WASHINGTON – It was hardly a landmark event, yet last week’s agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians to open a Gaza border crossing said much about a course correction of America’s role in the Middle East.
Saber-rattling is out. Diplomacy is in.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s decision in Jerusalem to plunge into talks that were going nowhere marked only the latest example of a new hands-on diplomacy that has seen senior American envoys intervene in negotiations between parties in the region.
Last month, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, effectively strong-armed Shiite Muslims and Kurds into concessions on the eve of a national referendum on a constitution that would give the country’s disaffected Sunni Arabs at least the chance to play a greater role in shaping the country’s future.
Also last month, Rice reportedly headed off a move within the administration to launch airstrikes against Iraqi insurgent staging camps inside Syria, carrying the day with the argument that more U.S. military activity would generate sympathy for Damascus, the Syrian capital, and heighten anti-American emotions in the region. Diplomatic isolation for the Syrian regime, she argued, was a better strategy.
“For so long, this administration has thought that the only way to make an impact is through military action,” said Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. “What we’re seeing is an important and welcome change.”
Observers who track events in the region believe Rice has played a big part in the shift of administration tactics. Although the policies and methods she advocates in many cases are remarkably similar to those pushed by her predecessor, Rice has one crucial advantage Colin Powell lacked: the president’s ear.
This change in the Middle East comes within the broader context of a gradual return to a less-confrontational stance in foreign affairs that has differentiated the early months of Bush’s second term from his first term.
The more measured assessments of Rice’s senior diplomats, and not the hard-edged views that carried so much influence during the first term, now often prevail, said a U.S. official who declined to be identified because of the issue’s sensitivity.
“She’s done a marvelous job of bringing the Bush vision for this region back to reality,” Walker said.
Although the new reliance on diplomacy has produced some heartening results, the tactic has its downside. A diplomatic plan to deal with the realities of the Middle East requires time – and the patience to allow developments to play out.
What remains uncertain, analysts say, is how a president saddled with an unpopular war in Iraq can maintain political backing at home for such a strategy. Polls indicate that support for an active foreign policy has slipped significantly since the invasion of Iraq.
In a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Council on Foreign Relations, 42 percent of Americans said the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”
The result compares with just 30 percent who held such a view in 2002, and is on par with the percentage expressing that view during the mid-1970s, following the Vietnam War, and in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, according to a statement released by the poll’s organizers.
During a brief stop at a U.S. military base north of Mosul, Iraq, earlier this month, Rice did her best to link efforts to build democracy in the Middle East directly to America’s own security.
“As we help the Iraqi people secure their freedoms, we indeed secure our own,” she told a group of American soldiers, diplomats and contract workers. “Because if Iraq does not succeed, and should Iraq become a place of despair, generations of Americans would also be condemned to fear and to insecurity. And so our fates and our futures are very much linked.”
But if the border crossing agreement was an encouraging sign, it was also a reminder that making progress in the Middle East is tough work.
If it required two months and the rolled-up-sleeves involvement of the secretary of state to get Palestinians and Israelis to agree on a simple border crossing, few people doubt that it will take longer for the two sides to make the far harder choices needed to complete the journey to a Palestinian state.