At her press conference on Friday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revealed—far more articulately, if unwittingly, than any other official has in some time—just what is so dangerous about President George W. Bush's foreign policy.
She called the news conference to announce her trip to the Middle East and to outline her ideas for how, and how not, to make peace between Israel and Lebanon. Asked why she hadn't flown to the region earlier or engaged in "shuttle diplomacy," as some had suggested, Rice replied, "I could have gotten on a plane and rushed over and started shuttling, and it wouldn't have been clear what I was shuttling to do. … I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante. I think that would be a mistake."
Then came the killer sentence, the sentiment that explains so much about what's gone wrong with American diplomacy and not just in the Middle East:
What we're seeing here is, in a sense, the growing—the birth pangs of a new Middle East, and whatever we do, we have to be certain that we're pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old Middle East.
How many souls over the decades have sallied forth into the desert, beaming with bright eyes and blueprints for a "new Middle East," only to bog down in the dunes, blistered by sunstroke and bitten by scorpions?
It's not so much the blithe arrogance that's troubling—the belief among many top Bush aides that they can ignore history and culture, that they've hit upon the magic formula that has eluded countless others. (After all, every president deserves a shot at making "enduring peace" in the Middle East.) It's the stunning confidence in this belief—held so deeply that they're willing to push ahead with their vision even at great sacrifice of political stability and human life.
"I have no interest in diplomacy for the sake of returning Lebanon and Israel to the status quo ante," Rice said. And yet, sometimes a return to the status quo is the best you can hope for in this region. "I could have … rushed over and started shuttling," but "it wouldn't have been clear what I was shuttling to do." Well, for starters, you could have saved hundreds of lives, preserved billions of dollars in property, and perhaps stemmed the tide of rising anti-Israeli (and, by extension, anti-American) passion.
This is the troubling thing. Rice and President Bush refused to engage in diplomacy sooner, refused to impose a cease-fire (which Bush certainly could have imposed, had he wanted), because that would have meant "going back to the old Middle East"—restoring "the status quo ante"—while they're in the business of "pushing forward to the new Middle East."
A cease-fire without a political solution, Rice said, would have meant we'd be back "in six months again or in nine months or in a year, trying to get another cease-fire." The thing is, that's what this sorrowful region requires sometimes.
"A real and lasting peace," Rice said, must "address the root causes of the violence." Yet, as anyone who has so much as waded into the morass of Middle Eastern politics well knows, the opposing players disagree about "the root causes of the violence" as intensely as they do about any other issue. It's what often inflames the violence.
Sociologists often say that fighting urban crime requires eliminating the "root causes." Here too there are disputes over just what those root causes are. But cities don't wait until they've figured it out before taking action; they hire police to hit the streets and go after criminals.
At her Friday press conference, Secretary Rice spoke like a big-city mayor who, in the middle of a crime wave, announces that he's not going to put more police on the streets; he's going to convene a summit to address the wave's root causes.
There's nothing wrong with convening a summit; but, meanwhile, put police on the streets to catch criminals—or, to drop the metaphor, stop the killing (which almost certainly won't give Israel the upper hand in any case) and put troops on the borders to keep the peace.
This "old Middle East" is a very old beast indeed, yet its fangs are still sharp and its bite deadly. It's a good idea to be on the lookout for an opportunity to kill the thing or to knock it out and change its nature before it wakes up. But until that opportunity arises, as past presidents have learned, there's no choice but to put up with it and either push or talk it down every time it tries to go on the warpath.
And, by the way, just what is this "new Middle East" that Rice sees rousing in its "birth pangs"? Is it really better than the creature of old? Does she think it's a sibling of the peaceful, tolerant, democratic Middle East that her president believed would rise up in the wake of Saddam Hussein's collapse? That toddler didn't turn out so well. Is there any sign that the pangs of Lebanon might produce a gentler kid than the pangs of Iraq? If there is a new Middle East on the horizon, it's more likely to bear crescent arcs and hidden imams. It's not a creation that any Western diplomat should be "pushing forward." Its potential emergence provides still more reason to contain all violent outbursts as quickly as possible, not to let them run their course.