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Obama’s Middle East Choices

Aaron David Miller’s advice to Barack Obama is somewhat better than the advice Obama was given by the Scowcroft-Brzezinski duo a week ago. But it is still incoherent in many respects.

The older guys want Obama to start with Palestinians first; Miller wants him to start with Syria first. He is right in saying that “there’s no deal there” as far as the Palestinians go, and he makes the case forcefully. But since something has to be done somewhere, Miller turns his attention to Syria, and before he even starts negotiating, he is already willing to make some concessions:

The White House would have to be patient. Syria won’t walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually, requiring a major international effort to marshal economic and political support for Damascus.

So, why even bother now?

Still, an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty would confront Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran with tough choices and reduced options.

What “tough choices” is he talking about? I can’t say, because Miller doesn’t specify. He does talk about the hard choices the two countries will have to make: Israel, on the “extent of withdrawal from the Golan Heights,” and Syria, on “normalization and security” – normalization being the extent to which Syria will let “peace” to be “real peace,” and security being, well, Miller doesn’t say. It’s a short article – maybe he didn’t have enough room to make his argument in full.

And maybe that’s why the word “Lebanon” does not even appear in this article. Not once. As if the U.S. no longer has any interest in Lebanon’s fate. Those who weren’t around in the last four years might have forgotten, but one major reason the Bush administration was never enthusiastic about an Israeli-Syrian peace process was the feeling among American policy makers that what Syria is after is not the Golan Heights, but rather the Shouf Mountains. There hasn’t been any indication that priorities have changed for Syria, but maybe Miller believes that it is the U.S. that needs to change course – namely, to abandon the idea of free Lebanon. I guess we’ll have to wait for the longer article.