Mideast talks counter White House strategy
By Robin Wright
The Washington Post
10:41 PM CDT, May 22, 2008
WASHINGTON Just days after President George W. Bush returned from the Middle East, the Middle East is moving beyond the Bush administration.
Two major peace effortsa surprise announcement of indirect talks between Israel and Syria brokered by Turkey and an 11th-hour deal brokered by Qatar to prevent a new Lebanese warwere launched without an American role, and both counter U.S. strategy in the region.
For years, the Bush administration has resisted overtures from Jerusalem and Damascus to participate in revived talks over the Golan Heights. The administration balked at including Syria in the Annapolis, Md., conference on Mideast peace last year, relenting only under pressure from allies, according to Western officials.
At his Senate confirmation hearing on May 1, James Cunningham, the ambassador-designate to Israel, said expanding peace talks to include Syria would be difficult. "We have taken the position that it is not very useful right now for us to be talking to Syria," he said.
For 18 months, the United States has urged the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to resist a new political arrangement that would reflect the shifting balance of power there.
"The United States wanted the Siniora government to take a harder-line position and hold out against Hezbollah, but it couldn't provide enough support to make this possible," said Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
To prevent a new war, Qatar stepped in to mediate. The peace deal struck Wednesday favors Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite political party and militia armed by Iran and Syria, which will gain enough new Cabinet seats to veto any decision.
In part, this reflects Hezbollah's tactical gains in the recent violence, experts said, with forces loyal to the government crumbling in 14 hours.
The United States also is not playing a role in other key Middle East initiatives, Ottaway noted, including an Egyptian effort to reconcile the two major Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, and negotiations between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council sheikdoms. The Bush administration is absent "across the board," she said.
That absence reflects Bush's lame-duck status, experts said. "The president spoke in Jerusalem a week ago about standing up to dictators and not appeasing those who used force. He isn't home a week, and the dictators and the forces of violence have triumphed," said Bruce Riedel, a former National Security Council staff member.
The administration responded coolly to the news of indirect Israel-Syria talks. "We hope that this is a forum to address various concerns we all have with Syria's support of terrorism, repression of its own people, and so we will see how this progresses," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.