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« Selling big ideas in a sound bite age | Main | Looking for an easy out from war »
Sunday
Feb252007

In Middle East, enlarge solution, not just the problem

Vice President Dick Cheney states the long war against radical Islamic extremism will "occupy our successors for two or three or four administrations to come." He's right. But the Bush administration's refusal to launch a regional security dialogue is dead wrong. When we don't give all interested parties - both internally and externally - a chance to steer strategic outcomes, we simply invite their counter-productive meddling.

The Bush administration's "big bang" strategy of toppling Saddam Hussein was designed to shake up the Middle East and set in motion transformational change. Done well (the hope going in) or done badly (today's inescapable reality), change is clearly unfolding. But it's arrogance of the worst sort to expect the world's other great powers to follow blindly America's lead in the numerous resulting scenarios - e.g., Iraq's break-up, Iran versus Saudi Arabia in Iraq, Iran versus Israel on nukes, Syria and Iran versus Israel in Lebanon/Palestine.

America's strategic relationships encompass only a fraction of the chessboard currently in play. We have serious influence with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan and - now - Iraq. But the Europeans take the lead in Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, whereas Russia is the primary actor throughout Central Asia, its so-called near abroad. China's growing economic network connects it to Pakistan, a long-time ally, and Iran, its new best friend on energy. Then, there are India's longstanding ties with Iran and the Gulf States plus Japan's rather extreme dependency on the region's energy.

A regional security dialogue that involved both internal and interested external players is the obvious alternative to the Bush administration's currently dangerous course of enlarging our Iraq problem to include Syria and Iran. It should be modeled on the approach we employed decades ago in another long war - the Cold War in Europe.

In 1975, America helped create the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which in the years since has become the "primary instrument for early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation" for its 56 member states stretching from Vancouver to Vladivostok. For the first 20 years of its existence, the OSCE was merely a conference where direct adversaries and interested third parties met continuously on issues such as human rights, political reform and security confidence-building measures.

How important was the OSCE to the Cold War's peaceful denouement? Without it, it's hard to imagine figures like Poland's Lech Walesa or the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel rising to the forefront of revolutionary political change, eventually becoming inaugural presidents of their country's post-Soviet governments. It's also hard imagining the relatively successful processing of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Chortle if you must, but "Dayton" 10 years later looks pretty good.

I know our history books say it all came down to Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Star Wars, but the locals actually involved in Cold War's dismantling routinely cite a host of smaller, nonheadline issues that got hammered out - month after month and year after year - in the OSCE. Granted, it's boring stuff compared to decapitating air strikes, but it's how the lasting victories are actually secured.

Right now there's nothing in the Middle East that compares to the OSCE (forget about the Arab League), and there should be. Yes, it would mean Washington couldn't call all the shots, but frankly, it's hard to argue that would be a bad thing given our recent record.

In its absence, expect more Russian complaints and meddling by the day. Also expect China to expand its own regional security policy, selectively favoring certain local dictators over our own - feel free to call that kettle "black," for what it's worth. Meanwhile, Europe drags its heels on anything that enables another American-instigated war and regional powers Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia wage pointless proxy struggles with one another, begetting nothing but more instability and death.

The saddest thing about the anti-war chant of "blood for oil" is that it's mostly our blood and somebody else's - as in, Asia's - oil. That glaring strategic imbalance will only grow in coming decades, making our painfully unilateral approach to "fixing" the Middle East all the more untenable.

George W. Bush was right to lay a big bang on this calcified political landscape, but it's now clear to everyone concerned that this long war is not ours alone to wage.

That inescapable truth awaits the next two or three or four administrations.

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