You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Trouble With Talking

It's practically accepted wisdom that Barack Obama's plan to talk directly to dictators will help rehabilitate U.S. foreign policy. But as the case of Syria demonstrates, non-engagement can sometimes be the wisest course--and the most diplomatic.

Barack Obama's professed willingness to sit down with dictators may have elicited jeers from the Clinton campaign, but in recent months the idea has found broad support in the mainstream of center-left opinion. After all, engaging Middle East rivals was one of the recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, and now the thread has been picked up by Washington think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the International Crisis Group, and the New America Foundation, as well as a number of journalists and analysts who argue that it's time to bring in everyone that the Bush administration left out in the cold. In particular, Syria seems to have won the attention of the pro-engagement crowd, like Obama adviser Robert Malley, who has said that Washington's dealings with Damascus "undoubtedly can have a significant impact on each" aspect of U.S. Middle East policy--from Iraq and Iran, to Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

However, the present situation in Syria shows the folly of Obama's idea. First, as Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's unctuous welcome of Nancy Pelosi a year ago proves, for the U.S. simply to talk to its enemy was a victory of a type for Syria, and one that worked against the U.S.'s larger strategic goals. And secondly, the situation in Syria indicates that sometimes isolating an enemy can be the smartest and most effective diplomatic solution--by not alienating our allies or undermining a precarious multilateral strategy of non-engagement.

When Pelosi visited Damascus last spring, her main purpose was to thumb her nose at the White House by demonstrating that there was no harm merely chatting with the solicitious, clearly delighted Asad. And yet the unintended consequence of her overture, as Syrian dissidents had warned, was that Asad clamped down on opposition figures, seemingly availing himself of the apparently relaxed U.S. pressure. The same happened when Arlen Specter visited this past winter and Syria arrested two dissidents within 48 hours of the Pennsylvania senator's trip.

The Bush administration itself, of course, also knows what it’s like to get played by Asad. After a visit to Damascus in 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell boasted that he’d gotten Asad to close the local offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, only to later discover that they were still open for business. The administration’s last official mission to Syria was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s trip in January 2005, when one of the main topics of interest was political tension in Lebanon. Weeks later, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and 22 others were killed in a massive car bomb explosion in downtown Beirut. The next day, Washington recalled its ambassador, a post that has been vacant ever since.

So, it was not doctrinaire anti-diplomatic tendencies that led the Bush administration to curtail relations with Syria. The administration's outreach had done nothing to alter Syria’s behavior, and to keep talking would merely demoralize anxious American allies in Lebanon, which has become one of the U.S.'s most valuable assets. Not only has Lebanon been a key venue for taking on Iran by facing down its proxy, Hezbollah, but the pro-Western government there led by Christians, Druze, and moderate Sunnis represented precisely the sort of Middle East the administration’s democracy advocates had envisioned. An Obama White House may have no interest in “regional transformation,” but the delicate diplomacy required to support Lebanon still represents an almost insurmountable barrier if it chooses the road to Damascus.

President Obama may be surprised to discover that Bush’s Lebanon policy is a model of multilateral consensus, formed in partnership with allies like France and regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Still, Washington is clearly the senior partner, and engaging Syria at this point would mean shaking the cornerstone of a coalition built on international law, including a string of U.N. Security Council Resolutions, and a U.N. tribunal established to try Hariri’s murderers.

More than three years after the assassination of the former Prime Minister, the tribunal is finally ready to go and may begin as early as early summer at the Hague. Judges have been selected, and if, as expected, members of the Syrian regime are indicted, there is a mechanism for trying suspects in absentia. According to the U.N.’s chief legal counsel, Nicolas Michel, “There is no way it can be halted.”

Of course, there is one way Bashar al-Asad might be spared the Milosevic treatment, and that’s with a diplomatic initiative from the White House. “Washington’s friends and enemies in the Middle East would understand engagement with the Asad regime as the end of U.S. commitment to the tribunal,” says David Schenker, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and previously the office of the Secretary of Defense’s Levant country director. “It’s difficult to imagine the White House opening a dialogue with Damascus with international indictments pending.”

The one U.S. ally that might welcome an opening to Syria is Israel. Since peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas are stalled, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may be sorely tempted to try the Syrian track, as his Defense Minister and Labor Party rival Ehud Barak recommends. The problem is that Asad’s ostensible precondition is the return of the Golan Heights, which neither the present Israeli government nor any foreseeable one is able to deal away. Therefore, Israel, Syria, and the U.S. all understand that Asad’s real price is a so-called “grand bargain” from the Americans.

The Syrians, for their part, aren't giving anything away, even at the behest of a White House eager to sit down with them. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Obama could arrange to tank the Hariri tribunal in exchange for Asad agreeing to leave Lebanon alone. The problem is that Syria cannot afford to abandon its claims on its smaller neighbor and so it wants the whole package: protection from the tribunal and hegemony in Lebanon. “He wants more than anyone can deliver,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident now living in Washington, “and he has nothing to offer.”

Bashar has to have Beirut. It is a cash cow for a financially strapped Syrian regime desperately squeezing the last drops out of its oil revenue. But most importantly, Syria needs to maintain an open front against Israel, and since it dares not risk war on its own border from the Golan, it fights instead via Hezbollah on Lebanon’s border. Without that front in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Damascus cannot project power in the region.

Syria’s demands then are necessarily maximalist--no to the tribunal, yes to a renewed role in Lebanon, including an open front on the Israeli border--and thus unacceptable to the international community, including, presumably, an Obama administration. The question is whether a new president would do the math before rushing off to engage Damascus. The Bush White House, perhaps having foreseen this possibility, has built in checks that will be difficult for the next President to override.

Executive orders signed by President Bush have targeted several figures with ties to the regime, including Rami Makhlouf, Asad’s cousin and a key fixer for anyone who wants to make money in Syria. Their American assets have been frozen, and by prohibiting U.S. firms and individuals from taking their business, the White House hopes also to encourage international players to isolate Syria financially. Last month, the Treasury Department designated four members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq as affiliated with the regime, leaving any U.S. president who wants to chat with Damascus the more difficult task of explaining why he wants to engage bin Laden's peers. Finally, there’s the 2004 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. While Congress has very little say in foreign policy, the bill’s sanctions against Damascus embody the kind of broad bipartisan agreement that would ostensibly distinguish an Obama presidency, and a renewed policy of engagement could be seen as the new president thumbing his nose at that consensus.

An Obama campaign that preaches multilateralism but intends to engage Syria is going to find itself crossing those same parties most prominent in their opposition to Bush in Iraq, including France, the U.N., and Sunni Arabs, along with many institutions within his own government. In short, Obama will have shown that he had learned too little from either Bush’s successes or errors in making Middle East policy.

In the immediate future, Syria, has no other strategy except to wait and hope that a President Obama is just itching to reach out to them, merely to prove that he is smarter than George Bush.

Lee Smith, a visiting fellow in Hudson Institute's Center for Future Security Strategies, is currently based in Beirut, where he is writing a book about Arab culture.

By Lee Smith