I was a little surprised by all the brouhaha (see here, here, and here) over Daniel Kurtzer’s trip to Damascus. Not that I think this trip was the best of ideas–but what’s the fuss all about? Kurtzer is only one more tourist in a long chain of more senior travelers to the capital of Syria. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, was there. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was there. Senator Bill Nelson was there in 2006, and as far as I remember he was accompanied in this trip by his advisor Dan Shapiro (now officially with the Obama campaign). One can also add to this long list the name of Condi Rice, who met with her Syrian counterpart in 2007 (though the meeting was in Egypt). And don’t forget that the Bush administration invited Syria to attend the Annapolis peace conference.
So why is Kurtzer’s trip different? I suspect the objections are more about the politics of the day than about a genuine shock over the trip itself. However, three things are worth mentioning regarding the trip, its meaning, and its author.
First, meeting with Syrian officials is a questionable move, but such meetings are already an established fact. Since Israel has decided-wrongly, in my opinion–to negotiate with Damascus, international isolation of the country has been crumbling and President Bashar Assad has become an acceptable figure in the eyes of many. Under such circumstances, I don’t see how an Obama administration will be able to refrain from at least trying to engage the Syrians–and I suspect a McCain administration might do the same.
Of course, for an Obama advisor to be meeting with Syrians at this point in time is problematic. It undermines American policy and sends the message that Damascus should stall and wait for the next American President to take office. And Rudy Giuliani was right to suggest that Kurtzer is being used “for propaganda points.” But let’s be honest here: the Syrians are already riding high. They also already know that they should wait for the next administration. Kurtzer’s visit didn’t make much of a difference.
There is a second, political point related to this. As much as I’d like Americans to stand firm against useless and damaging talks with bullies and thugs, Obama has proved by now that it’s easier politically to preach for talks-with-everybody that it is to defend a no-talks policy.
I once made this point about the Jimmy Carter’s distasteful shenanigans in the Middle East:
Jimmy Carter holds the trump card when he talks about the need to speak to one’s enemies. His advantage is the instinct harbored by most Americans, who reject “the policy of isolating problem countries” and believe “that the United States should be willing to enter into talks with them,” as one public-opinion poll put it in December 2006. In that poll, only 16 favored “pressure,” while a whopping 82 percent was “willing to talk.” Eighty-four percent of respondents supported the proposition that “communication increases the chance of finding a mutually agreeable solution.” So although Carter wants you to think he is working against the odds, calling for talks is, in fact, the easier political position.
Will Kurtzer be hurting Obama by meeting with the Syrians? I’m not at all sure he will, frankly. But even so his prospects of a role in a future Obama administration are growing dimmer daily. This former Ambassador to Israel and Orthodox Jew has turned out to be one the most left-leaning advisors Obama now has–a somewhat puzzling fact when one recalls the circumstances leading to the decision, made just days before the Ohio primaries, to bring him on board:
Former Ambassador [to Israel] Martin Indyk, a long time Clinton supporter, came to convince the potential voters to vote for her, but on Sunday the Obama campaign also threw a former Israel ambassador into the ring: Daniel Kurtzer.
However, Kurtzer proved to be quite problematic as a surrogate responsible for calming Jewish voters, a point accurately highlighted by Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency:
[Kurtzer] could prove to be more problem than solution, at least among the more established elements of the pro-Israel community. If anything, he is more pronounced in advising a balanced approach to Middle East peacemaking than any of the real and purported advisers to Obama already singled out for criticism by pro-Israel hawks.
It is no surprise that Kurtzer’s standings with the campaign have been decreasing in recent months, a fact made even more pronounced by the growing presence of former special Mideast envoy Dennis Ross. Ross and Kurtzer were both members of the Clinton peace team, but the views they’ve expressed in recent years have been very different. There’s no doubt that Ross is now the more influential of the two. And his views regarding Syria talks were published not so long ago:
Statecraft requires recognizing where one has leverage and where one’s adversaries have vulnerabilities. Syria’s relationship with Iran and Hezbollah is tactical not strategic. There is no guarantee that by talking, the Israelis — or the United States — will suddenly be able to wean Syria away from Iran or Hezbollah. It is entirely possible that neither the Israelis nor the United States can or should pay what Syria wants. But if war is an increasing possibility and if there is tactical benefit in demonstrating that even Syria feels the need to talk to Israel, it is hard to see what is lost by doing so.
Like it or not, this is (I suspect) Obama’s bedrock position regarding talks with Syria. The rest–Kurtzer, visits, statements, shocks, and dismays–is all mere detail.