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Sisyphus at the State Department

From Iran to Syria to Israel, can the United States keep pushing boulders up a hill?

Given that he was a mythical character, it is probably not true that Sisyphus was the Middle East's first negotiator. But certainly the poor old king who had to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it tumble back to the bottom each time he neared the peak would find ready commiseration from the diplomats who have over the years engaged in the exercises in futility that are so common in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

"We were so close," they would say. "So was I," he would retort. And it is with this in mind that we view the positive stories currently trickling out of the Middle East with a bit of trepidation to go along with our requisite portions of hope.

For example, the rumblings out of Geneva are encouraging. The talks with the Iranians over their nuclear program are producing good buzz among the corridor stalkers reading the body language (and the leaks) of participants.

The progress on removing chemical weapons from Syria has been excellent, surprising to old hands in its speed and tangible gains.

The peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians brokered by Secretary of State John Kerry were recently called by one senior regional leader "the most promising I have seen in my professional lifetime."

Say what you will about the setbacks and confusion that have been the hallmarks of recent U.S. Mideast policy, but there are some potential successes on the horizon that would upend conventional wisdom and astonish the cynical. That said, the Obama team's political victory in the recent U.S. budget showdown here in D.C. drives home an important message with international implications: Be careful what you wish for.

As with the U.S. budget battles, what is defined as success in each case -- and even substantial progress -- is likely to result in subsequent challenges that may well be harder to manage than the problem initially being tackled. In fact, in the case of Syria, Iran, and even the Israel-Palestine talks, the president and his secretary of state may end up feeling like more like Sisyphus than any other of history's great peacemakers before their term in office is over. Because as Sisyphus knew, it is just when you near your goal that you often have to be most careful, just when you are on a roll that you may have to get ready to start all over again.

In the case of Syria, getting rid of the government's chemical weapons is a great stride forward. Indeed, getting rid of any government's chemical weapons is progress toward their ultimate, welcomed elimination. But by requiring the government's cooperation to do this, it ensures the position of Bashar al-Assad's regime for some time to come. Paradoxically, even though this initiative has also helped the Damascus government look somewhat more reasonable (despite having started this whole process by using weapons of mass destructions against its own citizens), every day that passes is a day the Islamist opposition grows stronger.

The strengthening of the opposition will become a bigger problem when the negotiations for a political solution pick up steam. There is probably a deal to be done that creates a power-sharing arrangement of some sort between the representatives of the Free Syrian Army and the Alawites and other current allies of Assad who are closest to the Russians and Iranians and form a buffer to the north and west impeding the flow of Sunni insurgents. The Russians, it needs to be remembered, view this as a local problem and worry about the ambitions of Islamists with a caliphate on their mind that might extend to Chechnya or Dagestan. They, like the Iranians, have signaled they might be willing to throw Assad under the bus provided the successor regime protects their equities. But it is hard to see where either of these groups can come to terms with the extremists, and conversely, it is hard to see why the extremists who benefit from disorder in the country have any great incentive to cut a deal -- especially if they are growing stronger with every passing day.

Furthermore, the appetite of the United States and the West to throw their weight around anywhere other than the negotiating table has been proved to be zero. This creates a particularly acute problem because a peace deal, were it to be reached, will require years and years of funding for rebuilding, resettlement of refugees, and, very likely, armed peacekeeping.

The ultimate result could be that even with the chemical weapons completely gone, Syria will remain the most dangerous country in a dangerous region, festering for years to come and infecting its neighbors with a steady stream of refugees, terrorists, and other carriers of unrest.

A deal with Iran on nuclear weapons, despite the warm and fuzzy talk of recent days, is still a long way off and carries similar problems. If the Iranians maintain at some level ambitions of building nuclear weapons or acquiring the capability to build them, then anything that buys them time is in their interest -- whether it be long negotiations or even short negotiations and then a period of apparent stasis or rolling back of their programs. That's because long, drawn-out negotiations allow them time to advance their research and development efforts. Or it is because they would only consider an "acceptable" deal as one that would provide them with relief from sanctions which in turn would provide an economic lift. This might then be salve enough to warrant a postponement of their nuclear ambitions, but to the degree to which their economy recovers, they also gain the ability to withstand future sanctions should they come again and to fund new research efforts. And for those who don't trust the Iranians' intentions, these problems are just the tip of the iceberg.

An Iran without a nuclear weapons program (and thus one without sanctions) would be in a stronger position to continue supporting the mischief and mayhem sowed by its client terrorist entity, Hezbollah, and related enterprises in the Middle East, like Hamas. The Iranians also would be seen by their close neighbors, notably the Saudis and other Gulf states, with great distrust both because of the history of the region and because of the deep cultural divide that separates the Sunni and Shiite worlds. Their growing influence in Iraq, the likelihood they maintain influence with the next Syrian government, their influence in Lebanon and Gaza, and the possibility they gain more traction in western Afghanistan after the U.S. departure are all reasons that Iran will be seen as a regional hegemon and threat whether or not it has a nuclear program. (After all, the country has been seen that way for decades and has not had a nuclear capability at any time during that period.)

Finally, while an Israeli-Palestinian deal is the longest shot of the three initiatives, even if it were to come it would ultimately produce a number of serious complications even beyond the implementation of such a deal which seems well beyond the capabilities or inclinations of any of the parties right now. First, it requires cohesion among the divided Palestinians that has yet to effectively manifest itself in the post-Arafat era. Next, it requires that other actors in the region don't seek to sabotage the process because of its symbolic value. Finally, on a related and more important point, success on this front would quickly dispel one of the region's most enduring myths: that fixing the Israel-Palestine problem would help resolve many of the region's other ills, including its animosity toward Israel.

Further, if an Iranian deal takes place and an Israel-Palestine deal takes place, it is only likely to accelerate the disconnect of the United States and Western powers from the region. Indeed, the Gulf states and the Israelis, looking at what is going on between the United States and Iran and correctly sensing President Barack Obama's deep appetite for a deal and his country's growing allergy to getting drawn into foreign problems, are starting to spread their bets around, wondering who will be supportive of them in a Mideast without as active a role as they have come to expect from the United States. China is already hearing (and enjoying) the sweet music of their entreaties, and there is almost no scenario for the region going forward in which China doesn't play a greater role given its need for resources for which the Middle East is best known. The simple fact of the balance of international power shifting in this part of the world -- as it is inevitably doing -- may be as big a challenge for U.S. policymakers in the years ahead as any of the other issues cited above.

In a city like Washington where you are considered a visionary if you can see beyond the current news cycle and where strategy is thinking one-and-a-half moves ahead, this kind of analysis is likely to fall on deaf ears. In part, that's for a good reason. These are all initiatives that should be undertaken, and frankly, the Obama administration deserves great credit for getting each of them to where it is today. But, when punting economic catastrophe three months down the road is considered a great victory, it should come as no surprise that many of the concerns raised here are unlikely to be addressed until they step into the one category of issue that the leaders of the most powerful nation on Earth regularly devote themselves to: the crisis du jour. 

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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