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Is it up to the U.S. to fix the Middle East?

NINETY YEARS AGO, the world was in a period of wrenching and bloody transition. War raged in Europe. It was a conflict triggered by a series of tragic misjudgments stemming from decades-old resentments and shifting European alliances, and fueled by the Industrial Revolution--the most deadly war the world ever had known. Within a year, the U.S. would shake off its historic isolationism and engage in its first global conflict.

The Treaty of Versailles brought an end to the fighting, but it did not bring resolution. The U.S. retreated from a position of world leadership back into its shell of irresponsible isolationism. The world economy collapsed, and lingering global resentments continued to heighten. Roughly 20 years later, harsh postwar reparations and arrogant nationalism gave rise to an even deadlier period of global transition--World War II.

America's leaders, however, had learned from the failed and dangerous policies of the first half of the 20th century. After WWII, the U.S. became an indispensable leader. Along with our allies, we created organizations of global interests and common purpose like the United Nations, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization), NATO, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and dozens of other multilateral institutions. Leaders such as Harry S Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Cordell Hull, Arthur Vandenberg, and Dwight Eisenhower led in the rebuilding of Europe and Japan.

We surely live in a different world today, but once again it is a world in transition--and the lessons learned after World War II still apply. American leadership remains indispensable, and the alliances that we formed are as vital today as they were then. For decades, the U.S. used its power and influence to help forge international consensus on vital issues. America's leadership inspired the trust and confidence of a generation of governments and nations around the world because we pursued common actions that reflected common interests with our allies, remained committed to global engagement, and exercised our power with restraint. We made mistakes to be sure. It was imperfect. There were differences with our allies. Yet, despite the glitches and shortcomings, the U.S. and its allies contributed to world stability and the spread of freedom and prosperity.

Today, the world and America are in deep trouble. In a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in November 2005, I warned that the world's trust and confidence in the U.S.'s purpose has eroded seriously. We increasingly are not seen as the wellspring of consensus that for decades helped create alliances and coalitions grounded in common objectives and interests. This is in contrast to a very troubling trend toward isolationism that currently is emerging in the U.S. This trend is a looming concern that may not be obvious, but is manifest across seemingly unconnected events and issues. We must avoid the trap of limiting our power through mindless isolationist remedies to difficult and complicated problems.

In the 1930s, the threat of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany was not taken seriously. Most did not recognize this threat until World War II was upon them. There was, however, a voice sounding the alarm. Throughout the 1930s, Winston Churchill urged his countrymen and Europe to see the world through the clear lens of reality--not through the blurred optics of misplaced hope. On Oct. 3, 1938, Great Britain's House of Commons debated the Munich Agreement that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had negotiated with Hitler. Many saw this agreement as the assurance of peace with Germany. Churchill disagreed, proclaiming, "Can we blind ourselves to the great change which has taken place in the military situation, and to the dangers we have to meet? This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."

There is no such threat to world order at present. Global threats now are less defined than Hitler. However, the challenges are more insidious and difficult to comprehend and identify, yet more interrelated, dynamic, and dangerous. In the 21st century, we are confronted by a universe of challenges, threats, and opportunities unlike any we ever have known. The margins of error for miscalculation are less than ever before. Dramatic shifts in stability, and prosperity can occur in weeks--or even days.

On April 16, 1953, Pres. Eisenhower spoke before the American Society of Newspaper Editors to deliver what we now know as the "Chance for Peace" speech. In the aftermath of the death and destruction of World War II and the ongoing war in Korea, the world was confronted with the threat of the Soviet Union and communism. True, this was a different time and a different generation, yet Eisenhower's words and wisdom still ring true: "No nation's security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation, but only in effective cooperation with fellow nations."

