What America Must Do: Open the Door To Damascus

Syria may be ready to strike a separate peace -- if only Washington would give it a chance.

Syria is not the key to resolving any of the Middle East's crises -- not Iraq, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, or Iran -- but it has the power to stymie progress on all of them. Geography alone makes Syria, with its borders with Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Kurdish region of Turkey, central to Middle East peace. Add to that the long-standing, albeit highly unusual, relationship between the secular Sunni regime in Damascus and the Shiite mullahs in Tehran, and Syria's importance is indisputable.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to view President Bashar al-Assad's regime with suspicion. Syrian-backed assassinations have taken Lebanon to the brink of collapse, and Israeli airstrikes recently raised rumors of a secret nuclear program. But consider that the same government has opened an embassy in Baghdad, taken in more than a million Iraqi refugees, made an appearance at the Annapolis Middle East peace conference, and appears to have cracked down on the passage of foreign terrorists into Iraq in recent months. Yet, Washington has slammed the door on the possibility of a relationship.

The Bush administration's "they know what they need to do" school of diplomacy, demanding its own desired outcomes as preconditions for talks, has failed utterly with the Syrians, as it has everywhere else. From Cuba to Iran, shunning regimes the United States doesn't like has never achieved anything other than the deepening of mutual mistrust. That's why it's time for the next president to reopen the road to Damascus.

Syria has signaled for several years that it wants a relationship with the United States. A year ago, Assad's top legal advisor reportedly told participants at an international gathering that "negotiations mean that we will come to the table with all that we are and all that we have, including our relationships." Translation: Syria is willing to trade on its influence with Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, among others. Both Syria's foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States have been explicit that Syria is ready for talks without preconditions.

So, what is Washington waiting for? Strip away all the hot air, and there are only two arguments being made against active diplomacy with Syria. One is that talking to the United States is a "reward" that Damascus hasn't earned. That is a specious argument that is equal parts self-fulfilling and self-defeating. The United States has routinely negotiated with despicable regimes when there is something it really wants; look no further than the Bush administration's dealings with Libya and North Korea.

The second argument is that diplomacy will fail because Washington's and Damascus's interests are so opposed. This assertion is unknowable until it is tested. Foretelling the outcome of negotiations before they happen is a fool's errand. Who can possibly say today whether Syria prefers its ties to an isolated Iran to an economically robust relationship with the United States and Europe?

There would be one precondition a new president would have to meet to launch serious discussions with Damascus: take the threat of regime change off the table. That in itself would have beneficial ripple effects across the region. Whatever else might result won't happen overnight. But there is enough to be gained, and enough reason to think success might be achieved, that an opening to Damascus belongs on the next president's agenda.


What America Must Do: A Table for Thirteen

The G-8 risks becoming irrelevant if more countries aren't invited to join the club.

The first international act of the 44th president of the United States must be unilaterally multilateralist. George W. Bush's successor should announce in his or her inaugural State of the Union Address that the United States will no longer attend meetings of the Group of Eight (G-8) nations until the group adds five more seats to the table. Only if and when the G-8 is reconstituted as the G-13 -- adding Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa as full participants -- will the leader of the world's most powerful nation return to the world’s most prestigious club.

At first glance, the initiative could be mistaken as a retreat from the foreign entanglements that have dogged the Bush presidency: a decision by the White House to pull up the drawbridge after the costly interventions of the past seven years. In reality, it would be the opposite: a far-sighted acknowledgment that we are witnessing the most profound shifts in the geopolitical landscape since the 19th century. It would be a recognition that the United States, still the preeminent but now insufficient power, has but one chance to design the architecture for a new global system.

The American president's chair would not be empty long. Jealous of their own invitation to the world's top summit, the other present members of the G-8 -- Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia -- would fall over themselves to endorse the president's plan. Thus the rising powers of the 21st century would for the first time join those of the 20th as equals at the same table. In mid-2009, the G-13 would convene as the first international institution to reflect the emerging geopolitical balance of the new century.

This summit, however, would only be the beginning of a bigger enterprise. At the invitation of the president, the first task of the newly constituted G-13 would be to remodel the international institutions created by the United States at the end of World War II to fit the new patterns of global power. The newcomers, in the words of World Bank President Robert Zoellick, would be invited to become "responsible stakeholders" in the international system. The process would begin with a reallocation of voting rights at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and end, eventually, with the expansion of the U.N. Security Council.

The next American president takes office amid the return to the global arena of great-power competition. Inevitably, the United States faces a decline in its relative power even as its economic and military might likely remain unmatched by any other nation for decades to come. The choice for the White House will be between attempting to manage the new rivalries or playing the balancing strategies that led Europe into war in the opening decades of the last century. With wisdom, Washington can retain leadership even as its relative position weakens.

For all the anti-Americanism stirred by the policies of President Bush, U.S. leadership, especially when measured against the alternatives, remains an attractive state of affairs for much of the world. But to be effective, it must be inclusive and seek to reclaim the legitimacy bestowed by an international system based on rules.