U.S. Middle East Policy in the Rice Era Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic mission to the Middle East begins Sunday, a trip that has led to new questions about U.S. policy in the region. Robert Siegel talks with former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, a senior fellow of foreign policy studies; and former Ambassador-at-Large for Counter-Terrorism Philip C. Wilcox, Jr., the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
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U.S. Middle East Policy in the Rice Era

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U.S. Middle East Policy in the Rice Era

U.S. Middle East Policy in the Rice Era

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Two views of the Secretary's forthcoming mission now, from two men who have both been involved in U.S. Mideast policy making. Philip Wilcox is former ambassador at large for counterterrorism and now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Welcome to the program.

Mr. PHILIP WILCOX (Foundation for Middle East Peace): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Martin Indyk is director of the Sorbonne Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a former Ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. Welcome back, Martin Indyk.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Brookings Institution): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: First, Philip Wilcox, Secretary Rice has pointedly delayed going to the region and says that a very quick ceasefire would be counterproductive. Is she right about that?

Mr. WILCOX: I think it's a mistake for her to have delayed. There is a very critical war going on with major humanitarian damage, people being killed in Lebanon and in Israel. The first order should be a ceasefire and I think if there is an excessive delay in trying to construct a diplomatic solution before the ceasefire is achieved, there will only be more suffering and bloodshed.

SIEGEL: Martin Indyk, the secretary of state says that it would be a failure if we simply returned to the status quo ante, to what was before the war began. Is there a real prospect of so dramatically changing the situation in southern Lebanon that it will be all that different from the status quo ante?

Mr. INDYK: Well, I do think she has to try to do that because if it is just a return to status quo ante then Hezbollah, anytime it wants to, will start a conflict like this again, which is obviously terrible for both Israel and for Lebanon. Whether she can pull it off really depends on Hezbollah and what happens to Hezbollah, because essentially her objective is to have Hezbollah moved out of the south of Lebanon, where they've been attacking Israel, and have it replaced by the Lebanese armed forces, backed by a robust, as she says, international force.

I think that the Israeli ground operations now are designed to create the circumstances in which that force can move into the south and the Lebanese government's authority can be extended there. But why Hezbollah would essentially accept what would be tantamount to the first step in its own demise as what it calls a resistance operation is not clear to me, why it would be in their interest or in the interest of Iran and Syria to go along with that.

SIEGEL: The two of you have both worked on these Middle East issues for years and years. A lot of people just following news from day to day sense a real anxiety right now. The old image of the slippery slope comes to mind. I just wonder, from both of you, do you feel that we're at some especially critical, dangerous moment? Are they always especially critically dangerous moments? Are we going in circles, deepening spirals, or flat lines? Martin Indyk, you first.

Mr. INDYK: In my 30 years of analyzing or being involved in the Middle East, I've never seen the trend lines all heading in a negative direction and that's what we're facing today. Obviously, between Israel and Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinians, but more broadly, of course, the American adventure in Iraq is in real trouble and we have a real problem with Iran's nuclear ambitions and a broader problem of a great deal of anger and antagonism towards the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And these trend lines all heading in the negative direction, I fear, create a kind of perfect storm, which bodes very badly for the region and, I fear, for American interests as well.

SIEGEL: Philip Wilcox?

Mr. WILCOX: I agree with Martin. This convergence of problems is very serious and is bound to get worse unless greater efforts are made to reverse it. I don't think there will be a widening of the war. Most of the governments in the region are strong governments. I don't foresee that Syria nor Iran are going to be drawn into this Israel-Lebanon conflict.

But I think unless there is a more assertive effort by the United States and the international community to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict especially, that we will face this continued cycle of violence, recurrent terrorism and violence. That is the core issue in the region. There are many other conflicts but that is the one that animates and endangers the region more than any other and that is one where the U.S. has considerable influence and leverage to bring about positive change, if we wish to do so.

Mr. INDYK: If I could just jump in there, I don't agree with that. I think that, while it's important to try to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the problems are far larger than that now, and the harder the problem is, the way in which America's influence in the region has been badly affected by the failed effort to transform the region through democratization process.

And what I really think we need is a reassessment of the whole democratization imperative in the Bush administration's approach, that that would do a lot more to try to salvage our situation here than to try a hapless effort at solving the Palestinian problem.

SIEGEL: Philip Wilcox, Martin Indyk says right now Israel-Palestine, that crisis is overwhelmed by other crises in the region. You would still say it's the central, it's the keystone conflict?

Mr. WILCOX: Absolutely. Were it not for this conflict, the Hezbollah would have absolutely no pretext nor any support whatsoever for attacking Israel.

SIEGEL: Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. Thanks to both of you for talking with us today.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you.

Mr. WILCOX: Thank you.

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