November 29, 2007

November 29, 2007 | Commentary on Middle East

Knotty issues

Could it be that there was a whiff of desperation this week over the Middle East summit in Annapolis? One gets the feeling that these days, the Bush administration is acting more with history in mind than anything else -- certainly more than with a sense of reality. One need only look back to President Bush's predecessor to find a similar legacy syndrome at work.

While it may be harsh to compare Mr. Bush's Annapolis initiative to President Clinton's failed Middle East diplomacy at the Wye River Plantation, the comparison is justified. There is no more reason to expect long-term success from Annapolis than there was from the Wye River conference, given the difficulties of the issues and the haste with which the summit was cobbled together after a long series of delays. Is it really now or never? In the politics of Middle East diplomacy, that is a tempting, but dangerous assumption.

Unfortunately, the temptation for the president to give in to the siren call of a search for legacy is in evidence on a number of foreign issues. These issues range from the Middle East, to Iran, to North Korea, to the Law of the Sea Treaty, to free trade agreements. And this is by no means an exhaustive list.

With Democrats in control on Capitol Hill, the prospects for the president's domestic agenda get dimmer by the day and a major overhaul of immigration policy or Social Security are all but impossible -- unless the president buys into the Democrats' agenda.

On foreign policy, meanwhile, Iraq is now showing the potential for real progress following the successful surge policy. But as the Iraqi government's petition for a standing-forces agreement with the United States indicates, our presence will be needed there for a long time. For Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Iraq will strongly color her legacy, a prospect that may not be so comfortable. Hence, one might suspect the urge to look for other legacy projects.

It will be worth, however, recalling the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the current president's father before the Gulf War, "this is no time to go wobbly."

The problem with Annapolis, as my colleague Jim Phillips has pointed out, is that it was conceived a long while ago as a means to reach a "political horizon" for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the pressure-cooker timetable of a closing U.S. presidency, it has been reduced to a symbolic diplomatic kick-off. A two-state agreement would be a tremendously difficult achievement under the best of circumstances given the lack of trust on both sides, the lack of domestic political support for both the Israelis' and the Palestinians' presidents, and the lack of actual commitment to peace by Hamas and its Middle East sponsors like Syria and Iran.

The knotty problems of such a final status agreement suggest the degree of difficulty: Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the right to return of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, water rights, borders and security arrangements. And while Hamas has demanded a six-month accelerated timetable to achieve all this, it is not prepared to give the Israeli side what it wants -- a simple acknowledgement of Israel's right to exist. Does this sound familiar? If it does, it is because these difficult areas remain unchanged from negotiations at Wye, and before that at Oslo and at Madrid.

But why should the Bush administration not at least make the attempt to solve these issues with a final throw of the dice, some will ask? The reason is that consequences may not be sufficiently considered by an administration that will not have to live with them. Furthermore, the follow through will be entirely in the hands of the next occupant of the White House, making it a matter of pure conjecture. The Wye River gamble was not the only failure of Mr. Clinton's last days in office. He also left poison pills for the Bush administration in the form of signing onto the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto treaty, both of which turned out to be huge diplomatic problems for his successor.

It would be far better for the president in his last year in office to focus on the most important task at hand, and that is getting Iraq right. The war on terrorism and Iraq will indelibly be Mr. Bush's legacy. As for the rest, Mr. President, "don't go wobbly."

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times