Hope in the Trouble Spots

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 25/05/08):

Standing observantly on the sidelines has never been George W. Bush’s intent or forte. But the president needs to master the skill for his twilight months in power.

A spirit of accommodation suddenly grips some of the world’s greatest trouble spots — in part because Bush is going and a new president is coming. This is a time when regional powers work out basic understandings on their own to prepare for a period in which American attention will turn decisively inward and American power will be uncertain in application and range.

The decision by Israel and Syria to commit publicly to indirect peace talks — under Turkish mediation and outside U.S.-sponsored channels — seems to fall into this category. So do the Arab League’s (at least temporarily) successful effort to get Lebanon’s warring factions to accept a plan for a new government there, and the notable warming between China and Japan this month.

Elsewhere, urban guerrillas allow Iraq’s government to take control of problem areas in Baghdad and Basra, North Korea turns over declarations on its nuclear weapons program demanded by the United States as a condition for continuing negotiations, and Pakistan’s new civilian government negotiates with and tries to co-opt tribal militias that support al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.

These probes, agreements and rapprochements all have local causes and effects. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for example, must hope that engaging Syria will boost his collapsing political fortunes at home and undercut the Palestinian radicals of Hamas. North Korea may have finally decided that it will get more from a legacy-hungry Bush than the next U.S. leader. And so on.

But two common denominators run through these odd couplings. First, they buy time while waiting for the U.S. electorate to decide the direction of American power in world affairs. For all its political flaws, current economic weakness and recurring self-flagellation, the United States remains the chief reference point for the world’s fears, hopes and power calculations.

Flux in the United States brings flux almost everywhere. By squeezing the Lebanese into accommodating each other with promises for change, Egypt and the Gulf Arab states hedge their bets on a regional confrontation with Iran, the main backer of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Given the alternatives available, buying time is not the worst option in most of these cases. Bush should let the Israelis and Syrians play out the string of peacemaking on their own and not insist on getting involved or giving priority to the Palestinian talks he has helped foster.

After all, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty happened only because the Carter administration’s unsteadiness scared Egypt’s Anwar Sadat so thoroughly that he traveled to Jerusalem in 1977 to take charge of the process. And the fundamentals of the Israeli-PLO accord of 1993 similarly were not made in the USA.

The second connector — and one that Bush must keep uppermost in mind — is that alliances and long-term relationships can be dramatically affected by decisions and actions that are necessarily short-term in nature in his administration’s final months. That is particularly true in handling Kosovo’s independence and in negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

The European Union has the greatest interest in keeping Russia from using Kosovo as an open wound to be torn at whenever it suits Moscow’s purposes. American support for E.U. leadership in the western Balkans is necessary over the tense summer ahead.

More dependent on U.S. security help than ever, Japan is inwardly fearful that its interests are being overlooked as the United States pursues a nuclear agreement with North Korea and subconsciously elevates China to become the main American interlocutor in Asia. Those twin Japanese anxieties are reinforced by the fact that China hosts the multilateral talks with North Korea that have produced major compromises in Bush’s original harsh stand toward Pyongyang.

Accommodation with Pyongyang and Beijing must be handled with great deference for Japan’s legitimate concerns. If Washington does settle for half a nuclear loaf, Tokyo may have to conduct its own talks with Pyongyang on bilateral issues. Japan should be sure of having U.S. support and understanding on those questions in advance.

Burma’s use of foreign relief supplies is the obvious, urgent exception to the utility of letting other nations buy themselves time and space in a transition period. Time is the enemy in Burma, where delay means massive death. The sidelines are no place for any civilized nation in that ongoing tragedy.