WASHINGTON (IPS) — In an implicit indictment of President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” and the hawkish pronouncements by Republican candidate John McCain, a bipartisan group of nearly three dozen U.S. leaders called here Wednesday for Bush’s successor to place much greater emphasis on high-level diplomacy — including direct engagement with Iran and Syria — in dealing with the Middle East and the Muslim world.
In a 152-page report, the group, which included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Bush’s former Deputy Secretary of State and McCain adviser Richard Armitage, also called for any new administration to work “intensively for immediate de-escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a viable path to a two-state solution.”
“U.S. leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical not only for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for U.S. relations with Muslim countries and people worldwide,” declared the report, entitled “Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World.”
“It would be hard to overstate the symbolic significance of the conflict, and the U.S. role in it, for Muslims in the Middle East and around the world,” it stressed, adding that Washington might also reconsider its efforts to isolate Hamas, particularly if it maintains its current ceasefire with Israel in Gaza and reaches a “mutually acceptable resolution” of its conflict with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
The group also urged Washington to reassess its relations — or lack thereof — with armed Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, throughout the region on a case-by-case basis according to specific criteria, such as their popular and electoral support, their willingness to halt the use of violence, and whether they have some interests that are complementary to those of the U.S.
Under current law, direct relations between the U.S. and groups included on the State Department’s “terrorist” list, including Hamas and Hizbullah, are banned.
The report, the product of a series of meetings of prominent foreign policy, business, religious, military and non-governmental figures sponsored by the Search for Common Ground and the Consensus Building Institute and calling itself the “Leadership Group on U.S.-Muslim Engagement,”comes on the eve of the first televised debate between McCain and his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama. The debate, which takes place Friday, will be focused on foreign policy, and the Middle East and the “war on terror” are expected to be central to the proceedings.
The McCain campaign has been decidedly more hawkish on both fronts, with the candidate stating explicitly that he would be prepared under certain circumstances to pre-emptively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and mocking Obama’s position that the U.S. should directly engage Iran and Syria without preconditions on a range of issues and at a very senior, possibly presidential, level.
Just last weekend, two of his surrogates told the right-wing Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) that McCain would not become actively engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and would discourage Israel from negotiating a peace agreement with Syria that would return the Golan Heights to Damascus. Obama has taken precisely the contrary positions.
In that respect, the new report clearly takes Obama’s side. “To drive and coordinate regional diplomacy and signal the seriousness of the U.S. commitment, the Leadership Group recommends that the next President and Secretary of State provide consistent, sustained leadership at the highest levels, and empower senior U.S. officials to explore potential bilateral and regional security agreements with all governments in the region,” it said, adding that “Dialogue and negotiation with Iran are particularly important given Iran’s direct involvement in both Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and its potential to assist (the U.S.) in Afghanistan.”
“The point of the report is to engage, engage, engage,” noted one member of the group, Marc Gopin, an ordained rabbi who teaches religion, diplomacy and conflict resolution at George Mason University outside Washington.
What was particularly remarkable about the report was that it was adopted by consensus that included some prominent right-wing figures, most notably Richard Land, a top figure in the Christian Right associated with the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as two influential former Republican congressmen, former Dallas (Texas) Mayor Steve Bartlett, and Vin Weber, who currently serves as the chairman of the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
The group also included two prominent individuals closely associated with the so-called “Israel Lobby” – Tom Dine, a former head of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Dennis Ross, a co-founder and consultant of WINEP, a think tank created by AIPAC, who was also a top Middle East negotiator for former President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
The report stresses that the alienation between the U.S. and the Muslim world derives both from problems within the Muslim world itself — where the U.S. is seen as allying itself with and supporting authoritarian regimes that frustrate their citizens’ desires for political and economic change — and from U.S. policies, particularly its staunch support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians and, more recently, its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Most Muslims’ primary concerns are about what the United States does, not what we are,” said David Fairman, the report’s main author and project co-director.
The report calls for the adoption of a “four-pillar” strategy for reversing anti-U.S. extremism in the Muslim world.
The pillars include resolving ongoing violent conflicts from Palestine to Pakistan through greater use of diplomacy; improving governance in predominantly Muslim countries by promoting non-violence, pluralism, reform, and engagement with parties that are committed to the same principles regardless of whether they are secular or Islamist; promoting economic growth; and improving mutual respect through exchanges, encouraging more in-depth and accuracy in U.S. media coverage, and using the American Muslim community as a bridge between the two worlds.
The group, which met with senior foreign policy legislators Wednesday morning, called for the next president to spotlight the critical importance of improving U.S.-Muslim relations in his Inaugural address and immediately affirm the U.S. commitment to ban all forms of torture. By next April, it said, it should initiate a “major effort” to resolve regional conflicts in the Middle East, with respect to Iran and Israel/Palestine.
In his public remarks, Land, a major figure in the Christian Evangelical movement, stressed the importance of elevating diplomacy in resolving violent conflicts in the region. “By changing our approach,” he said, “we will…help to reverse the widespread perception that the United States is at war with Islam.”
He also endorsed engagement with Iran on a number of issues, citing with approval Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “Jaw-Jaw is better than war-war.”
Just last week, five former secretaries of state, including Albright and three who served Republican presidents — Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and Colin Powell — endorsed negotiations with Iran without preconditions.