Just as Eisenhower warned more than a half-century ago, America's security, prosperity, and freedom cannot be separated from the dangers, challenges, and opportunities abroad. There are no national boundaries from terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemic disease, environmental degradation, and despair. No nation unilaterally possesses the power to defeat the threats of the 21st century. A global society underpinned by a global economy is what our modern world has become. The world's problems and dangers are interconnected. Nowhere are these realities clearer than in the Middle East. This is a region in crisis. A continuous and escalating volley of violence has the potential for wider regional and global conflict. Centuries-old religious, ethnic, and tribal hatreds and tensions are being manipulated by Islamic extremists for their own unholy purpose. The Middle East is as combustible and complex as it ever has been. More than 50% of the globe's proven oil and natural gas reserves reside in this troubled land at a time when the world's 6,500,000,000 people rely on these resources. Uncertain popular support for regime legitimacy continues to weaken governments of the Middle East. Economic stagnation, persistent unemployment, deepening despair, and wider unrest enhance the ability of terrorists to recruit and succeed. An lean with nuclear weapons raises the specter of broader proliferation and a fundamental strategic realignment in the region, creating even more instability.

The U.S.'s approach to the Middle East has to be consistent and sustained, and must understand the history, interests, and perspectives of our regional friends and allies. The U.S. will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. However, it need not--and indeed, cannot--be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That would be an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.

Unending war continually will drain Israel of its human capital, resources, and energy as it fights for survival. The U.S. and Israel must understand that it is not in their long-term interests to allow themselves to become isolated in the Middle East and the world. Neither can allow themselves to drift into an "us against the world" global optic or zero-sum game. That would marginalize America's global leadership, trust, and influence, further isolate Israel, and prove to be disastrous for both countries as well as the region. It is in Israel's interest, as much as ours, that the U.S. be seen by all states in the Middle East as fair. This is the currency of trust.

Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories have experienced devastating violence. The world rightly has condemned the despicable actions of Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists who attacked Israel and kidnapped Israeli soldiers. Israel has the undeniable right to defend itself against aggression. This is the right of all states, Hezbollah is a threat to Israel, Lebanon, and all who strive for lasting peace in the Middle East. This threat must be dealt with. However, military action alone will not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas. Extended military action will tear apart Lebanon, destroy its economy and infrastructure, create a humanitarian disaster, further weaken its fragile democratic government, strengthen popular Muslim and Arab support for Hezbollah, and deepen hatred of Israel across the Middle East. The pursuit of tactical military triumphs at the expense of the core strategic objective of Arab-Israeli peace is a hollow victory. The war against Hezbollah and Hamas will not be won on the battlefield.

To achieve a strategic shift in the conditions for Middle East peace, the U.S. must use the global condemnation of terrorist acts as the basis for substantive change. For a lasting and popularly supported resolution, only a strong Lebanese government and army, backed by the international community, can rid Lebanon of these corrosive militias and terrorist organizations.

Pres. George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice must become--and remain--deeply engaged in the Middle East. Only U.S. leadership can build a consensus of purpose among our regional and international partners, with the objective of ending the military conflict, securing the Israel-Lebanon border, and invigorating the political track. To lead and sustain U.S. engagement, the President should appoint a statesman of global stature, experience, and ability to serve as his personal envoy to the region. This individual would report directly to him and be empowered with the authority to speak and act for the President.

The U.S. must listen carefully to its friends and partners in the region--Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and others understand the Middle East tar better than we do--and commit to help resolve the crisis and be active agents in helping build a mechanism to move toward realizing the already agreed-upon two-state solution.

A robust international force stationed along the Israel-Lebanon border will be required to facilitate a steady deployment of a strengthened Lebanese army into southern Lebanon to--eventually--assume responsibility for security and the rule of law. The UN Security Council should negotiate a new binding resolution that strengthens its demands to disarm militias and remove Syrian influence from Lebanon that were made in UN Security Council Resolution 1559, and commits the international community to help Lebanon rebuild its country.

The core of all challenges in the Middle East remains the underlying Arab-Israeli conflict. The failure to address this root cause will allow Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorists to continue to sustain popular Muslim and Arab support, thus continuing to undermine America's standing in the region, as well as the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and others, whose support is critical for any resolution.

The U.S. should engage our Middle East and international partners to revive the Beirut Declaration, or some version of it, proposed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and adopted unanimously by the Arab League in March 2002. In this historic initiative, the Arab world recognized Israel's right to exist and sought to establish a path toward a two-state solution and broader Arab-Israeli peace. Even though Israel could not accept it as written, it represented a very significant "starting point" document initiated by Arab countries. We need a new Beirut Declaration-type initiative, since we squandered the last one. This declaration would reinvest regional Arab states with a stake in achieving progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. This type of initiative would offer a positive alternative vision for Arab populations to the ideology and goals of Islamic militants. The U.S. must explore this approach as part of its diplomatic engagement in the Middle East. Lasting peace in the Middle East, and stability and security for Israel, will come only from a regionally-oriented political settlement.

