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Mideast Lesson: Sitting On a Military Victory Is Not Enough


The stunning rout of the Iraqi army has thrust the United States into a position of unprecedented influence in the Middle East, but the region's stubborn problems will not succumb as quickly as the Republican Guards did. The diplomatic wreckage in the Middle East of just sitting on military victory and waiting offers a sobering lesson.

In 1967, Israel launched the Six-Day War. The armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan were smashed; Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza.

Flush with overwhelming military victory, Israel rejected magnanimity and waited for the Arabs to meet its terms. The phone never rang. Instead, the humiliation of the defeat inspired the Palestinian fedayeen to launch a series of vicious terrorist attacks that further embittered Arab-Israeli relations.

True, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 242, which formalized the principle of trading land for peace and security. But follow-up peace-making efforts by U.S. and U.N. envoys were ineffective.

In Egypt, President Anwar Sadat committed himself to avenging the 1967 military catastrophe and, in league with Syria's Hafez el Assad, attacked the Israeli-occupied Sinai peninsula and Golan Heights in October 1973. After some initial reverses, Israel took to the offensive and defeated the Syrian and Egyptian armies. But the Arab armies acquitted themselves well enough to proclaim some sort of victory.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in what was soon to be a one-man diplomatic band, adroitly avoided the Palestinian question. Instead, he fabricated durable disengagement agreements between Israel and Syria on the Golan, and between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai.

But the merits of his step-by-step diplomacy were also its demerits. The focus was on the symptoms of conflict, not its deep and underlying causes. The skillful diplomatic doctor opted for conflict management.

President Carter built on the achievements of Mr. Kissinger's pragmatism to mediate the Camp David accords and to produce the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The treaty was, unquestionably, a major accomplishment in conflict resolution.

But Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin frustrated Mr. Carter's efforts to move forward in resolving the Palestine question, while Egypt was consumed by its own considerable economic problems.

By 1981, Mr. Carter had retired, and Mr. Begin confronted the happy surprise of Ronald Reagan, whose cops-and-robbers image of the Middle East worked mightily in Israel's favor.

In June 1982, Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon, which was at least tacitly approved by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig. Early expectations that Israel would smash the Palestine Liberation Organization and then withdraw, as it had in a 1978 operation, were quickly overrun by events. Israeli forces rushed to lay siege to Beirut.

Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had designed an ambitious war plan to destroy the PLO as a political force, thereby making the Arabs of the occupied territories more susceptible to Israeli control.

But Israel made a crucial error: It stayed in Lebanon. Three years later, Israeli soldiers would be chased out of the country by a predominantly Lebanese Shiite Muslim resistance, which would, in turn, lend inspiration to the Palestinian intifada.

The United States, sensing a major strategic opportunity in Lebanon, committed its prestige and its Marines in the summer of 1982.

There is no doubt that decisive, impartial and timely U.S. action might have facilitated a far-reaching agreement. But by the time the Americans got their diplomatic act together, nearly a year after Israel marched into Lebanon, the door had slammed shut.

Washington had failed to grasp the need to act quickly and fairly, and by May 1983, U.S. diplomacy produced only a fatally flawed agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

Foreign forces operating in an alien culture quickly wear out their welcome, especially when they come to be seen as merely buttresses for an unpopular regime. U.S. Marines were perceived by many Lebanese who opposed the Maronite-dominated government as the enemy. After the suicide bombing of 241 Marines, the United States withdrew, leaving behind U.S. prestige and an even more tumultuous Lebanon.

The lessons that emerge from this history of initial military success followed by halting diplomacy range from the obvious to the subtle.

Peace does not just happen, especially where deep-seated enmities are the rule. Diplomatic voyeurism -- standing on the sidelines and waiting for movement -- has no value. The historical record underlines the essential role that intermediaries must play. All postwar opportunities come with an expiration date.

Considering the limited (to be generous) success of narrow, bilateral diplomacy in the region, it is time to move off in a new direction. Preliminary soundings of the major Middle East actors indicate that this may be precisely the moment to launch an ambitious multilateral negotiation.

The United States has a leading role to play in creating a stable regional order, but it no longer enjoys the luxury of hogging center stage. Through their contributions, their forbearance and their sacrifices, Europeans, Arabs, Israelis, Turks and even Iranians have all earned a voice in giving shape to regional order.

By taking a seat at the table, each state implicitly recognizes the existence of its neighbors. For Israel, long wary of the idea of a multilateral conference, the inauguration of the conference would signify a major step toward the formal recognition it has long sought.

Some Middle Eastern states might contemplate choosing isolation, as Albania did in Europe. But in an era of Soviet-American collaboration, the costs of isolation could be heavy indeed.

Syria has already signaled its intention to sit across the table from Israel, and with Syria occupying a seat, Jordan would be hard-pressed not to follow suit. The same goes for Lebanon and probably Kuwait. Egypt, at peace with Israel, would claim its seat. The circumstances for Iraqi participation, obviously, remain be determined.

Only time will give full measure of the catharsis of the Persian Gulf war, but it is conceivable that the war initiated the exorcism of the Zionist demon from the Saudi's political psyche. If so, the Saudis, who found themselves sharing the figurative trench with Israel, might just make it to the negotiations. Given America's awesome fidelity to ensuring Saudi security, a helpful nudge from Washington is not to be discounted.

Turkey, distinguished in recent years by a measured and wise foreign policy, has much to gain from stability in the region and would be an important anchor for the conference.

Iran's attitude toward participation is uncertain, but considering Tehran's twin interests in garnering external economic assistance and preventing permanent external bases in the region, the Islamic Republic has a lot to gain.

As the sand settles in the Middle East, the United States will not be judged by the accuracy of its smart weapons, but by the wisdom with which it spends its hard-won influence. This is no time to sit on the victory.

Augustus Richard Norton is senior research fellow at the International Peace Academy, where he directs the program on building security in the Middle East. He wrote this analysis for the Los Angeles Times.

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