Yesterday, I hosted a meeting with European Parliament Member Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (and Deputy Chairman of the Free Democracts in the European Parliament) who gave a talk titled: “Europe’s Evolving Stakes in the Middle East.”
The meeting was assembled by the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Lambsdorff outlined a sensible strategy for Europe in the Middle East, that still “hoped for” enlightened American engagement in the problems there. But he was skeptical of the ability or desire of this particular White House to move in positive directions. This was an important set of public remarks that should be read in full.
But here are two highlights that I thought were important and insightful:
The question people are asking is: Are we not moving into an area in which we will be confronted only with losing propositions? Are we not trying to do the impossible, achieve the unachievable? Should we not leave it to the US and look after other regions of the world? After all, how likely is Hamas to recognize Israel in all honesty? How likely is Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program?
They also point out that there is a limit to how much they are willing to pay, and wait, and see, as happened in the Palestinian case. There is a limit as to how many destroyed buildings, airports and roads Europe is willing to reconstruct. The airport in Gaza was built with taxpayers’ money from my German home state — and was destroyed by the Israeli air force. Not a good scenario either. And now, Lebanon.
The decision by the European countries to send troops to Lebanon reflects the conclusion that only a strong political involvement in a conflict — embodied in the use of military forces — will allow Europe decisively to influence the outcome of a conflict. It is also the answer to the sceptical voices, to the Ã¢â‚¬Å“isolationistÃ¢â‚¬Â streak, that Europe is willing to put up a serious effort.
For Germany, specifically, a military mission close to the Israeli border is a historical novelty, to say the least. There was a lively debate, as you can imagine, whether the country that perpetrated the Holocaust could move into an area in which its soldiers might be forced to shoot at IDF members. This discussion took an interesting turn when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert invited German soldiers to help secure the Israeli border and disarm Hezbollah. This was a difficult invitation. If Germany was to participate in such a mission, it was to implement UNSCR 1701, not to protect a party to the conflict.
On the other hand, it is part of Germany’s raison d’etat to help secure IsraelÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s right to existence. Yet another part of German raison d’etat, however, is to strengthen and support the United Nations. The way out of this dilemma was found with Germany sending naval forces to guard Lebanon’s seashore against weapons smuggling by Hezbollah. Still, 2/3 of the German public is opposed to a mission where German soldiers might have to shoot at Israeli soldiers.
The willingness of European nations to risk their troops in one of the most dangerous regions in the world clearly means that Europe’s engagement in the future of the Israeli-Arab conflict has moved to a new level. Financial means and political brains are now backed up by military muscle.
Then, Alexander Graf Lambdorff got into the question of negotiations, objectives, and interlocutors:
The second question we have to answer is: Who do we talk to? Can we talk to Hamas, can we talk to Hezbollah, can we talk to Syria?
Let’s start with Syria. I believe that the continued isolation of Syria will prove to be counterproductive. Syria and Israel need come to a peace deal. Syria currently sees itself more isolated than ever. Even Arabs friendly to the idea of the destruction of Israel, are unhappy with Syria doing this on the back of the Lebanese people. “Syria is fighting Israel to the last Lebanese” is the word on the street in Aman and Cairo. In an interview in the Spanish newspaper El Pais on Monday President Assad said he was prepared to resume peace talks with Israel within 6 months. A solution to the Sheba’a Farms issue, disarming Hezbollah, and clarifying once and for all what the role of Syria is vis-a-vis a sovereign Lebanon: under these conditions a deal is possible that is sorely needed. In a way, I believe it is ironic that we talk to Iran despite its policies because of its nuclear program but refuse to do so regarding Damascus.
Hamas and Hezbollah are more difficult. Scholars of the region point out that it will be utterly impossible to achieve a lasting solution without the involvement of modern Islamist movements. They point to the fact that unlike Al-Qaeda both Hamas and Hezbollah have a military and a political arm (much like the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland). Both participate in electoral processes — where they have more to fear from winning than from losing, but that may be a useful lesson. As for Hamas — their electoral platform was: “The party of reform” — The Fatah platform was “The party of the martyrs.”
But we will talk to Fatah only. That is difficult to explain. Now, does Hamas have to recognize Israel? Absolutely. Do they have to renounce violence? Absolutely. Do they have to respect the accords signed by the PLO? Yes, they do. Do they have to do it before one starts to talk to them. This is a crucial and a difficult question. But finding an answer to it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. And, make no mistake about it, peace with Syria alone is not going to solve Israel’s existential question of how to live safely next to the Palestinians — the two processes must at the very least go hand-in-hand.
Hezbollah is perhaps more difficult even than Hamas. But here also, they do not pursue a nihilistic campaign of the Al-Qaeda kind. Are they terrorists? They are. But they are a political force as well. They have two ministers in the Lebanese government, after all. Was Arafat a terrorist? He sure was. But he was the sole partner capable of delivering the Palestinians, despite his past as a terrorist, his role as the instigator of the second intifada, despite his mind-boggling corruption and all the other things that could rightfully be laid at his doorstep.
It may be too early but we will have to look at Islamism with a more discriminating eye than we have in the last few years. More often than not, Islam is the only avenue for political opposition. The governments in the region can and often do withhold all basic civil rights — but they cannot close the mosques or outlaw Islam. Voters are also often less radical than party members. A significant part of Hamas voters favors the recognition of Israel, some even say a majority does.
The third question is: Who needs to be involved, and the answer is obvious: Europe cannot do it alone, just as the US can’t. However, these days European engagement is stronger than American one and I hope that this is going to change after Secretary Rice’s trip to the region. We need the US to be involved again. We need to revive the Quartet with substantial US input.
The key word behind this is of course ‘Effective Multilateralism’, i.e. the doctrine adopted by the EU in 2003 for international affairs. Of course, we wish for a world in which countries bind themselves into a network of laws, obligations and institutions, like the EU itself. By projecting the European vision of rules-based, predictable and institutionalised international relations, the EU is hoping to solve problems and, yes, increase its global influence.
But a doctrine alone is not going to solve any problems. The political will to back it up is also needed. Today, Europeans are willing to use military force in the Middle East to back up their vision. This is clearly not the end of it, much remains to be done, but it is a difference and I hope and believe that it will make a difference — for the Middle East, for the EU and for a world of effective multilateralism.
This speech by Lambsdorff should be read by key national security officials in the White House, intelligence and defense bureacracies and the State Department because it reflects the ‘best America can hope for’ from a US-sympathizing elite European figure.
When one combines the Lambsdorff speech yesterday with the fact that earlier this week Condoleezza Rice was given a stiff rebuke by eight Arab Middle East foreign ministers who told her that the moderates she was trying to rally were increasingly fragile situations and could not muster much support for America’s position on Iran and Iraq without making some important steps on Palestine/Israel and other regional grievances.
The Europeans and Arab states are united in perspective — and Rice needs to deliver that back to the powers she works with in the White House so as to break the logjam that is now paralyzing sensible American policy in the region.
— Steve Clemons