An Early Spring Thaw

Published January 09, 2004, issue of January 09, 2004.
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It got a little harder this week to be a confirmed pessimist about the state of the world. In an astounding succession of developments, international trouble-spots from Libya to North Korea to the India-Pakistan frontier suddenly turned into promising zones of dialogue and perhaps even reconciliation. Tentative signs of a thaw are visible on a few other fronts as well, including Syria and perhaps even the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It’s not exactly a new summer of love. But after more than two years of unremitting threats and wintry gloom, it’s a bit like spring, and that’s more than welcome.

Some of the changes are nothing short of historic. Libya, for decades one of the world’s most unpredictable rogue states, has changed its stripes in the space of a week, promising to end its pursuit of non-conventional weapons, inviting international inspectors and now, of all things, pursuing diplomatic ties with Israel. North Korea, arguably the world’s most isolated dictatorship, decided this week to loosen the diplomatic logjam over its nuclear weapons program by offering unilaterally to “suspend” work as a way of restarting talks with the United States.

Even more dramatic was the summit between India and Pakistan, nuclear-armed enemies that have been facing off for decades in what is often called the world’s most combustible war zone. After years of deadlock, the two nations’ leaders met this week and offered one another almost unthinkable concessions: Pakistan agreed to halt terrorist attacks from its soil, and India agreed to negotiate the status of the disputed Kashmir, which it considers sovereign Indian soil.

The warming signs on the Syrian and Iranian fronts are less clear-cut, but shouldn’t be discounted. Syria has sent out a series of conciliatory messages to America, Turkey and most important, Israel. As Ofer Shelah reports on Page 17, Israel’s military establishment is taking the signals very seriously, even if its political leaders aren’t. As for Iran, it has finally given ground on its nuclear program, thanks to determined American and Western pressure. And this week the mullahs began a modest thaw with Egypt, after breaking relations decades ago because of Egypt’s peace with Israel.

As promising as the shifts are, they won’t sit easily with fundamentalists on either side of our own foreign policy debate. Though it’s tough for doves and multilateralists to admit, the turnabouts are hard to explain without a nod to the despised unilateralism and aggressiveness of the Bush administration. By marching into Iraq last spring, the administration sent a clear signal to rogue states everywhere of what Washington wants and how far it will go to get it. The signals this week — from Libya, North Korea and perhaps Syria — showed just as clearly how desperately these small players want to avoid becoming the next target. Thanks to the war in Iraq, new opportunities have opened up for peaceful resolution of disputes in many other spots.

At the same time, these opportunities will be meaningful only if America chooses to seize them. The ideologues of American unilateralism argue that dictators should be defeated and deposed, not reconciled. That was why they pushed for war in Iraq. That’s why they counsel against negotiating with North Korea, Syria or, for that matter, the Palestinian Authority.

But one size doesn’t fit all. Marching into Iraq with guns blazing, without regard for the opinions of our allies or the established institutions of international order, the administration seems to have shaken things up and created an opening for new sorts of understandings. But to reap the fruits of that victory, we must now change gears. Otherwise, it’s hard to see how our success will make us any safer.

From the contradictory responses coming out of Washington, it’s not clear whether the administration is prepared to rise to the occasion. North Korea’s new offer was greeted as “positive” by Secretary of State Colin Powell. But the far more sweeping Libyan initiative got a gruffer response from President Bush himself, who said he would oppose lifting sanctions until Tripoli took more concrete steps.

The opportunities that opened up this week were the result of a single-minded moral clarity that makes liberals and pragmatists deeply uncomfortable. Seizing the opportunities now will require just the opposite: a flexibility and pragmatism that conservative moralists despise.

The world is a messy place, as the hard-liners themselves like to say. Bundling up and digging in is the right way to deal with winter. It isn’t the right response to a spring thaw.

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