14. "Whenever I try to tell Beirut there's no deal between the US and Syria, they don't believe me. They treat me like I'm naïve for not knowing there's a deal in the works."
Lebanon, believe it or not, there is no deal.
March 14's decision to accept the candidacy of Army Commander Michel Sleiman as president was based on a reading of US Middle East policy that assumed there was a major realignment to bring Damascus in from the cold and open up a new era of US-Syrian comity. However, as National Security Adviser Steven Hadley explained yesterday to a university audience, a US rapprochement with Syria depends on whether it gives up its support for terror and – this is key – if it will "leave Lebanon alone."
While it is true that actions speak louder than words, the fact remains that there was no backroom bargain cut at the expense of the US's Lebanese allies. What really happened turns out to be a much simpler story about human beings and their misunderstandings and flaws, like innocence, pride, ambition and, of course, vanity. And thus it is a tragic story.
Processing peace, but little else
It is widely believed in foreign ministries and newsrooms around the world that a battle is raging in the Bush administration between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney for control of US foreign policy. Insiders here in Washington know otherwise: one, there is no fight, for Rice has won it; and, two, because Rice has won it, there is no coherent US foreign policy.
Consider what is unquestionably the US's number one concern right now – hundreds of thousands of US troops deployed in two wars in the Middle East. On both of these, the Secretary of State has been virtually absent. Why? They are too messy. Although General Petraeus' "surge" seems to have had some palpable success, acknowledged even by the Bush-hostile US press, it will be many years before anyone knows how Iraq will turn out.
Then there is Iran, which Washington policymakers widely regard as the US's major strategic threat in the region. Tehran's ambitions and its alliances with radical actors, Hezbollah, Hamas and of course, Syria, pose serious problems for American friends in the region, from Israel to the Gulf Arab states. Most importantly, Iran's nuclear program threatens US hegemony in the Persian Gulf, effectively an American lake, through which the free flow of affordable oil ensures a stable global economy.
The American official handling the Iran file is Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. The extent of Rice's involvement is in trying to "line up" Sunni Arab states and Israel that are already lined up as US allies and already terrified of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her most recent redundant efforts were conducted last week in Annapolis, under the general rubric of the peace process.
Indeed, there is no coherent US Middle East policy right now because Secretary Rice has only a peace process policy, for nothing matters to her as much as peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. US ally Pervez Musharraf is under fire? Rice was in Jerusalem peace processing. Lebanese presidential elections? Well, the French seem eager to have a shot at it, so let them try. Anyway, the US's top diplomat is too busy spending American time and prestige and money on the peace process.
I belabor the point to indicate that this and this alone is what is behind what appears to be a deal with Damascus. As Rice has toured the Middle East, like many people who travel the region, she was told repeatedly that the most important concern for 300 million Arabs is a lasting, just peace between the Jews and some 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. Unfortunately, Ms. Rice really believed it.
This is not, of course, to downplay the gravity of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or its repercussions on neighboring states. But let's face it: Real peace isn't coming any time soon – and certainly not under the weak leaderships of Abbas and Olmert. Yet nonetheless, the conflict is shamelessly used as a pretext for avoiding far more pressing and imminently solvable regional issues.
So, Rice held a conference on the Chesapeake Bay in a town called Annapolis to broker such a peace and also to remind the Arabs that we are all lined up against Iran. Israel, due to its own narrow-minded and craven domestic politics, and some Arab states apparently told her that she must invite the Syrians, since they have the ability to cause a lot of problems. Which Arab regimes could have told her such a transparently stupid thing? Probably all of them, because it is the way Arab governance works – always play both sides of the board because that is the only way to protect the regime. Qatar, for instance, hosts both Centcom and Al-Jazeera.
Lebanon loses it nerve
Did Syria's invitation suggest a thaw in US relations toward Damascus? Not at all. However, it is easy to understand how March 14 misread the message.
In October, Saad Hariri visited Washington where he met with the president and every major administration figure along with dozens of legislators on both sides of the aisle. "There is a killing machine in Syria," Hariri told a roomful of journalists. "We came to Washington to say, 'If you are going to do something about it, let us know. If you are not going to do anything about it, let us know. But no matter what, we're not going to give in."
Hariri and the rest seem now to have given in. As March 14 figures were picked off one by one, their Washington ally, the world's lone superpower, did nothing to check the violence. Walid Jumblatt came to town a few weeks after Hariri and half-jokingly remarked that the way to break the two-and-a-half-year siege of Lebanon would be to send car bombs to Damascus. It was not a bad idea given that Israel bombed what has been described as a Syrian nuclear site, and for all of Damascus's bluster, they dare not confront Israel except through terrorist proxies. In other words, this is an easily deterrable enemy.
But the United States did nothing about Bashar al-Assad, except complain about Syrian interference in Lebanon – American bluster that served only to illuminate Washington's unwillingness to back up its semi-tough talk with action. So, between recent events and the history of US-Lebanon relations in the 1990s, when President George H.W. Bush handed Lebanon off to Hafez al-Assad, it is easy to see how, from the Lebanese perspective, the impending invitation of Syria to Annapolis was the last straw. March 14 read this as a preface to an American deal with Damascus. But it is not.
As Rice's ludicrous comparisons between Mahmoud Abbas and Martin Luther King, Jr. indicate, she wants to etch her name in history and this is way she sees most likely – finally, peace achieved in the Middle East thanks to her heroic, transformational diplomacy. But standard diplomacy means that you must grasp fully the concerns of your allies, which in the case of Lebanon, Rice failed miserably. She thus signaled to March 14 where she believes America's real priorities lie – not with protecting a fledgling democracy in Beirut from the terrorist state next door, but in trying to reward a society that too often breeds terrorism within its own borders. So, she invited Syria.
Still, it is worth remembering that the Secretary of State is just the latest in a long line of "peace processors," a racket that includes American policymakers, legislators, analysts and journalists, as well as many Israelis and every single Arab official, journalist and taxi driver who all claim, shamelessly, that the single most important issue in the Arabic-speaking Middle East is not the lack of democracy, human rights, poverty, illiteracy or sectarian enmity and systematic torture and violence, but the Palestinians. The argument goes something like this: Once this tiny speck on the globe is taken care of, then the entire Middle East will enter a new age of peace and prosperity and the lives of 300 million Arabs will be improved dramatically.
It is strange to observe that this reckless obsession with the peace process has now shaped so profoundly the future of a little less than 4 million Lebanese.