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May 12, 2003

State's failed policy

... But Does State Get It?

Angelo M. Codevilla is a professor of international relations at Boston Universityand the auther on the classic Post Mordem to a Phony War weighs in again.

Much as in 1991, the Bush administration's diplomacy is undermining the effects of military success that, properly exploited, would bring the peace that America deserves. That is because, much as in 1991, the Bush administration is not using military success to coerce enemy regimes in the region into receivership. Instead, it continues to pursue long-standing goals of better relations with them.

The State Department has convinced President George W. Bush, just as it convinced his father, that to translate military victory into good feeling toward America requires respect for current Arab regimes; that the Syrian regime can be America's partner against terrorism rather than a major fount of it; that a few personnel changes can transform the Palestinian Authority into something other than a gang of terrorists; and that the Saudi regime's stability is possible and desirable. This approach is based on a misreading of the Middle East, as well as of diplomacy itself. The experiences of the 1990s makes it doubly inexcusable.

The Syrian regime is a somewhat less violent copy of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Run by the Ba'ath Party on behalf of a hated minority, it lives by killing tens of thousands of its own citizens and by massive corruption. International terrorism and militant Arab nationalism are its only significant exports. Although the State Department and CIA did not found the Ba'ath Party, they helped both the Syrian and Iraqi branches of it come to power in the 1950s and 1960s.

For almost half a century, Arabists at the State Department and the CIA have sacrificed much to cajole the Ba'ath's secular, nationalist, socialist dictators. Time and again, the State Department and the CIA have pressed Israel to give in to Syrian demands and protected the Syrian regime from Israel's retaliation for terrorist attacks. Beginning in the 1970s and culminating in President George H.W. Bush's 1991 approval of Syria's invasion of East Beirut, U.S. presidents have been complicit in Syria's occupation of Lebanon. And what has America received in return? At least in 1991, the Syrian regime gave us pro forma support in Gulf War I. In 2003, Syria called for killing Americans in Gulf War II - and Russian weapons supplied by Syria destroyed the only U.S. Abrams tank ever killed in combat. Much of Iraq's Ba'ath structure went to Syria.

After all this, Secretary of State Colin Powell got Bush to pronounce himself satisfied with Syria's cooperation. There were no demands that Syria withdraw from Lebanon, that it let its Bek√°a Valley return to farming by removing the complex of terrorist bases that Syria has emplaced there. The regime does not have to stop fomenting anti-Americanism, much less change itself. This diplomacy is worse than that in 1991.

The State Department and the CIA did not invent Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). But they supported it diplomatically and financially decade after decade because they placed upon it the same hopes they have placed on the Ba'ath movement - to which it intimately is related. In 1982 they saved it from being destroyed by Israel in the course of the Lebanon War, and kept it alive in Tunis. After 1991, instead of using America's post-Gulf War I prestige to foster the rise of indigenous Palestinian leadership, State and the CIA worked to install the PLO in a quasi-government in the West Bank and Gaza. This was the "Oslo Peace Process," in which Israeli and American "experts" empowered the PLO in exchange for its promises to be nicer.

This occupied nine years, cost thousands of lives and fueled anti-Americanism. Today, instead of following up the destruction of Iraq's Ba'ath movement with Israel's destruction of the PLO, State and CIA push a "road map" [see symposium, May 13-26], different from Oslo only in detail, that further empowers the PLO in exchange for promises and cosmetic personnel changes. Dumb in 1991, dumber now.

Since the substance of the State Department's approach is indefensible, officials have argued only that it must be wise because President Bush favors it. But if favor could make this approach work better for this Bush than for his father, favor could as well make pigs sprout wings.