Greenfield: Shuttle diplomacy may hit turbulence

story.rice.sun.gifBut when it comes to “shuttle diplomacy,” it’s hard to remember any previous mission that came with so many obstacles and burdens.

History is filled with such diplomatic missions, some successful, others futile, and at least one, disastrous.

For an example of shuttle diplomacy at its best, consider President Theodore Roosevelt, who brought leaders of Russia and Japan to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a century ago and negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War (he won the Nobel Peace Prize). For an exercise in futility, consider Secretary of State Al Haig’s efforts to persuade Britain and Argentina to avoid the Falklands War.

As for disasters, nothing can top British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s labors in 1938 to win an “agreement” between Hitler’s Germany and Czechoslovakia over the fate of the Sudetenland. Chamberlain delivered much of Czechoslovakia to the Nazis, then returned to London in triumph, proclaiming “Peace for our time.” A year later, the world was at war.

The official who gave birth to the phrase “shuttle diplomacy” was Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who racked up countless frequent flier miles as he moved among Middle East capitals after the Arab-Israeli war of 1973. But note how different the world was back then.

The peace efforts took place in the context of a Cold War chess board: when all-out conflict threatened the peace of the world and both sides had powerful supporters who could influence them. Moreover, the United States and the Soviets were constantly talking about a host of issues.

Today, the players are very different: Hezbollah is a stateless group the United States — and many other nations — condemn as terrorists. One of its key sponsors, Iran, is part of what President Bush has called the “axis of evil.” Iran is not on Rice’s itinerary, nor is Syria, through whose territory Iran ships weapons to Hezbollah.

That suggests another striking difference with some past conflicts, when American officials talked with warring parties even as American policy was clearly aiding one side: In 1995, Richard Holbrooke shaped an end to the conflict in the Balkans even as the United States was putting military pressure on Serbia to stop the violence there.

Finally, even the most singular success of “shuttle diplomacy” — President Carter’s brokering of an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1978 — happened only after leaders of both countries had met and clearly signaled their intention to end 25 years of hostilities.

In contrast, Rice is dealing with a conflict in which the combatants are so divided they might as well be on different planets, and where some critics say any deal now might do more harm than good. No wonder Rice might be asking, “Is this trip necessary?”

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