Thursday, April 05, 2007

New era of diplomacy?

Perhaps it is undue optimism. Perhaps it is highly premature. However, in light of events over the last couple of days, I have to wonder, or at least I have to hope, that we have entered a new era of international diplomacy on the part of Western nations in their dealings with the Middle East.

First, there is the British hostage crisis in Iran (even though they're technically not hostages). US Marines have said that if they were in place of the Britons, they would have gone down fighting. Indeed, of course, they would have gone down. John Bolton has harshly criticized the British government for its diplomatic approach. We have since learned that the hostages have been released without harm, and Tony Blair uttered the following words:

To the Iranian people I would simply say this, we bare you no ill will. On the contrary, we respect Iran as an ancient civilisation, as a nation with a proud and dignified history. And the disagreements we have with your government we wish to resolve peacefully through dialogue.

Second, there is Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria, to meet with the president of Syria, with the good wishes of Israeli president Olmert. BBC says of the comments made by Pelosi:

Speaking in Damascus after the talks, Ms Pelosi praised Mr Assad's attitude towards Israel.

"We were very pleased with the assurances we received from the president that he was ready to resume the peace process," she said.

"He's ready to engage in negotiations for peace with Israel. The meeting with the president enabled us to communicate a message from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel was ready to engage in peace talks as well."

She said that she and other members of her congressional delegation raised concerns about Israeli soldiers held captive by Hamas and Hezbollah.

Syria's relationship with the militant Islamist groups was also discussed, she said, as well as the issue of fighters illegally entering Iraq from Syria.

Earlier, Ms Pelosi met Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem and Vice President Faruq al-Shara.

The trip to Syria of course occurred over the predictable objections of the Bush administration, and moreso John Bolton. Also predictable is the reaction of the conservtive media, saying she is giving a gift to the enemies.

While I'm on the subject, Conor Clark of the Guardian does and excellent piece on the reaction oof the neoconservative right to Pelosi's visit:

It isn't surprising. Attempts to score political points usually aren't. But it is confusing: the conservatives' fury comes in two flavours, and neither makes much sense. First, the right seems to be upset because Pelosi wore a headscarf when she visited a Syrian mosque. Like clockwork, the conservative blogosphere has transformed itself into an army of feminists and taken to the battlements. "This picture disgusts me. What message is Nancy Pelosi trying to send?" writes the New Editor. "The modern Democratic leadership," telegraphs Little Green Footballs, over a picture of Pelosi's sartorial choice. "How ... quaint."

They're grasping at straws. For one, Pelosi's critics ignore the inconvenient fact that First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have also, on several occasions, worn headscarves while visiting mosques. I suppose you could make a fetish of consistency and say that all of these women are wrong for engaging in flights of multiculturalism. But why? No one would argue that elected officials should indulge every cultural peccadillo on a trip abroad. (Genital mutilation? Cannibalism?) But it would be equally foolish to argue that culture is totally non-negotiable: Sometimes the benefits outweigh the harms, and, in the grand scheme of things, the headscarf seems trivial. It's both silly and desperate to say, as one blogger did, that she could have just worn a hat.

The second flavour of conservative ire is that Pelosi's trip makes for bad foreign policy. National Review argues that the speaker's congressional majority is doing "its best to raise the white flag over the Middle East" by indulging a murderous regime like Assad's. "We can't believe that a majority of Americans - impatient though they are with the Iraq War - thought they were voting for this last November."

Well, believe it. In a poll released in December 2006 - just after the election the National Review cites - the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that three out of four Americans - including seven in ten Republicans - supported holding talks with both Iran and Syria. And, of course, diplomatic engagement with the two countries was also the centrepiece of the Iraq Study Group's report - an exercise in ostentatious bipartisanship if there ever was one. You can still make the argument that engaging with Syria is a mistake, or that the message of Pelosi's visit is the wrong one. But please, don't pretend that most Americans agree with you, or that the trip is the work of a crazed radical.

In fact, such trips happen all the time. Three Republican congressmen met with Assad over the weekend. Yesterday's papers reported that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson - a Democratic presidential candidate! - will soon head a bipartisan mission to North Korea. Nor do these visits always happen at the president's pleasure: When Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn and Colin Powell visited Haiti to broker a last-minute peace deal in 1994, President Clinton was furious. He even ordered a military strike - called off in the nick of time - while the three were still in the country.

But partisan football isn't a game that's played with facts. "Nancy Pelosi tends to forget that there is an executive branch," chortles the National Review. Well, America's executive branch tends to forget that there's this thing called diplomacy. Which is worse?

Now, my optimism is certainly tempered by a consideration of reality. I recognize that these events in themselves do nothing to diminish the power of the military-industrial-complex. Indeed, it has, and will continue to have, its slimy tentacles all around both major US politcal parties. Until it crumbles, the peaceful and just world I envision will never be realized.

Nevertheless, these events provide hope that the extremely aggressive militaristic posture of the Bush administration will soon be a thing of the past.