WASHINGTON – American politicians and media are stepping up pressures on the Bush Administration to initiate talks with Syria in order to solve the problem of Hizbullah. Just a day after US President George W. Bush clarified that "Syria knows what we think," the New York Times published an editorial entitled "Start Talking."
" Syria is also unlikely to even consider doing what Mr. Bush wants — rein in Hizbullah and help halt the killing in Lebanon and Israel — unless its leaders know what potential rewards as well as punishments await them. And for that, the United States needs to offer a serious high-level discussion with Syria, and it needs to do it now," the newspaper stated.
"Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is undeniably a bad actor — brutal, dishonest and less than competent. But he may also be more vulnerable to outside pressure, and inducements, than Hizbullah's other patron, Iran. Driving even the thinnest wedge between Syria and Iran would be a diplomatic breakthrough for a White House badly in need of breakthroughs.
"Even if the United States and France manage to pry a resolution out of the Security Council, unless Hizbullah is constrained there is little chance of actually deploying an international peacekeeping force, regaining Lebanon's sovereignty and building a stable peace," the editorial asserted.
"Mr. Bush has always seen talking, by itself, as a reward. As a result, American diplomats have been barred from any serious contact with a host of bad and dangerous characters from Pyongyang to Tehran to Damascus. That cold shoulder may have made Mr. Bush feel righteous, but it hasn't done anything to choke off nuclear programs in Iran or North Korea . And it's not likely to persuade Syria to cut off shipments of rockets to Hizbullah, or accept international monitors on its border, or oust Iraqi Baathist financiers from Damascus — or any of the other things the White House wants Syria to do but refuses even to discuss with its leaders," it proclaimed.
Further, the New York Times maintained, "Of course, talking isn't enough. Mr. Bush's impulse, even when he agrees to talk, is to lecture and not listen. The White House will have to hear what Syria wants and consider what inducements might be worth offering in exchange for Syria's help."
"That's not appeasement. That's negotiation. No one is suggesting Mr. Bush give away the store. At a minimum, however, Mr. Bush will have to start with a clear signal that what the United States wants is a change in Syria's conduct, not the overthrow of its regime," it continued.
The newspaper criticized Bush's conduct in the past.
" After much internal roiling, Mr. Bush grudgingly agreed to talk to North Korea and has signaled that the United States may also be willing to sit down with Iran. But in the time it has taken for him to come to those decisions, North Korea has churned out plutonium for even more bombs, while Iran is on its way to mastering the skills needed to produce weapons-grade uranium."
"There is no guarantee that negotiations will persuade any of these countries to do what's right or even what's in their obvious self-interest. Mr. Assad is not known for personal courage or good sense. But the price for not trying to talk will be more fury toward the United States and our few remaining allies in the region. That's no reward," it concluded.
Republicans critical too
The pressure on the Bush administration to talk with the Syrians was not only coming from the rival party. Not only are senior Democrats demanding negotiations, such as secretaries of state during the Clinton administration Warren Christopher and Madeline Albright, but also top Republican officials including Dick Armitage, who served during the presidency of President G.H.W. Bush, Sr.
Others, however, took the opposite stance. Martin Indik, a senior official under the Clinton administration, said any discussions with the Syrians at the present time would constitute a betrayal of the Lebanese and an invitation to Syria to resume its role as a top player in the Lebanese court.
When asked during a press conference Monday why the US was not negotiating with the Syrian, Bush replied: "That's an interesting question. I've been reading about that, that people have been posing that question. We have been in touch with Syria. Colin Powell sent a message to Syria in person. Dick Armitage traveled to Syria. Bill Burns traveled to Syria. We've got a consulate office in Syria.
"Syria knows what we think. The problem isn't us telling Syria what's on our mind, which is to stop harboring terror and to help the Iraqi democracy evolve. They know exactly what our position is. The problem is, is that their response hasn't been very positive. As a matter of fact, it hasn't been positive at all," he said.
Bush added, "I appreciate people focusing on Syria and Iran, and we should, because Syria and Iran sponsor and promote Hizbullah activities -- all aimed at creating chaos, all aimed at using terror to stop the advance of democracies."