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Politics & Policies: And now James Baker

By
CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 (UPI) -- Maybe now that President George W. Bush is hearing it from his father's former secretary of state, James A. Baker III, will he and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, give serious consideration to engaging countries they have so far ignored?

Numerous experts, from politicians to pundits, to former diplomats, including past secretaries of state, have criticized the Bush administration for its tough "cowboy attitude" adopted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon. It is a policy based on refusing to talk to any regime considered unfriendly, and which bore no fruit.

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Much of the rhetoric which came out of the White House in the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, such as "You're either with us or you're against us," "Cut 'em off at the pass," and the piece de resistance from the president when speaking of the terrorists: "Bring 'em on," did little for the United States' image. They made great sound bites for television, but, like the policy they represented, were shallow and failed to reassure friends and foes. They truly did little to explain or outline a comprehensive U.S. foreign policy.

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Indeed, in the days and weeks that followed Bush's dare, the insurgency in Iraq seemed to take the president at his word. The number of attacks against American and coalition forces grew exponentially. Roadside bombs, or IEDs -- improvised explosive devises -- became more frequent and more brazen.

Bush's policy of talking to friends but shunning foes largely resulted in further alienating much of the Middle East and the Islamic world, whose people saw in the Bush policy far more arrogance than diplomatic strategy. The result, over little time, was that the very people Bush wanted to bring democracy to became the ones who distrusted the United States the most. And soon, this distrust turned to dislike, which turned to animosity and within months of the occupation, turned to hate.

This hate was then channeled into outright violence against the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

"I believe in talking to your enemies," said the influential Baker. The former member of the Bush 41 team is the Republican co-chairman of a bipartisan panel reassessing Iraq strategy for President Bush 43.

Going counter to what has been this administration's Middle East policy to date, Baker said Sunday that he would suggest that the White House enter into direct talks with countries it had so far kept at arm's length, including Iran and Syria.

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Joshua Landis writes in his highly informative blog, joshualandis.com/blog, that "Baker said he made 15 trips to Damascus to negotiate with then president Hafez al-Assad to get involved in Middle East peacemaking."

Indeed, Baker's efforts bore fruit. As Syria became involved in dialoging with the United States, violence in the Middle East diminished. The same can be said of another former secretary of state whom Bush is also calling on these days for advice: Henry Kissinger. While Kissinger's advice may differ from that of Baker, it is worth recalling that Kissinger was the one who invented shuttle diplomacy, traveling 36 times to Damascus in less than one month as he tried to bring about a peace deal between the Syrians and Israel during the closing days of the October 1973 war.

But since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Bush White House has sidelined two of the most influential stakeholders in the region -- Syria and Iran. Both countries can play an important role in helping bring about stability in the region. But for that to occur, they must be made part of the solution; otherwise, they become the problem.

Both Syria and Iran command important proxy forces in the region and can -- all the while appearing squeaky clean -- instigate all sorts of hassles for the United States and its allies. Iran, for example, is in a position of power in Iraq and Lebanon.

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In Iraq, the Islamic republic commands the loyalty of a number of local militias, not least of which is Moqtada al-Sadr's al-Mehdi Army, one of the largest, best armed and ready to cause trouble for U.S. forces in Iraq. The same scenario holds true in Lebanon, where Iran's ally, Hezbollah, a Shiite militia which is armed and partially financed by Iran, is in a position of strength and capable of unleashing tens of thousands of rockets on Israel. During its 34-day war with Israel this summer, Hezbollah fired hundreds of rockets at northern Israel, paralyzing large parts of the country's economy, and forcing the Port of Haifa to close to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of lost revenue.

And that's just in Iran. Think what Syria can do, too. Baker, always an astute diplomat, sees the benefits of direct talks. As Madeline Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, also said: "You don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies."

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(Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com)

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