Breaking, not engaging, the region

It is said that repeating an action and still expecting a different result every time, despite proof of the contrary, is a sure sign of insanity. With its strange attitude towards Cuba’s regime, the US has for decades demonstrated that adage while seemingly making Cuba the exception to the rules of diplomatic engagement. In particular, in the Middle East, American influence was for long directly proportional to its direct involvement, be it positive or negative.

Since the Bush administration, however, the Castro approach–or lack thereof–has been applied to what should be one of the most crucial centers of open communication for Washington. After over 12 years of serious and consistent US engagement with the Middle East peace process, with full recognition of Syrian territorial rights on the Golan, George W. Bush decided to alienate Syria even while banging on the drums of war for Iraq. Instead of cajoling the neighbors when invading and occupying Iraq turned nasty, Bush and his neocons directed every possible accusation at Damascus and piled on the demands.

The big freeze came on Lebanese turf: following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Bush promptly withdrew his ambassador from Damascus, pushed for Syrian troops’ exit from Lebanon, and actively sought to isolate Syria.

Six years later, a new US ambassador, Robert Ford, has landed in Syria a year after his nomination. There is no cause for celebration, however, because US-Syrian relations are neither being upgraded nor being restored to the point they were at six years ago. Instead of getting back to square one, things are now much worse, elegant letters of accreditation notwithstanding. The more the US has connived to redraw the political map of the region, looking to sideline its opponents and to punish them for insubordination, the more it has created imbroglios from which it can’t extract itself.

Instead of seeking stability at all costs, the US has steadily lessened the potential of compromise between all parties and increased the likelihood of a major clash, all under the guise of protecting Lebanon’s sovereignty from Syria.

The premise that Lebanon could function, politically, without the benign acquiescence of the major powers in the region was always false. The premise that the Lebanese would unite under one "majority" in cultural or political terms was always false as well, and all efforts aimed at coaxing one half of Lebanon to abide by the terms of the other half were never going to bear fruit. Yet, the US has had a burning obsession: the eradication of Hizballah, which would end all resistance to Israel, remove Syria’s proverbial cards from Lebanon, and weaken Iran in the region. To that end, with other tricks having failed, the US needed the Special Tribunal for Lebanon; one could argue, in fact, that it needed the assassination of Hariri.

But while motives abound whenever Syria is blamed, speculation with regards to Israel shines in its absence, as if nobody but Hizballah could think of a single reason why Israel would want to wreak havoc in Lebanon. Indeed, the investigation into Hariri’s murder has not even bothered to pretend to explore all options–including the one country with a steadfast history of assassinations in the Arab world.

After Israel’s unprecedented violence failed to bring down Hizballah in 2006, giving Syria the upper hand when Lebanon’s political stalemate reached its explosive status in 2008, the Hariri commission got busy again after a period of low activity (always in direct proportion to the needs of the US and its allies). When all else fails, bring on the indictments–if not for Syria, then for Hizballah. And throw in Iran.

But with such unwise open meddling in Lebanon, and with the exposure of the investigation as a flawed and incompetent political tool, the US has shot itself in the foot. Now that the indictments have been made, with a line-up of Lebanese, Syrian and Iranian big shots on the list, the US has merely limped into a political corner, even as it pretends to be on the noble quest for justice.

Ambassador Ford’s sudden presence in Damascus is not a coincidence. After the cold shoulder treatment, Washington may have reasoned that pressure on Syria would be more significant while the American embassy was at full occupancy. This selective engagement certainly doesn’t make the Obama administration more reasonable, and the lack of engagement was not the core of the insanity.

This political madness is not in the form but rather the matter: the US (with, or on behalf of its allies) has been fixated on a reckless "clean break" stratagem formulated by the plotters of the Iraq invasion and the loudest cheerleaders of Israel’s repeated belligerent actions. It means weakening Syria, in all its ramifications, without offering a single benefit for Lebanon, in order to secure Israel at all costs.

This madness may be curable, but the treatment just became more costly, because Washington is unprepared for the morning after.