Former American Middle East Envoy Dennis Ross once observed that, in this region, a process is necessary because process absorbs events: without a process, events become crises. He was right. Look at where we are today in the Middle East with no process. Crisis diplomacy is no substitute for sustained, day-to-day engagement.

What about Iran and Syria?

The U.S. approach to Syria and Iran inextricably is tied to Middle East peace. Whether or not they were involved directly in the latest Hezbollab and Hamas aggression in Israel, these countries exert influence in the region in ways that undermine stability and security. As we work with our friends and allies to deny Syria and Iran any opportunity to corrode the situation in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories further, both Damascus and Tehran must hear from America directly. As John McLaughlin, the former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, wrote in The Washington Post, "Even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. The absence of a diplomatic relationship with Iran and the deterioration of the one with Syria--two countries that bear enormous responsibility for the current crisis--leave the United States with fewer options and levers than might otherwise have been the case. Distasteful as it might have been to have or to maintain open and normal relations with such states, the absence of such relations ensures that we will have more blind spots than we can afford and that we will have to deal through surrogates on issues of vital importance to the United States. We will have to get over the notion that talking to bad guys somehow rewards them or is a sign of weakness. As a superpower, we ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence."

Ultimately, the U.S. will need to engage Iran and Syria with an agenda open to all areas of agreement and disagreement. For this dialogue to have any meaning or possible lasting relevance, it should encompass the full agenda of issues.

The Cold War, while dangerous, created a fairly stable and mostly predictable world order. That no longer is the case. The challenges of the 21st century will be more complex and represent a world of greater degrees of nuance, uncertainty, and uncontrollables than those of the last 60 years. America's policy choices will be more complicated than ever before. We must be clear in our principles and interests, with friends and toes alike. Framing the world in "absolutes" constrains our ability to build coalitions and alliances, alienates our friends and partners, and results in our own isolation. No country will view its interests as coinciding exactly with ours; nor will countries simply subsume their national interests to maintain relations with America. U.S. policies that are premised on such assumptions will be flawed, with little likelihood for success, and ultimately work against our national interests.

In pursuing its objectives, the U.S. always must be mindful of the risks of sudden change and the dangers of unintended consequences. Rarely will America succeed if its actions seek to impose its objectives on others, or achieve change and reform through power alone. The U.S. always is strongest when it acts in concert with friends and allies. This approach has enhanced our power and magnified our influence. The Middle East and other regions of the world have been left behind and not experienced the political and economic reform that many other regions have enjoyed in the last 60 years.

The Middle East crisis represents a moment of great danger, but also an opportunity. Crisis focuses the minds of leaders and the attention of nations. The Middle East need not be a region forever captive to the fire of war and historical hatred. It can avoid this fate if the U.S. pursues sustained and engaged leadership worthy of its history, purpose, and power. America cannot fix every problem around the globe--nor should it try to. However, we must get the big issues and important relationships right and concentrate on those. We know that, without engaged and active American leadership, the world is a much more dangerous place.

When Pres. Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Address on Jan. 6, 1945, he counseled the U.S. and the world to look beyond the immediate horror of war to the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. Roosevelt understood the requirements of American leadership and the essence of alliances and partnerships, stating, "We must not let those differences divide us and blind us to our more important common and continuing interests in winning the war and building the peace. International cooperation on which enduring peace must be based is not a one-way street. Nations, like individuals, do not always see alike or think alike, and international cooperation and progress are not helped by any nation assuming that it has a monopoly of wisdom or of virtue."

Since Roosevelt's remarks, the U.S. has been a worldwide force for peace and prosperity. Decades of investment in geopolitical security, economic stability, political freedom, innovation, and productivity have resulted in positive cooperation and competition. This is a defining time for American leadership. This century offers the world the prospects of unprecedented global peace, prosperity, and security--if we are wise enough to sense the moment, engage the world, and share a nobility of purpose with all mankind.

Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees. This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D. C.
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Title Annotation:National Affairs
Author:Hagel, Chuck
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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