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.