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An Old Strategy Returns

In the New York Times Book Review, Ethan Bronner reviewsRestoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President” — a collection of essays by 15 experts at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, with a forward and lead essay by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk.

If Barack Obama seeks a set of essays based on a single tendentious point of view, this appears to be the book:  Bronner says the “assumption informing all the essays is that the Bush years have been a catastrophe.”

Bronner thinks the essays “display nuance and realism” (can there be any higher praise?), and he is able to summarize all the recommendations in just three paragraphs:

So what do the contributors think the new administration should do? Vastly increase the role of diplomacy and thereby bring Russia aboard its Mideast initiatives. Cut the number of American troops in Iraq by as much as half within two years. Open direct dialogue with Tehran quickly. Don’t give up on counterterrorism, but remove it from its current central place. Foster reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas by, among other things, reducing demands on Hamas, and press Israel to end all construction in occupied lands even in existing settlements and in Jerusalem.  All of this should be carried out through two special envoys, one for Iran and the other for the Israeli-Arab dispute.

Thus the grand bargain comes into view. Through direct, top-level negotiation, Washington gets Tehran to rethink its priorities. Russia, a key supplier to Iran, helps out. To woo Moscow, [two authors] suggest in their essay, the new administration should pull back from efforts at bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and from plans to install missile defenses in Europe.

[Two other authors] recommend other steps to reduce the influence of Iran. These include peeling Syria away from its alliance with Tehran by stepping up American relations with Damascus and getting Israel to return the Golan Heights through Turkish mediation; blunting the power of Hamas by bringing it into the Palestinian Authority fold and pressing for the removal of settlements and the creation of a Palestinian state; and pulling Lebanon away from Hezbollah by promoting the national unity government and seeking to involve it in peace talks with Israel.

Actually, the recommendations can be more succinctly summarized as follows:  (1) reduce demands on Hamas while pressuring Israel to withdraw from settlements, return the Golan Heights, meet Lebanon’s demands, and create a Palestinian state; (2) forgo missile defenses for European allies and NATO protection for Georgia and Ukraine; and (3) talk quickly to Iran, de-emphasize counterterrorism, and get out of Iraq.

In fact, the recommendations can be stated even more succinctly than that:  lean hard on Israel, reduce our commitment to European allies and new democracies, and talk to the new sheriff in the Middle East about a “grand bargain” to let us get out of Dodge.

This strategy has a different name than “nuance and realism.”  It reflects an approach last tried in the 1930s, when the West adopted policies that sent a signal — to adversaries who already doubted its resolve — that it was not prepared to defend its interests.

The result was a catastrophe.


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