Last week I wrote about Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal. Now it is time to think about Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.
Before you accuse me of going literary, note that my metaphor gets us back to politics and the Middle East.
What brings forth Alice in Wonderland, its fantasy and nonsense is this combination of headlines:
•"Syria accepts cease-fire; fighting enters Lebanon"
"Syria Reportedly Accepts Peace Plan as Clashes Erupt Near Lebanon"
The first comes from the Jerusalem Post. It accepts a report from Lebanon that Syrian troops entered that country in pursuit of Syrian rebels who had sought sanctuary. The second is more cautious. It comes from the New York Times, perhaps less inclined to add to the image of chaos incomprehensible to westerners in a region of interest to the United States. From such a perspective, the fighting was only close to Lebanon.
However, both headlines add to my sense of fantasy. The United Nations envoy to Syria, the former Secretary General Kofi Annan, has issued an optimistic statement about the Syrian president agreeing to a 6-point peace plan, involving the withdrawal of heavy weapons from populated areas, political discussions, humanitarian aid, release of prisoners, freedom of movement, and access provided to journalists.
Syrian news sources were not reporting that item, and the fighting seems to be escalating. Along with reports of Syrian troops operating in Lebanon, United Nations sources increased their estimate of the deaths during the year-long rebellion to 9,000.
Friends of the United Nations may have soothing answers. These things take time. Perhaps the officers distant from Damascus did not get the message from the presidential palace. The United Nations is a complex institution. Several of the powerful national governments must agree to anything before it can go into effect. Russia, China, and Iran, support Assad.
Both the Jerusalem Post and the New York Times are closer to skepticism than optimism. They note that Bashar al-Assad had previously agreed to reforms and peace plans, including a "road map," but failed to implement them.
Various sources add to the story. Annan is on an extended trip, from Syria to China, meeting with worthies and trying to get them on board a deal. The report about fighting in Lebanon appears in several sources, along with comments that Lebanese officers (no doubt with concern for Syrians who have done them real harm and can do it again) have tried to evade the direct question, or have said that the evidence is not clear, even while residents of the area report fighting.
Annan himself is the cautious diplomat. He said that he "received a response from the Syrian government and will be making it public . . . which is positive, and we hope to work with them to translate it into action." That is a lot less than a cease fire that will go into effect tonight or early tomorrow.
I presume that Kofi Annan is not an innocent abroad (note the reference to Mark Twain). Annan has been in the business a long time, and is playing the United Nations game that he knows so well. It's part doing a task with a narrow view of one's responsibility, part protecting his bottom, part realizing that nothing may come of his meetings, but seeing them as the essence of diplomacy. Keep the conversation flowing. Remain optimistic. Something may emerge eventually. Others will be involved. No one individual can be blamed for a misstep as long as he or she adheres to the routine of talking and seeing progress.
Don't exaggerate my concern for Syria any more than you exaggerate my concern for literature.
The point of this note is Israel, which some of these same actors see as having problems amenable to the routines engaged in by Kofi Annan for the sake of Syria. Barack Obama is not mentioned prominently in the reports about fighting in Lebanon, but the game he plays is suspiciously like Annan's. He adheres to the rules of extended talk, continued engagement with regimes that agree without implementation, or stall for time in order that they can continue with their priorities while seeming to engage and respond positively.
Like Annan, Obama aspires to work with others in the international community. The kind of diplomacy being done by the UN's diplomat in chief emeritus, has implications for us.
Obama says that he has an deadline for Iran that produces violence if there is no compliance with international expectations. But the game defined by professional diplomats like Annan may have no end. Agreements are made in principle, and have to be worked out. Deadlines bend for the sake of continued diplomacy.
Perhaps Israel stands higher in Obama's priorities than Syria stands in that of Annan or the people he is dealing with. However, to describe that possibility as a rock bed of reliability is to pretend that I--or anyone else--is banking on that 6-point deal Kofi Annan claims to have worked out with Bashar al-Assad.
If you don't get the point, go down the rabbit hole. You'll find a wonderful world. Pretend that it is real. Stay happy.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at March 28, 2012 01:08 AM