While Bush repeatedly scorns the idea of talking to enemies without first getting preconditions met, administration policy has been far more nuanced.
Israel, America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East, just became the latest example of a country that has decided it is better to deal with its foes than to ignore them.
The announcement that Israel has entered into comprehensive peace talks with Syria is at odds with the course counseled by the Bush administration, which initially opposed such talks in private conversations with Israelis, according to Israeli and American officials. A week ago, President Bush delivered a speech to the Israeli Parliament likening attempts to “negotiate with the terrorists and radicals” to appeasement before World War II.
“We have heard this foolish delusion before,” Mr. Bush said. “As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared, ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is: the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”
But in many ways, the Bush administration’s own policies appear to be at odds with his thesis.
While Mr. Bush and his advisers have repeatedly scorned the idea of talking to enemies without first getting preconditions met, administration policy over the last seven years has been far more nuanced. In fact, the United States under the Bush administration has shown a sliding definition of just when it is beneficial to talk to whom.
Under Mr. Bush, the United States has held direct talks with Libya (which has admitted responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, which killed 270 people); sent envoys and a warm presidential letter to North Korea (which detonated a nuclear device in 2006); and even participated, through American diplomats in Iraq, in talks with Iran (which the United States has accused of backing attacks against American forces in Iraq).
American diplomats do not talk to Hezbollah or Hamas — both militant Islamic organizations that Washington considers terrorist groups. But while the Bush administration long ago withdrew its ambassador from Syria, the United States does business with its government, which backs Hezbollah, and which the State Department has designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
So what was Mr. Bush talking about last week when he compared negotiations with terrorists and radicals with “the false comfort of appeasement”?
Inside the administration, many officials, particularly at the State Department, concede that the United States does not hew to one policy on engaging its enemies. “I’d rather be right than consistent,” a senior Bush administration official said, in explaining the willingness to talk to North Korea, which the administration accused just last month of trying to help Syria build a nuclear reactor. He said the United States wanted to make sure that talks were “purposeful engagement, not witless engagement.”
To that end, the administration has tried to be sure preconditions are met; for instance, it repeatedly says that it restored diplomatic relations with Libya only after Libya renounced terrorism in 2003. But Bush administration officials were in talks with Libya before that happened, and many credit the negotiations with leading to Libya’s change in behavior.
As for Hamas and Hezbollah, which have both refused to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist or to forswear violence, the administration official said that a criterion for talks with the United States would be that “they’d have to change their behavior.”
But Israel is in indirect talks with Hamas, with Egypt serving as the go-between, over a cease-fire in Gaza. Under the proposal that the two sides are considering, Israel would end its blockade of Gaza in exchange for a Hamas agreement to stop the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, among other things.
Sometimes expediency makes former enemies temporary allies. In Iraq, which the administration has frequently called the front line in the fight against terrorism, former insurgents are now on the American payroll as members of citizen patrols in what is called the Sunni Awakening movement, and they have contributed to an overall decline in violence.
And on Wednesday, the Bush administration was singing the praises of an Arab-mediated deal in Lebanon which would, in essence, give Hezbollah veto power over the Lebanese cabinet.
While the United States will continue its policy of not holding direct talks with Hezbollah, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the agreement “a positive step” and was even on the phone over the past few weeks with Egyptian and Saudi officials to help find a resolution to the Lebanese stalemate, administration officials said.
“Bush’s rhetoric is completely disconnected from everything on the ground,” said Martin Indyk, head of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “While he’s giving his speech against appeasement last week, Hezbollah was taking over control of the Lebanese government.”
The events in Lebanon, Mr. Indyk said, show that the administration ought to put more pragmatic considerations ahead of principle.
The Israel-Syria announcement, in particular, offers an interesting case study, because Israeli officials have said for months that the United States was the only obstacle blocking talks with Syria, which both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak advocated.
In particular, Elliott Abrams, Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser, has cautioned against an Israeli-Syria negotiation, according to Israeli and Bush administration officials. Administration officials said they feared that such a negotiation would appear to reward Syria at a time when the United States was seeking to isolate it for its meddling in Lebanon and its backing of Hezbollah.
But a few weeks ago, Israeli officials told their counterparts at the State Department that they planned to begin the negotiations, which are being mediated by Turkey.
“They weren’t asking our permission,” one senior administration official said. Another Bush official characterized the Israeli announcement as “a slap in the face.” But he said that United States officials believed that Mr. Olmert made the decision with his own domestic political considerations in mind: He is facing several criminal investigations involving events before he became prime minister in 2006, but while he was serving in government. He has denied wrongdoing, and other experts said that Israel had its own compelling reasons to engage Syria: to blunt Hezbollah’s growing power in the region.