I listened to Dana Milbank tonight on “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” tonight say that the Bush/Cheney message of “vote for us or die” may be simplistic, but it would resonate with voters better than the Dems trying to draw a distinction between the “war on terror” and Iraq. If he’s right, read no further because I suggest that the Dems actually start talking about ideas like this. If we want to get peace in the Middle East, a prelude to any semblance of victory against terror, then we need this kind of thinking vis-à-vis Syria.
Working in tandem, the Bush administration and the French should try to change the Syrian calculus. Syria sees Hezbollah as a card — something to be exploited to make Syria a factor in the region or to be traded in the right circumstances. We should create a one-two punch with the French to make clear that Syria has something significant to lose by not cutting off Hezbollah, and that it has something meaningful to gain from changing course.
Surely, if the international force is seen as credible and determined, it can convince Assad that Hezbollah is going to be contained and that its value to Syria could diminish. But Assad must also see that Syria will pay an unmistakable price if it tries to block implementation of Resolution 1701. That price could be a joint French-E.U. and American effort to isolate Syria economically if it is unwilling to end its material support for Hezbollah.
The Europeans currently provide a critical economic lifeline to the Syrians. French President Jacques Chirac could credibly warn Assad that if arms flow to Hezbollah and threaten French troops, then Europe will cut all economic ties to Syria. Conversely, if Syria ended its military relationship with Hezbollah and accepted the Lebanese government’s effort to reestablish its authority, the European Union could promise new and meaningful economic benefits to Damascus.
In such a scenario, the European Union would be Act 1. Act 2 would involve the United States. The Bush administration, which has expressed an interest in weaning Syria away from Iran, won’t be able to do that without talking to the Syrians. And it won’t be able to do it by continuing to make threats that have no consequences. It will not be enough to continue saying, “The Syrians know what they need to do.”
The United States must reinforce a tough E.U. message with one of its own to Assad, namely this: We are prepared to implement a range of sanctions, including the Syrian Accountability Act and executive orders that would make it difficult for companies and financial institutions that do business in Syria to conduct business in the United States.
This would have the potential of choking off European, Asian (and even Arab) countries and businesses from having any commercial or investment relations with Syria — and it could be devastating for an already weak economy. That’s a lever that should be deployed to build the Syrian interest in cooperating.
No doubt the Syrians would want to know what they’d get from such cooperation. They should be told that the page can be turned in our relations, that economic benefits could be forthcoming, and that even a resumption of the peace process between Syria and Israel on the Golan Heights could be in the offing. None of these things can be available if Syria is not prepared to cut off Hezbollah and Hamas. Why, after all, would we invest anything in a peace process when those two organizations retain the means — with Syrian support — of subverting that process at a time of their choosing?
No, it won’t fit on a bumper sticker. But maybe “Vote Democratic … for a Reality-Based World” can. Who says the Dems don’t have ideas – and at least a preliminary knowledge of foreign affairs?