The U.N., the U.S. and the Middle East

Diplomacy in the Middle East casts the U.N. and the U.S. in different roles. Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution — director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs — offers his insights.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Over the past week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has been shuttling from one Mideast capital to another. He started the week in Lebanon for meetings with Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. While in Beirut, Annan called on Hezbollah to release two captured Israeli soldiers. Next, the U.N. chief went to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. While there, Annan pressed for Israel to lift its blockade of Lebanon and to relax restrictions along the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip.

Damascus was the next stop, where Annan secured assurances from the Syrian government that it would help stem the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. By week's end, he flew to Tehran for meetings with Iranian officials.

Joining us is Martin Indyk. He's director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs.

Mr. Indyk, first, thanks for your time this weekend. And second, what's been your impression of Kofi Annan's diplomatic efforts this week?

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Brookings Institution): Well, first of all, Liane, I think we have to give the man credit for trying. This task that he's taken on, of trying to consolidate the cease-fire in Lebanon, is one that I think probably should be done by the United States. And the fact that it's Kofi Annan that's doing it is, I think, a reflection on the fact that we're not in the position to do it.

But having said that, I think that what he did in Damascus and Tehran is really an attempt to hold these two sponsors of Hezbollah to a standard that they are unlikely to keep. And I can understand why he's trying to set the standard, but I hope he doesn't believe that they're actually going to fulfill these commitments. I'd be very skeptical of that.

HANSEN: The Bush administration was criticized by some for not aggressively pushing to end the recent fighting more quickly. Did that change the role the United States can play, as a potential broker in Middle East relations?

Mr. INDYK: Yes. I think it - it certainly made it more difficult in the aftermath, because of the sense that the United States wasn't acting as an honest broker in this situation. But more importantly, I think because it really resulted in a lot of antagonism in Lebanon towards the United States, and in particular hostility amongst the Shia there.

You noticed that President Bush ruled out an American role on the ground with respect to the Europeans. That's partly because we're tied down in Iraq. But I think it's also because of an assessment that American troops would not be welcome in Lebanon, which is a very big change in the attitude there. Of course, Hezbollah was always against the United States - was responsible for the bombing of the Marine barracks - but I think that there's a hostility there towards United States now more generally that wasn't there before.

HANSEN: In the talks, there's been a great deal attention paid to the release of prisoners, to lifting the blockade, the composition of the peacekeeping force. But in what ways are relations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as its neighbors, also part of the talks?

Mr. INDYK: Well, Kofi did go to Ramallah. And there is a sense that as well as Lebanon it's very important now to pay attention to what's happening on the Palestinian front, partly because there's a humanitarian crisis blooming in Gaza, which is a really well on the way to failed statehood and being ruled by terrorist groups, warlords and armed gangs. And the economy is really cratering now, and I think there's a serious problem there that will need to be addressed.

But also because I think that out of this, as much as it may seem strange, there is potential opportunity, both in Lebanon and with the Palestinians, to develop a path forward, a political path forward that would lead us out of the broader crisis. Again, it's a weak (unintelligible) for the United Nations to be taking a lead in this. It's unfortunate the United States is not willing or able to do so. But - and of course we've got weak leadership all around, whether it's leadership in Israel that's undergoing a crisis of confidence, weak government in Lebanon, a weak, even collapsing, government on the Palestinian side.

But there is a sense, I think, particularly amongst the Sunni leaders and the Sunni prime minister of Lebanon, the Sunni president of Palestine, the Sunni leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, that they face an Iranian-sponsored, Syrian-allied threat, and they need to find a way to answer it. And if they can come together and work towards, first of all, an armistice agreement between Israel and Lebanon, and an interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, we may have a basis for coming out of this crisis.

HANSEN: The future of the Palestinians has long been seen as a key issue in Middle East talks. But Annan visited Tehran this weekend, and Iran's nuclear program is most certainly a prime item on his agenda. Has Iran's nuclear program become similarly central in importance as the future of the Palestinians?

Mr. INDYK: Yes. It's all now tied together. In a way it's always been connected. But the fact that the war in Lebanon highlighted the role that Iran is playing across the region, at the same as Iran is confronting the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear program, I think underscores the way in which the Iranians are now in effect seeking to make a play for dominance in the region, and the way in which not just the United States but many of the players in the Arab world find it unacceptable that Iran should become the arbiter of Arab interests. And that is the glue, if you like, that may provide a foundation for dealing with Iranian threat in a more effective way.

HANSEN: Martin Indyk is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

Thank you so much for your time, sir.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you, Liane.

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