The missed opportunities for Middle East peace.

Military analysis.
Nov. 28 2007 6:48 PM

Spaced Shuttle Diplomacy

Why did it take so long to get to Annapolis?

George Bush. Click image to expand.
President George Bush speaks to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

As Condoleezza Rice sat in Annapolis, Md., this week, watching unpopular statesmen pledge to undertake vague negotiations toward an undefined peace, she might have recalled the moment, almost a year and a half ago, when an opportunity for a real breakthrough was within reach—and she, and her president, let it slide by.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan writes Slate's "War Stories" column and is the author of Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, due out in February. He can be reached at war_stories@hotmail.com.

It happened in July 2006, a few days after Hezbollah militiamen in southern Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel, stole across the border, kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, and killed three others, prompting retaliation from Israeli rockets and artillery. On July 18, the Arab League, meeting in an emergency summit in Cairo, released a statement—authored by Saudi Arabia—condemning Hezbollah for committing "unexpected, inappropriate, and irresponsible acts."

Advertisement

This was an astonishing event. The official stance of most of these states was that Israel had no right to exist; yet here they were, upholding Israel's right to coexist in peace and to defend itself from attack.

Dennis Ross, the former Middle East envoy to President Bill Clinton and to the first President Bush, received a call from a friend at the State Department, who asked what he thought George W. Bush should do in response.

Ross replied that Condi Rice, with whom he had worked in Bush 41's National Security Council, should fly to the Middle East right away. The Saudi statement, he said, marked a potential turning point—a rare, if not unprecedented, opportunity to forge a new alignment between Arabs and Israelis, not only on Lebanon but also on the gamut of contentious issues. The Saudis needed to coordinate a common Arab position on Israel-Lebanon security. The Israelis needed to cut back on their airstrikes, to align their military tactics with feasible political objectives. Neither the Saudis nor the Israelis could do this on their own; they had no diplomatic relations, and it would be politically risky for either to make the first move. They needed the United States as a go-between. In short, this was a prime moment to revive the art of shuttle diplomacy. But Ross emphasized, it was just a moment; it wouldn't last.

Quite separately, Philip Zelikow, Rice's counselor at the State Department and another longtime friend and colleague, had a similar idea. He sent her a memo, encouraging her to fly to Israel—preferably to Haifa, the northern city where Hezbollah rockets were exploding—to display American solidarity. Then she should pressure Israeli officials to stop the airstrikes—which would have no political effect—and to nudge them, and the region's other powers, into a settlement.

Bush and Rice were attending a G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the time. Tony Blair, still Britain's prime minister, also urged Bush to send Rice to the region immediately, noting that the conflict could quickly "spiral out of control." Bush interrupted him and said (on an open mike), "Yeah, she's going, I think Condi's going to go pretty soon."

But she didn't go to the Middle East for another week, and by that time, the moment—as Ross had warned—was over.

Why did Bush and Rice pass up this chance? While I was doing research on a forthcoming book on foreign and military policy (titled Daydream Believers), former Bush officials—including Zelikow—told me there were two reasons.

First, they said, Bush was disinclined to do shuttle diplomacy because that was what previous presidents did, and he wasn't like previous presidents, especially the one named Clinton. Second, he wanted to wait a while, to give the Israelis a chance to demolish Hezbollah.

This latter hope was a delusion. To have any chance of destroying Hezbollah, Israel would need to send a massive invasion force into southern Lebanon. Yet Israel had only recently ended an 18-year occupation there, and few of its people or leaders had the stomach to start another one. The Israeli military's chief of staff, Gen. Dan Halutz, was an air force officer who convinced inexperienced Cabinet ministers that he could win the battle with air power alone—emulating the greatest miscalculation of recent American strategy.

By the time Rice finally got on a plane, Israel had stepped up its bombing and shelling so drastically—displacing and killing so many Lebanese civilians in the process, to no avail—that the Arab powers backed away from their condemnation of Hezbollah. (Even some Israeli newspaper columnists were criticizing the escalation as "disproportionate.")

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 20 2014 8:14 PM You Should Be Optimistic About Ebola Don’t panic. Here are all the signs that the U.S. is containing the disease.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Outward
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 8:38 AM An Implanted Wearable Gadget Isn’t as Crazy as You’d Think Products like New Deal Design’s UnderSkin may be the future.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.